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Varane holding his new Manchester United shirt on the pitch.
Varane arrives at Manchester United. EPA-EFE/Andrew Yates

‘Harder than I’d expected’: top players on why joining Premier League from abroad is so tough

The new football season has seen the return of fans, and the return of big money transfers. Ahead of the transfer window closing at the end of August, big names joining the English Premier League from overseas include Raphael Varane (to Manchester United from Real Madrid for £42 million) and Romelu Lukaku (to Chelsea from Inter Milan for £97.5 million).

The clubs’ owners and fans will no doubt hope their expensive new players hit the ground running and provide immediate impact. Yet these moves do not always work out, with players sometimes failing to live up to their potential.

Our research explains why players moving to the Premier League can struggle to adjust. Bought and sold for sometimes huge sums, their personal stories reveal some of the key challenges they face off the pitch.

To begin with, like anyone moving to another country, players and their families must adjust to a new and unfamiliar environment. Finding somewhere to live, making friends and choosing schools must be done alongside the public pressure of their new footballing role.

There may also be a language barrier, which can affect performances on the pitch and a player’s ability to communicate with teammates and coaching or medical staff. As former Liverpool and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres, who moved from Spain, recalls of the various knocks he sustained in his early months in England:

If you don’t explain your symptoms properly, you can end up being given the wrong treatment. If you can’t explain exactly where the pain is, and what kind of pain it is, it can hinder your rehabilitation.

Another former Liverpool star, Luis Suarez, who arrived from the Netherlands, relied on gestures to communicate when he first moved there and said he was not able to play to his full capabilities as a result.

Research also suggests that players who don’t speak English well are seen as “more foreign” by the media and fans. They may be portrayed as being motivated by short-term financial gains, uninterested in adapting to a club’s or country’s culture, and lacking dedication. They are also often the first to be blamed for a poor team performance.

Certainly, media coverage of football in England can be ore intense than in other countries, and foreign players (and managers) often struggle to adapt to this extra scrutiny and pressure. The French former Manchester United forward Eric Cantona believed the English media liked to “dig up dirt” and criticise every mistake.

Another adjustment involves new ways of playing and the particularly intense physicality of the Premier League. Migrating overseas to work can be demanding in any sector but football players have the added complication of staying healthy and avoiding injury.

Matches and training are draining, and as former Southampton defender Maya Yoshida has pointed out, players in England do not enjoy the benefit of a winter break to recharge their batteries, both mentally and physically.

Players’ families can also struggle with moving to a new country, with challenges including adapting to the new culture and very different weather in England. Even everyday tasks like getting “used to a new way of driving”, as mentioned by ex-Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, can present obstacles.

If their families find the move difficult, this can put additional strain on the player. As former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba noted after arriving from France:

The move to England had been harder than I’d expected. I had a lot to adapt to both in terms of the language and the team’s way of playing, and my family had a difficult time adapting as well.

Game plan

After investing millions of pounds on a player, expecting immediate results is understandable. But given these challenges, it is important that clubs and fans remember the human side of football, and the fact that players need time to adapt.
The club in particular has a key role to play in supporting the well-being of new players, who frequently mention the support of their new manager as being crucial to settling in and feeling welcome. But this relationship is not always straightforward when transfers are coordinated or decided by transfer committees and directors.

Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku applauds supporters.
Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku: already feeling at home? EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

For Torres, Liverpool FC provided English teachers and interpreters for him to help with tasks such as how to buy a house in a foreign country. These forms of support can help players feel welcomed and settled, leading to improved performances on the pitch. Low levels of social support can be associated with mental health issues and declines in performance.

As the 2021/22 season gets underway, Raphael Varane has acknowledged the importance for him of learning to speak English soon, to be close to fans, as well as his new manager and teammates.

Club rivalries aside, he might do well to seek advice on British life from his fellow Premier League arrival. Lukaku played for Chelsea previously alongside the current team captain, César Azpilicueta, spending almost ten years in England before moving to Italy. He may settle in more quickly and be a safer bet – even at £97.5 million.

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