With players from all over the world in action every weekend, the Premier League is surely the ultimate advert for the global game. To mark National Inclusion Week, Jamie Carragher explains why foreign players have helped to make it the most popular league in the world.
On the first weekend of the Premier League in August 1992, there were 13 foreign players in action. A quarter of a century on and it is a very different story. Foreign talent accounts for 68 per cent of the players in the Premier League. Incredibly, there are 57 different nationalities featured in the competition. Both are records for major European leagues.
The transformation has treated viewers to such stars as Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Thierry Henry, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and many more. Already this season, Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have appeared in action on Monday Night Football.
Jamie Carragher witnessed this transformation first hand with Liverpool. After making his debut in 1997 alongside only two players from outside of the home nations, his career came to an end in a team that included Spaniards, Brazilians and Italians. He even left the field for the final time to be replaced by a Uruguayan. Carragher welcomed the exposure to new cultures and ideas.
"The way they conducted themselves off the pitch was something that English players were not used to," he explains. "For English players, creating a team spirit and a bond used to mean having a night out really. I think it was different with foreign players. They would go out for a meal and look after themselves better in terms of what they put into their body.
"But it was also about how they looked after their body at the training ground in terms of stretching and warm downs. These were things that were not focused on. Training became much more professional. Without a doubt this was a positive thing for the Premier League. That's why it's become what it's become. Foreign players led to a huge uplift in quality."
For Carragher, who won five trophies in one calendar year under Gerard Houllier before lifting the Champions League with Rafa Benitez, the influx of foreign coaches has been even more significant. "They have probably been a bigger influence on me than the players," he adds. "They are the ones who set the stall out for how the team is going to play.
Live Nissan Super Sunday
"It was different. Prior to that, while Roy Evans did play three at the back with Liverpool, a lot of teams would just go with 4-4-2. When Jose Mourinho came, he used the 4-3-3 for that reason and counteracted that 4-4-2 that a lot of the English teams were playing. Foreign managers such as Mourinho brought new ideas and different types of players.
"Now we hear about players operating between the lines and playing in the pockets. I think because of that we are a lot more aware now as a country. It is not just the players but the average person on the street knows much more about the different systems and what is happening in the different areas of the pitch. That is a great thing for the game."
A consequence of this diversity has been the increased global appeal. In part, the Premier League is the richest in the world because it is loved all over the planet. Fans in every country can find a club or player with which they can identify. Carragher understands that well having travelled the world with Liverpool and is still amazed by the game's popularity.
"I saw the reactions of supporters when I got to fly around the world on pre-season tours with Liverpool," he says. "It seems like everyone in the world has a Premier League team. They know all the players and they know the teams. I went away with Liverpool to Australia this past summer and they sold out a stadium there after the season had finished.
This is the most popular league in the world for a reason and the great foreign players and managers have added so much.
"It just shows what a great job the Premier League have done to sell this around the world. We always associate that with the bigger sides such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal but even the so-called smaller teams are going around the world now and getting a following. You can't quite believe the reach of the Premier League now. It is so global.
"Let's not forget that a lot of it that is about us, the stadiums being full, the atmosphere and how the supporters demand the game to be played. That is the attraction, it's not just the players. But this is the most popular league in the world for a reason and the great foreign players and managers have added so much. It would not be the same without them."