CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report

n°25 - May 2017

World expatriate footballers

Drs Raffaele Poli, Loïc Ravenel and Roger Besson

Version pdf

1. Introduction

The 25th edition of the CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report analyses the presence of expatriate footballers in 137 leagues of 93 national associations worldwide*. The championships have been selected according to their level of development, as well as the possibility to access reliable information on squad members.

[*The list of competitions covered is to be found in the appendix]

The sample is made up of players present on the 1st of May 2017 in the first team squad of clubs from the leagues analysed having been fielded in championship matches during the current season. In the 116 competitions where the list of substitutes was available, the simple presence on the bench also constituted a criterion for inclusion.

For all the players listed, we have determined the association of origin. This notion refers to the national federation where the players grew up and started playing football. If the player is outside of his association of origin, he is considered to be an expatriate.

In total, 12,051 expatriate footballers were recorded in the 2,120 clubs that make up our sample. On average, a team has 5.7 expatriate footballers (21.6% of squads). These values vary from 7.6 (27.9%) in the OFC (New Zealand) to 3.2 (11.9%) at CONMEBOL level.

Figure 1: study sample, by confederation

As for age, the expatriate footballers surveyed were 26.8 years old on the 1st of May 2017. For comparison, the average age of national players is 25.3. The most represented age group among expatriates is that of players aged 26. Footballers aged 21 or under make up 14.1% of expatriate players, as opposed to 28.9% for nationals.

Figure 2: age pyramid for expatriate and national footballers

2. The most represented origins

In total, 174 national associations had at least one representative active abroad in a club included in the analysis. Brazil is the most represented country in absolute terms (1,202 expatriates), followed by France (781) and Argentina (753). The nationals from these three associations make up 22.7% of the total number of expatriates. This percentage increases to 43.5% when taking into account the ten principal exporting countries.

Among the associations with more than 200 expatriates are nine European nations, four from South America and two from Africa. With the exception of Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, all these countries have a majority of nationals in clubs from UEFA member associations. This result reflects the centrality of Europe in the world football economy. The biggest exporter at CONCACAF level are the United States (130 representatives abroad), while Japan tops the list for the AFC (also 130 expatriates).

Thirteen of the 20 associations whose number of expatriates is between 100 and 200 are also European. The remaining countries are to be found in Africa (Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Senegal), North America (United States), South America (Paraguay), as well as in Asia (Japan and South Korea). Among these different origins, the Paraguayans, the Japanese and the Koreans are the only ones for which Europe is not the principal destination.

Figure 3: principal player exporting associations

3. The Brazilians

Portugal is by far the chief destination for Brazilians. On the 1st of May 2017, 221 footballers from Brazil were playing in the two top levels of competition in Portugal. These footballers were, on average, younger than the Brazilian expatriates taken as a whole: 26.2 years of age as opposed to 27.6. For Brazilians, Portugal is often the first country of migration abroad.

Figure 4: principal destinations of Brazilians

The number of expatriate Brazilians is over 20 in 16 countries. Among these are as many European countries as associations outside of UEFA. We find six Asian nations (Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea, China and Indonesia), Mexico and the United States. Today, the Brazilian player is the only truly global worker in the professional football industry. Brazilians are present in 82 of 93 associations covered in the study.

4. The French

Almost a quarter of French expatriate footballers play in English (107) or Belgian clubs (83). Four other neighbouring countries are part of the ten principal destinations of French players: Luxembourg, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. In addition, more than 30 French nationals are under contract with Greek and Turkish professional clubs.

Figure 5: principal destinations of French

The French are also very present in the Algerian top division: 33 players. In the majority of cases, they are footballers of Algerian origin who grew up in France and migrated to Algeria in pursuit of their professional career. The United States is the second non-European destination (21 players). In total, French footballers are present in 60 of the 93 countries surveyed.

5. The Argentineans

Chile is the principal destination for Argentinean expatriates. On the 1st May 2017, 106 Argentineans were playing in the two professional Chilean leagues taken into account. The number of Argentinean footballers recorded in Mexico is also very high: 97 players. In the two cases, Argentineans are the most represented origin among expatriates.

Figure 6: principal destinations of Argentineans

Spain, Italy and Greece are the only three European associations among the ten principal destinations of Argentinean players. With the exception of the United States, all of the other countries are situated in South America. While Brazilians are the global source of labour par excellence, Argentineans play a similar role in Latin America. In total, they are present in 59 of the 93 associations analysed.

6. The Serbians

Similar to French players, Serbian footballers are very present chiefly in neighbouring or geographically close countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, etc. The first destinations outside of UEFA member associations are in Asia: Hong Kong and Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, the number of Serbians remains limited: 7 players.

Figure 7: principal destinations of Serbians

Serbian footballers are present in 57 of the 93 countries included in the study. Although almost twice less numerous abroad than French players, Serbians benefit from migration networks that are as diverse as their French colleagues. The number of Serbian footballers playing abroad is also remarkable given the country’s small size: about 7 million inhabitants.

7. The English

England’s presence among the five principal exporting associations is strongly linked to the number of English expatriated in the other UK nations, mainly in Wales (143 footballers) and Scotland (114). More than half of the English who play abroad are under contract with clubs from these countries*.

[* The English players in Welsh clubs participating in the English championships are not considered as expatriates. The same rule is applied for all similar cases (Americans in the Canadian teams of the MLS, etc.)]

Figure 8: principal destinations of English

The English are also numerous in an up-and-coming football country: the United States (50 players). This number will most likely increase in the coming years. The English are the main expatriate contingent in another English speaking country: New Zealand (17 footballers). They are represented in 41 countries of the 93 studied.

8. Conclusion

The migration of players is not a recent phenomenon in football. However, its scope has continually increased over the last three decades with the development of professional championships worldwide. Expatriate players are present in all of the 93 countries and 137 leagues covered in the study. In seven championships, this category even represents the majority of squads*.

[* In this regard, the Digital Atlas of the CIES Football Observatory presents the match time statistics for expatriates in 31 top division European leagues]

The presence in foreign clubs of players from 174 national associations also illustrates the sweep of the process of globalisation in the football players’ labour market. Nevertheless, this report highlights the concentration of the export of players from three countries in particular: Brazil, France and Argentina. In total, 2,736 of the 12,051 expatriates taken into account are from these nations (22.7%).

Although football is a global sport, not all of the associations have yet the ability to train players to a sufficient level to attract interest from the best foreign clubs. In a highly competitive context, all the countries where football is not a traditional sport need time and considerable funding to build up the culture necessary for the training of high quality players.

From this point of view, the FIFA’s, the Confederations’ and national associations’ role in matters related to football development is of the utmost importance in contributing to football’s growth from the point of view of universality. As passionate lovers of the game, we can only encourage any initiative aiming to create clubs and competitions worldwide. In this sense, it is worth reminding that the elite cannot exist without grassroots football.

As far as we are concerned, from next year onwards, we plan to broaden the scope of this study by integrating more and more championships. In doing so, we hope to make a contribution to a world of football that is both sustainable and wide-reaching.

Appendix : list of competitions covered by the study


Monthly Report n°25 - May 2017 - World expatriate footballers