LONDON — Arsenal became L’Arsenal or El Arsenal last Monday after Arsene Wenger chose an all-foreign squad of 16 for the 5-1 win over Crystal Palace.

Christopher Davies

It was the first time this had happened in the history of English football and the following day former Arsenal favorite Paul Merson led the criticism of Wenger’s no-Brits selection.

Merson condemned the Johnny Foreigner XVI by calling it “a disgrace. . . we are cutting our own throats.”

While it is good to see Merson, player-manager of Walsall, getting his life back on track, a weakness in his argument could be that while the foreign legion Wenger chose against Palace are all dedicated professionals, most of whom do not drink. When the former England forward was at Highbury he became an alcoholic with an addiction to gambling.

Merson claimed Wenger was harming England’s long-term future and said: “Sixteen players and not a Brit in sight? That’s a disgrace. If it continues we can forget about ever winning anything at international level again.”

The 16-man squad for the game against Palace featured six Frenchmen, three Spaniards, two Dutchmen, one Cameroon international, one German, one Ivory Coast international, one Brazilian and one Swiss national.

Wenger said he does not look at a player’s passport, only his quality and attitude.

There may not have been an Englishman in sight and the Premiership trophy may be on its way to Chelsea, but Arsenal’s stunning display against Palace underlined that on their day the Gunners are still the most entertaining team in England.

Chairman Peter Hill-Wood defended Wenger’s selection, though with Ashley Cole ill and Sol Campbell injured the manager had little option than to go for an entirely overseas squad.

Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian traditionalist, said: “To be honest, I don’t mind as long as the team plays the right sort of football. We are in times now when people have to adjust their thinking.

“For me, the nationality of any player who plays for the club is not an issue. If you have players who are good enough then it does not matter from which country they come.

“The world of football is changing and there are some people who don’t like things to change. You should not forget the huge impact one player has had in changing the club and helping us to a higher level — and that is Dennis Bergkamp, a Dutchman.

“These days, the world is smaller. It is a sign of the times that so many nations are represented at Arsenal and it is inevitable we will have players from all over the world.”

However, UEFA is so concerned about the increasing number of overseas players in most European leagues it is introducing a new quota system for “homegrown” players in the Champions League and UEFA Cup.

This will require clubs to field four “homegrown” players in European competitions from 2006, rising to eight by 2008, but from a Premiership perspective the plan does not require those players to be English or even British, just brought through the academy system for three years between 16 and 21.

It is therefore unlikely that Arsenal would be affected by the ruling as the likes of Spaniard Cesc Fabregas, Dutchman Quincy Owusu-Abeyie and Italian Arturo Lupoli are all being brought through the youth system from a young age.

Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein said UEFA’s scheme amounts to a restraint of trade, but it has 26 foreign players, including two on loan, in its 38-man squad, the most of any Premiership club.

This means around two-thirds are from overseas, the highest of any of the Champions of Europe’s major leagues.

Valencia has 12 non-Spanish players in a first-team squad of 24. Lyon is on course for a fourth consecutive Ligue 1 championship triumph with seven non-French players from a squad of 27.

AC Milan has 12 non-Italians in its 24-man squad — including European Footballer of the Year Andriy Shevchenko from Ukraine.

Champions League and Portuguese title holder FC Porto has nine foreign players among its squad of 26. Panathinaikos features 18 foreigners in a 34-man squad, though five or six of the regular starting XI are Greek.

The simple fact is that if a player is good enough he will be in the team, whatever his nationality.

Arsenal has a maximum of two English players in its strongest team — Cole and Campbell — but if Wenger could find an outstanding English player in any position he would select him.

What appears to have been overlooked in the current foreign-player argument is that all the successful managers in the Premiership are non-English.

The “best” English manager is probably Steve McClaren, assistant to England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, but with respect to the Middlesbrough manager, he is not international-class which is why the Swede was given a new £4 million a year contract by the Football Association last year.

In short, there was no realistic English candidate for the job.

THE PREMIERSHIP could soon boast the top three clubs in the Football Money League with Chelsea, backed by billionaire Roman Abramovich, tipped to rival Manchester United’s official position as the richest club in the world in the next couple of seasons.

Arsenal could also challenge Real Madrid and AC Milan to complete a Premiership whitewash of the top-three positions in the Deloitte Football Money League after the opening of its new stadium next year.

United has retained its position at the head of the rich list for the eighth consecutive year with an annual income of £172 million for the 2003-04 season.

While second-place Real closed the gap with an income of £156.3 million and AC Milan is in third spot, Chelsea has climbed from 10th place to fourth in the space of just 12 months.

Its income for last season increased by 62 percent to £143.7 million from £93.1 million in 2002-03 and further major increases are expected.

The report, compiled by the sports business group at Deloitte, concluded: “Having devoured two-thirds of Manchester United’s revenue lead in one season, Chelsea will not think that future overall leadership is beyond them.”

Chelsea has recently concluded an eight-year kit deal with Adidas worth £100 million, while a lucrative sponsorship agreement is expected to be announced soon.

United continues to lead the way, with the report concluding it “is likely to remain the club to beat in future money leagues,” with a significant advantage over its nearest rivals.

While Juventus fell away markedly, Arsenal is also on the upswing, with the opening of its new 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium in the summer of 2006 set to revolutionize its income levels.

The report added: “We expect to see Arsenal move further up the money league in the coming years as it and Chelsea lead London’s challenge to Manchester, Madrid and Milan.

“With Chelsea’s success and Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium development, we can foresee a scenario where English clubs fill the top-three places in the 2006-07 money league.”

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