Last weekend, PFA members were back in action as the English Football League (EFL) season kicked off with Bournemouth drawing 2-2 with West Bromwich Albion in their first game back in the Championship. The 2021/22 season sees fans return to EFL stadiums at full capacity and without restrictions for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak, 18 months ago.
The new season follows a historic summer of football for England, as the national side reached their first Euro 2020 final. The tournament also saw a record 152 players from the English leagues participate, making England the best-represented nation by club nationality for the third consecutive European Championship. Additionally, every Euro 2020 squad at the tournament, except Russia, included a player who plays domestically in England, highlighting the global impact and reach of our football pyramid.
While you’d expect the majority of international footballers who don’t play domestically to play for top-flight clubs, an unprecedented 33 players at Euro 2020 played last season in the EFL Championship – a testament to the quality of the football played in the English Leagues. This means there were more Championship players at the Euros than players from every domestic league, except Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia. In fact, there were only seven more players from Spain’s La Liga and three more from France’s Ligue One than Championship players at the tournament.
Newly promoted Premier League sides Brentford and Norwich City each sent four players to the Euros - the same number of players from AC Milan, and only two behind 13-time Champion’s League winners, Real Madrid. Half of the 24 European Championship teams featured a current EFL player in their squad, with Wales including 13 players in their side. A further 29 non-English nationals at the tournament who played for English clubs had also spent time as a senior player at an EFL club.
PFA Executive, Ritchie Humphreys is not surprised by English Football's dominance in Europe, saying, "I played in the EFL for a large part of my career, and the level of football being played by EFL clubs is phenomenal. EFL clubs gives players an opportunity to develop their craft and gain that first-team experience that prepares you for football at the top level."
For only the second time in the competition, three UK home nations sent squads to the Euros, which part-explains the healthy representation of English-club players at the tournament. However, as the oldest league in world football, many players who have worked through the EFL system have gone on to play in clubs across the globe. Similarly, players from more than 120 different footballing nations have played for EFL Championship clubs, making it one of the world's most exciting, diverse and inclusive domestic leagues. The EFL nurtures talent in an environment where players can learn from each other’s experiences. This might explain why the majority of our current Three Lions have come through the league. With the exception of Bukayo Saka, Declan Rice, Marcus Rashford, and Phil Foden, every member of England’s Euro 2020 team spent time as a senior player, on loan or as part of the academy at an EFL club.
The EFL plays a vital role in creating football superstars and stands as a formidable football giant in its own right. The level of respect fans have for EFL football is what made the Championship the third most-watched league in European football during the 2016-17 season, and it's why the EFL needs investment and protection.
Speaking to Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, PFA Chief Executive, Maheta Molango, said, “If you look at the England squad, so many of those players have gone through the pyramid and understand the need to look after the pyramid and understand the need to actually look after those smaller clubs. But at the same time, we need to ensure that the players at the top level continue to thrive, and continue to generate the type of wealth which then can trickle down to help the others.
There's no question that English clubs produce some of the best footballing talents in the world. The global reach of English football is unmatched, and our influence on the game can be felt at any club, in any country. We have one of the strongest football foundations of any nation, and the PFA will always protect, support and celebrate players made in the EFL.