On Wednesday, Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling skipped his team’s daily training session, supposedly because he felt ill. “Sterling is now set to be assessed by a club doctor, as is standard practice at Liverpool when there are doubts regarding a player’s health,” ESPN FC reported. In reality, there is very little doubt regarding Sterling’s health: As Lionel Messi demonstrated last January, in European soccer “illness” has nothing to do with bodily discomfort. It’s merely a rhetorical tool wielded by unscrupulous agents, an especially transparent example of the cynical bullshit that dominates summer transfer news.
Sterling, who has reportedly informed Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers that he isn’t “in the right frame of mind” for a pre-season tour, has spent the last four months angling for a transfer to Manchester City. In April, his refusal to sign a new contract overshadowed the admittedly-not-that-impressive conclusion to Liverpool’s league campaign. Then City submitted a 40-million-pound bid for Sterling, which Liverpool promptly rejected.
Over the last couple of weeks, Sterling has been vigorously lampooned. BBC pundit Jamie Carragher recently claimed that Sterling has permanently sullied his public image. “He’s starting to get a reputation that could be hard to rid himself of in the future,” Carragher said. The Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman compared Sterling to Pieree van Hooijdonk, the Dutch forward who infamously went on strike in 1998 when Nottingham Forest refused to sell him. But frankly, Sterling’s recent conduct isn’t particularly unusual or surprising. Every year, celebrity players lobby for transfers to richer, more successful clubs: the rather well-paid Cristiano Ronaldo declared himself a “slave” the summer he pushed for a move to Real Madrid. That’s how modern soccer has operated for at least the last two decades. Once Sterling makes his City debut, nobody but a few aggrieved Liverpool supporters will remember that he feigned illness during pre-season.
On the other hand, Manchester City’s involvement in this transfer-window tug-of-war highlights a relatively recent, genuinely alarming trend that has actively stymied the development of young English talent. In 2010, the Premier League instituted the Homegrown Player Rule, a regulation intended to boost the fortunes of the English national team. Under the HPR, clubs are required to include at least eight homegrown players on their 25-man rosters. The rule targeted teams like City – big spenders that had invested hundreds of millions of pounds in foreign signings, rather than nurturing academy prospects or recruiting the best English players from smaller clubs.
The new rules have inflated the market value of homegrown players. “There are British players who have done nothing in football, yet they cost millions,” former Sunderland coach Gus Poyet complained two seasons ago. Middling English clubs routinely charge exorbitant fees for their best homegrown players, because rising stars who satisfy the league’s quota requirements have become valuable commodities. In 2011, Manchester United spent 17 million pounds on Phil Jones, a promising but unproven defender with only 35 league appearances to his name.
The consequences of this system are rather troubling. English players are now far too expensive to generate realistic interest from overseas. No Spanish club would spend nearly 20 million pounds on a teenage defender with limited professional experience. But Jones, whose bloody-minded work ethic and intense tackling don’t fully compensate for his technical shortcomings, might have benefitted from a season or two in La Liga.
At least Jones has managed to earn a place in the United first team. In 2012, City spent about 25 million pounds on Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair, two exciting English youngsters widely expected to compete for national team spots. Despite their potential, however, Rodwell and Sinclair failed to break into a starting lineup jam-packed with elite foreigners. Instead, they spent some of the most important seasons of their careers, the years that were supposed to herald their emergence as top-flight talents capable of leading England to international glory, parked on the Etihad Stadium bench. It quickly became clear that City, which can afford to pay even its benchwarmers generous wages, was keeping them around primarily to meet the homegrown quota.
Sterling is a better player than either Rodwell or Sinclair. During his three seasons in the Premier League, he has accumulated dozens of goals and assists; alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, he established himself as a crucial component of one of the most exciting Premier League strike forces in years. But given City’s considerable attacking resources, Sterling could still finish next season on the ash heap of young, promising English players who struggled for game time at the Etihad.