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Why do Brits wilt abroad?

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Phil Minshull | 07:00 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Why do so few British footballers succeed on foreign fields?

About a decade ago, Johan Cruyff said that he thought it was one of the biggest questions in European football. "Why are there, over the last 40 years, only about five English players who have done well abroad. There's something going on here, something strange," mused the Dutch genius.

Johan was perhaps being unkind. I can think of a few more than five. He also came out with his statement before Beckham-mania took over Real Madrid for a few years, to bump up the number by one.

Nevertheless, he had a point, and his later admission that he meant British players rather just English made his analysis even grimmer. British players still, to this day, seem to wilt abroad, for whatever reason.

An interesting insight into what British players face when they go abroad has been provided by Darius Vassell, the former Aston Villa, Manchester City and England striker who is now at the very modest Turkish side Ankaragucu.

Vassell has started writing a blog, partly to relieve the boredom one suspects, partly to exorcise the frustrations of his new existence, which include getting thrown out of his hotel when the club failed to pay the bills. It's not the usual PR prose written by a wealthy player's acolyte. The 29-year-old is writing himself and it's heartfelt.

Nevertheless, despite his honesty and endeavour at trying to resolve the issues he faces, you suspect he will soon be back in England, no longer a candidate for Cruyff's approval.

Vassell will have lasted longer than Stan Collymore, though. As Oviedo fans will need no reminding, the former Liverpool and England forward lasted just three games before deciding he could not adapt to a new way of life and a new way of playing, even though he had an English-speaking manager in Radomir Antic to help him along.

Stan Collymore in action - albeit very briefly - for OviedoStan Collymore in action - albeit very briefly - for Oviedo

Gary Lineker has been one of the few Brits to shine abroad. But for every Lineker there has been at least one Mark Hughes, who so obviously failed to settle at Barcelona, even when the then coach Terry Venables was playing with English-style tactics, that he was loaned to Bayern Munich after just one season.

Lineker has often expounded on the reasons for his success at Barcelona and the failure of other Brits at European clubs - and a lot of the reasons hinge on language.

"I looked at British players who went abroad and were successful," he reflected a few years ago. "They were the ones who learnt the language and adapted to the culture. Look at Tony Woodcock and Ray Wilkins. The ones that didn't tended to be home pretty quick."

However, another critical factor is the ability to adapt to the prevalent playing style. One man who made the grade, at least in the eyes of Real Madrid fans, was Steve McManaman.

"As soon as I and Victoria (his then girlfriend, now wife) hung our clothes up and had a bed, I started to feel at home," he said. "I made an effort to learn Spanish. Sometimes I thought I was making progress and a group of fans would approach me, start talking, my mind went a complete blank. On the field, though, I understood what was going on."

This seems to be something that has passed by Jermaine Pennant at Zaragoza, the latest British import at a Spanish football club. I had high hopes at the start of the season that he might prosper, but almost every time he takes to the field he ends up pleading with his team-mates to adapt the tactics to his skills.

As anybody going to a new school will remember, you have to fit in. It's a long time before you can start to dictate events. Of course, sometimes you can still do your best and things still don't go your way, as Vassell will no doubt agree.

Jonathan Woodgate was fluent in Spanish by the time he left Real Madrid in 2006 but injuries restricted him to just nine La Liga games. "I've had plenty of time to learn the language," the former Leeds centre-half quipped to me on one occasion.

In another interview, Woodgate described his daily routine, one that might have some familiarity to Vassell. "What I did at the hotel was develop a set routine," he said. "I'd have lunch at a certain time. Go to bed for a couple of hours. Go to the gym downstairs. Go on the internet. Train again. Swim a bit, keep myself ticking over. I'd watch TV, got English TV. And I'd go off in my car and get lost in Madrid. I'd get lost and then I'd find my way back. Then on Sundays I'd go to the airport and buy every paper, every magazine in English, and come home and chill out, reading all day."

Cruyff treats it as a great mystery, yet the answer to why so few British players are successful on the continent appears crystal clear.

In my humble opinion, these are the five biggest British success stories on the European mainland in the last 50 years.

1. Kevin Keegan: at Hamburg he won two successive European Footballer of the Year awards in 1978 and 1979. The only British player to win the award while at a foreign club.

2. Gary Lineker: still a hero at Barcelona and finished second in the 1986 European Footballer of the Year poll while at the Catalan club.

3. John Charles: forget Hughes or Ian Rush, who infamously said that "playing in Italy was like being in a foreign country", Charles is Wales' greatest ever football export. During their centenary in 1997, Juventus voted him their best-ever foreign player.

4. Steve McManaman: articulate and genuinely enjoyed being in Madrid. Won two Champions League titles while at the Spanish giants.

5. David Beckham: he may have gone against all the 'rules' and ended up leaving Real Madrid knowing barely any more Spanish than when he arrived, but you can't really argue with what he did on the field in his four years there.

Two years ago, The Sun produced its own Top Ten, which might offer some food for thought. I'm going to give a copy to Johan Cruyff the next time I see him.

Comments on the blog in the space provided. Other questions on European football to I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.

In the past week, the postbag has been deluged with questions. Many thanks, and also apologies, to the majority of people who write. I do read all the emails so please keep them coming but only have enough space to answer a couple of questions each week.

I was curious about the defending Bundesliga champions Wolfburg. What happened to them this year? They are currently in the mid-table.
Alvaro Erickson, USA

After their coach Felix Magath left for Schalke in the summer, the team fell seemed to fall apart. In my opinion, Magath's influence and ability can be seen in how well Schalke are doing this season. To quote from a recent British football magazine, "He undeniably holds the patent for assembling teams which live and breathe over-achievement."
Zvjezdan Misimovic has been a shadow of his former self this season, perhaps distracted by his off-the-field disagreements with Bosnian coach Ciro Blazevic and the birth of a son. Grafite has likewise been out-of-sorts for much of the season. Edin Dzeko has been doing his best and still is getting goals, but the supporting cast in last season's success story have not been pulling their weight this time around.

Who do you think the favourites to win the Champions League?
Samuel Parker, Liverpool

I'm sure that I'll be writing on a Champions League topic at length next week and most bookies still put Barcelona as the favourites, just ahead of Chelsea and Manchester United. Nevertheless, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that neither of those three teams will win the Champions league this year.

Real Madrid have looked formidable since the start of 2010 and Florentino Perez is finally getting some return for all the money he spent last summer. Kaka had arguably his best game since joining them in the 3-0 defeat of Espanyol on Saturday. All that remains to be seen is if Cristiano Ronaldo can avoid losing the plot too often or that Iker Casillas doesn't get suspended for a critical game (he's on two yellow cards).

I've also been impressed with Inter Milan in their last couple of games. They seen to have got over their mid-season 'wobble'. If the draw doesn't bring them together earlier, I could see a Real v Inter final, which will evoke plenty of memories as it will be a repeat of the epic 1964 final which the Italian side won 3-1.


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