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Thursday, 01 March 2012

Cantona, Gullit, Henry or Klinsmann - Who has been the greatest foreigner to have graced the Premier League?

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At one time a foreigner plying his trade in the English game was considered to be a rare treat. Nowadays it's rare to have five Englishmen in a top flight squad. The Premier League has broken down so many barriers and managed to attract some of the biggest names in the game to these shores.

Footballing greats like Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp and Peter Schmeichel have all enjoyed great careers in England, but who has been the greatest foreigner to have played in the Premier League?

The English top flight celebrates its 20th anniversary this year but we're getting in the party spirit early to mark those who have made the most exciting league in the world so watchable.

Squarefootballer writer Steve Coulter has been given the tough task of picking his shortlist of contenders for this particular crown and here it is: Arsenal's Thierry Henry, Chelsea's Ruud Gullit, Manchester United's Eric Cantona and Tottenham's Jurgen Klinsmann. All four have made huge impressions on the English public, but who has been the greatest? Of course if you think someone else deserves the accolade, like Patrick Vieira, Paolo Di Canio, Juninho or Georgie Kinkladze, then we'd love to hear from you.

Here is Steve with his shortlist.


The dreadlocked Dutch legend joined Chelsea in 1995. The former AC Milan man was a cultured midfielder and in 1988 captained the Netherlands side that won the European Championships. That fine side included Milan team-mates Marco Van Basten and Frank Rjikaard. The Dutch trio helped the Italian giants to an hat-trick of European Cup wins.

His arrival on these shores ignited a Chelsea revival. After years in the wilderness the Blues began to challenge for honours again. His mere presence increased Chelsea’s profile. With Gullit on board, the club were able to attract the likes of Italian greats Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli.

Gullit failed to win silverware in his playing days at the Bridge, but the seeds of future glory had been sown. When manager Glenn Hoddle departed to manage England, the midfielder was thrust into the hot seat. 

The novice made a dream start in management, winning the FA Cup in 1997. This ended a 27-year wait for silverware. A year later the European Cup Winners' Cup was added into the trophy cabinet.

Gullit had helped restore Chelsea to their former glories. He helped change the face of the club. Few players can lay claim to that accolade.


The flamboyant Frenchman is another member of that select band. His signing was the catalyst for a golden era at Old Trafford.

I have outlined his influence in previous articles. His flair and imagination gave Manchester United the impetus to win silverware. The Premier League title was secured in Cantona’s first season at Old Trafford. United had been chasing their holy grail for 26 years.

The striker had a knack of scoring vital goals. In 1996 he scored the winner at St James' Park in a huge clash between the top two sides. A few months later Cantona scored the only goal in one of the poorest FA Cup finals ever against Liverpool. It's little wonder Eric Cantona is still adored at Old Trafford.


In one sense Henry has eclipsed the achievements of Gullit and Cantona. Neither man has been immortalised in stone outside their old stamping grounds, but Arsenal’s talismanic Frenchman was bestowed that honour last year. Few would dispute the choice of recipient, a small matter of 229 goals make Henry the Gunners' record goalscorer.

But mere statistics tell half the story. The brilliant frontman lit up the Premier League for eight years. Henry was a thrilling sight to behold. His electric pace was masked by a grace of movement.

Every Arsenal fan has their own memory of Henry. The run and finish against Tottenham will appeal to many. The swivel and volley against Manchester United will be popular in other quarters. The overwhelming majority will treasure the opportunity of watching the majestic Thierry Henry.


The German striker arrived at Tottenham in a blaze of publicity, as an expectant nation looked forward to seeing the superstar in action.

Klinsmann also came with baggage. He had been labelled a diver by sections of the Press. Some pundits felt the forward lost his footing a bit too often, particularly when he entered the penalty area.

If Klinsmann’s sportsmanship was questioned, his ability was beyond debate. Spurs had landed a world class marksman. A lethal finisher with head or foot, the targetman impressed at the 1990 World Cup. His three goals helped Germany win the tournament. On the way Franz Beckenbauer’s men defeated England. This hardly endeared him to opposition fans in this country.

After spells with Inter Milan and AS Monaco, Jurgen joined the Premier League’s growing foreign legion. His 1994 signing was greeted by surprise. While other high profile imports headed for Highbury or Stamford Bridge, Klinsmann opted for a move to White Hart Lane. At the time the Lillywhites were going through a transitional phase, it was a  major coup for Tottenham Hotspur.

Spurs paid £2 million to get their man, but within weeks the signing looked a steal. The German scored on his debut at Sheffield Wednesday and his celebrations immediately disarmed the negativity surrounding his move. A self-mocking dive winning plaudits all round. Max Clifford would have approved of that spot of public relations. 

Having shown he could laugh at himself, Klinsmann concentrated on sticking the ball in the net. He managed to ruffle the onion bag 18 times during his debut season. Memorable goals against Liverpool and Everton elevated Klinsmann to hero status. Having acquired a new section of admirers, Tottenham’s latest legend decided to move on at the end of the season.

Two years later, with Spurs mired in a battle to avoid relegation, Klinsmann returned. He scored nine goals to help beat the drop. In his two spells the forward scored 30 goals in 56 games. Jurgen Klinsmann has no worries about his popularity in one corner of the capital these days.

So there you have it. Steve has narrowed his search down to four, but who do you think deserves to be crowned the greatest foreigner to have graced the top flight? Whatever your view, we'd love to hear from you.

Next week we'll be taking a look at who has scored the greatest goal in Premier League history. If you want to have your say now, let us have it! - Football News & Transfers

Related Articles:

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Atkinson, Bergkamp, Pires Le Tissier, Di Canio or Zola: Who has scored the greatest Premier League goal?

Shearer, Henry, Fowler, Cantona, Phillips or Le Tissier: Who has been the two greatest strikers in the Premier League?

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Colin Illingworth



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