Bert Trautmann, Germany
Few figures in the history of English football – European or otherwise – lived a more extraordinary life than Trautmann. He was the Nazi soldier who arrived in England as a prisoner of war and became a Manchester City icon after making two crucial saves in their 1956 FA Cup final victory over Birmingham City while playing with a broken neck. Although his past never entirely left him, the German, who died in 2013 at the age of 89, ultimately became a symbol of truth and reconciliation following his work in promoting Anglo-German post-war relations, for which he received an honorary OBE.
Arnold Muhren/Frans Thijssen, Netherlands
It’s impossible not to take Muhren and Thijssen as a pair given the joint impact they had on Ipswich Town following their arrivals in the late 1970s. The Dutchmen transformed Ipswich into a highly technical, skilful and successful side, culminating in Bobby Robson’s men winning the 1981 Uefa Cup and finishing First Division runners-up during the same season. In an era of few overseas players in English football, Muhren and Thijssen were illuminating figures, showing clubs from these shores what was possible, and what could be achieved, with broad-thinking, outward-looking recruitment.
Anders Limpar, Sweden
Limpar arrived in England more than a decade after Muhren and Thijssen, yet it was still a period when overseas imports were a rarity and he too showed the benefits of ‘going European’ in the transfer market. The skilful winger played a crucial role in Arsenal winning the 1991 First Division title before being influential in Everton winning the 1995 FA Cup. Limpar’s counterattacking run from inside his own half led to Paul Rideout scoring the winning goal against Manchester United in that final.
Eric Cantona, France
Cantona arrived in England a few months before the start of the Premier League and would go onto to become an icon of the new era of English football. Brooding, enigmatic, troubled and talented, the Frenchman drove Manchester United to sustained glory on the pitch and captured headlines off it, no more so than with that kung-fu kick in January 1995. He was a superstar footballer for a superstar age and it could be argued that without Cantona’s impact in the early days, the Premier League’s appeal would not have become so vast so quickly.
Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany
Klinsmann’s arrival at Tottenham Hotspur in July 1994 was arguably the moment everyone realised English football’s profile had well and truly shifted. This was a genuine star of European football joining a club on these shores, opening the possibility of others doing the same and forging the feeling that the Premier League really was the place to be. Klinsmann more than played a part in boosting the brand with his performances and charm, and even found the time to show English people that Germans do have a sense of humour after all with his diving goal celebrations.
Dennis Bergkamp, Netherlands
Like Murhen and Thijssen before him, Bergkamp showed English football what was possible by going Dutch, specifically a level of talent that bordered on art. Bergkampwas a magnificent player, technically gifted and hugely creative, and without him there is no way Arsenal would have achieved what they did in the late 90s and early noughties, namely three Premier League titles and invincibility. Bergkamp raised the standard and perhaps more than any other European who has played on these shores, highlighted the benefit and beauty of embracing a continental approach.
Georgi Kinkladze, Georgia
Born in Tbilisi, Kinkladze was a wonderfully talent, able to dribble through defences with almost supernatural ease, and having joined Manchester City in 1995 he became the club’s shining light during a terrible period in their history. City were relegated from the Premier League at the end of Kinkladze’s first season and it only added to the midfielder’s standing among supporters that he continued to play for the club in the second tier. More broadly, Kinkladze’s time at City shows just how deep the level of European talent arriving in England had become by the mid-90s. A full-on wave that enriched the national game at various levels.
Thierry Henry, France
Arguably the best overseas talent – European or otherwise – to have performed on these shores and like Bergkamp was not only crucial to Arsenal’s success in the late 90s and early noughties but also helped take football in England to a whole new level, one of beauty and artistic brilliance. With his successful spell as a pundit for Sky Sports, Henry has also shown overseas imports that there can be a role for them in England post-retirement beyond coaching and management.
Juan Mata, Spain
A talented playmaker for Chelsea and Manchester United but Mata is on this list for helping launch Common Goal, an initiative which sees people involved in football donate 1% of their salary to global charities. “It’s a simple idea,” said the Spaniard when speaking to the Guardian’s Donald McRae about Common Goal shortly after its launch in August 2017. “But some of the best ideas are simple and, when it comes to football, the power of the game is incredible.” Jürgen Klopp is among those who have since signed up to a scheme that is as worthy of praise as it is unique.
Virgil van Dijk, Netherlands
A genuine modern-day superstar who is single-handedly redefining the art of defending with his athleticism, strength, poise and technical ability. The Dutchman is the complete centre-back and having impressed at Southampton is a key reason for why Liverpool are the European champions and destined to win this season’s Premier League title. In the post-Brexit era, Van Dijk serves as a clear reminder for anyone who requires it of the benefit of movement between Europe and England; quite simply talent like his does not already exist here.