Offside’s Premier League A-Z: N is for nationalities

N is for nationalities…

The Premier League era has become synonymous with the globalisation of modern football yet English football hasn’t always been awash with foreign nationals.

Amid a summer in which Chelsea have signed a Brazilian-born, naturalised Spanish striker, and Belgium’s World Cup squad contained a wonderkid able claim a double-digit tally of different passports, it’s easy to forget how novel foreign players once were.

Marc Atkins: Amorebieta of Fulham.
Marc Atkins: Amorebieta of Fulham.

In August 2013, The Guardian reported that the number of nationalities that have featured in the Premier League had grown to 100 following the debut of Fulham’s Venezuelan defender Fernando Amorebieta.

At the time that that article was published, France had provided the most players to the division of any foreign nation with 167. Ireland were second with 148 with the Netherlands coming in at third with 102.

Mark Leech: Vieira takes on Jaap Stam.
Mark Leech: Vieira takes on Jaap Stam.

Over the years, these three nations alone have provided the league with such iconic stars as Eric Cantona, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry; Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Marc Overmars, Arjen Robben and Ruud Gullit; and Roy Keane and Denis Irwin.

L'Equipe: Henry arrives in London.
L’Equipe: Henry arrives in London.

Though they have never before been present in such numbers, players plying their trade at the top of English football hailing from beyond the territories of the British Isles are a not an entirely new development. Walter Bowman, a Canadian of Swiss heritage, played for Accrington Stanley in the football league in 1892, and later appeared for Ardwick, who would become Manchester City. Following the turn of the century, the English game gained its first European import in the shape of Tottenham Hotspur’s 1908 German signing, Max Seeburg.

Over the following years other nationalities arrived from across the water to reach England until 1930 when the FA came down hard on signings from abroad, demanding they fit a number of tight regulations to limit their access to the game. Meanwhile, over on the continent, the top teams of Italy and Spain were reaching out over multiple borders and oceans to sign up the cream of Central Europe and South America.

Mirrorpix: City's Bert Trautmann.
Mirrorpix: City’s Bert Trautmann.

Besides the small number of players able to meet the strict criteria set down by the masters of English game—such as City’s FA Cup-winning German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann and Bill Perry, Blackpool’s South African goalscorer in the Stanley Matthews final—the only source of exotic, foreign flair available lay in Great Britain and Ireland. Whenever some uncommon, cerebral magic was required to augment a club’s homegrown stock, managers sent for Scottish wingers, Welsh strikers and Irish playmakers to  liven up their squads.

John Varley: Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles warm up for Spurs.
John Varley: Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles warm up for Spurs.

It wasn’t until 1978 that the FA’s regulations were loosened due to a ruling set down by the European Community. Footballers could no longer be denied access to work due to their nationality. Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa arrived at Tottenham soon after to kick start a new wave of foreign imports in the First Division and beyond.

However, this increase was nothing compared to the flood that has turned to the Premier League into a truly international competition in recent years.

Mark Leech: Cantona quaffs a beer before his try out with Sheffield Wednesday.
Mark Leech: Cantona quaffs a beer before his try out with Sheffield Wednesday.

The landmarks came thick and fast throughout the 90s and into the new millennium as the winds of change, as well a new and more commercial league format, picked up momentum and money to attract more and more glamourous names to English football.

Arsenal become the last champions of England to win the title with a squad made up entirely of British players in 1989.  The following season Aston Villa appointed the top flight’s first foreign manager, Dr. Jozef Venglos, in 1990.

The Premier League era saw Cantona become the first foreign captain to win the FA Cup in 1996. A year later, Gullit became the first foreign manager to win the competition when his Chelsea team secured the trophy at Wembley. Arsene Wenger was the next foreigner to capture the FA Cup and make history when he became the first non-British manager to win the double. He was also the first manager outside of the UK or Ireland to win the league title.

At their cosmopolitan 90s peak, Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea became the first team to field an entirely foreign starting XI in 1999, with Arsenal becoming the first club to submit a fully foreign squad for a game in 2005.

The 2014-15 season could be the most international Premier League season yet, with a non-British manager in charge at Old Trafford for the first time ever, and only Brendan Rodgers flying the flag for UK managers amongst the top clubs.


For all the fears over the threat posed to the English national team and other home nations, it’s hard not to think that all this foreign influence won’t help to bring about another classic season of spectacular football  this year.

Offside is the UK’s leading independent sports photography agency, home to an extensive collection of classic First Division and Premier League pictures as well as other images from across the world of sport. Explore Offside’s unique library at

Follow Offside on Twitter at @welloffside.


Author: gregianjohnson

Football writer for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Mirror, Squawka and VICE amongst others. Follow me on Twitter at @gregianjohnson.

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