CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report

n°35 - May 2018

World football expatriates:
global study 2018

Drs Raffaele Poli, Loïc Ravenel and Roger Besson

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1. Introduction

Football is the global game par excellence. It is practiced and viewed in the vast majority of countries worldwide. Year after year, professional leagues establish themselves in a growing number of territories. The labour market of footballers has been strongly internationalised over the last decades. This Monthly Report analyses the presence of expatriate footballers in the world.

The notion of expatriates defines players having grown up outside the national association of their employer club and having moved abroad for sporting reasons. This definition allows us to isolate migrations directly linked to the practice of football. Indeed, players of foreign origin who grew up in the association of their team of employment are not considered as expatriates.

On the 1st of May 2018, 12,425 expatriate footballers were recorded in the 2,235 teams from the 142 leagues of 93 national associations surveyed. This figure includes first team squad members having been fielded in domestic league matches during the ongoing season. In the 120 competitions where the list of substitutes was available, presence on the bench also constituted a criterion for inclusion.

Expatriates represent 21.2% of players at global level (+1.2% compared to 2017). This is equivalent to about 5.6 footballers per team. The percentage of expatriates varies between 25.4% in the only OFC league surveyed (New Zealand) and 9.6% at CONMEBOL level. Clubs from the UEFA (24.9%) and CONCACAF (22.0%) leagues analysed also regroup a higher percentage of expatriate footballers than those in the AFC (18.6%) and the CAF (11.0%).

As for age, the expatriate footballers surveyed were on average 26.8 years old on the 1st of May 2018. European teams gather the youngest expatriates (26.3 years), while the oldest ones are to be found in Asia (29.0). This gap reflects different status. At AFC level, quotas for foreign players push teams to look at experienced expatriates. In a more liberal context, European teams rather seek young foreign talents to be transferred on to wealthier teams within the framework of transnational value chains.

Figure 1: study sample, by confederation1 Number of national associations
2 Average age of expatriates

2. Main origins at worldwide level

On the 1st of May 2018, 178 national associations had at least one representative playing abroad in the leagues surveyed (+2 compared to 2017). Brazil is the most represented country (1,236 expatriates, +42 compared to 2017), followed by France (821, +45) and Argentina (760, -26). The nationals from these three associations make up 22.7% of the total number of expatriates. This percentage increases to 43.4% when taking into account the ten principal exporting countries.

Brazilian expatriates are present in a record number of associations surveyed: 78 out of 93. The Argentineans (65 associations), the French (62) and the Nigerians (60) are also active in more than six out of ten countries. The highest increase in the number of expatriates compared to the 1st of May 2017 was recorded for France: from 776 to 821 players under contract with foreign teams.

Figure 2: most represented expatriate origins

If we take population into account, the highest rate of expatriates per million of inhabitants was recorded for Iceland (180). This figure is above 100 only for one other association: Montenegro (134). It is also very high for double world champions Uruguay (96) and Croatia (80). Many other former Yugoslavian countries figure high in the table. This finding reflects the outstanding training ability in this area, as well as the existence of well-established international transfer networks.

Figure 3: top rates of expatriates per million of inhabitants (at least 50 expatriates)

3. Main origins per region

This chapter analyses the expatriate presence in three world areas: Asia, the Americas and Europe. This allows us to explore the differences in transfer networks according to both origin and destination.


Brazilians constitute by far the largest contingent of footballers expatriated in Asia (306 players, +14 compared to 2017). They account for almost a quarter of expatriates in the leagues surveyed (24.0%). However, this percentage decreased by 1% compared to May 2017. Only two AFC countries are in the top ten ranking of the most represented nations in Asia: South Korea (76 players, +10) and Japan (46, -12). When it comes to recruiting abroad, Asian clubs tend to favour footballers from other confederations (77.9%).

European footballers are also very well represented in Asian teams. The Spanish are the most present (67, +18), followed by the French (41, -4) and the Serbians (35, +3). African players are quite numerous too, in particular the Nigerians (39 players, +5). This finding reflects the solid integration of Asia in the global footballers’ market despite the existence of quotas limiting the presence of foreigners in clubs.

Figure 4: top associations of origin of expatriate players in Asia


While Brazilians are the main workforce on a worldwide level, Argentineans play a similar role in the Americas. With 456 players in foreign American countries (-10 compared to 2017), they account for 23.5% of expatriates in this region. Only 105 Brazilians (-16) are expatriated in the Americas. Their number is inferior not only to that of Argentineans, but also to that of Colombians (234 players, -17), Uruguayans (216, +2) and Paraguayans (120, +11).

Nine of the ten countries with the highest contingent of expatriates in the Americas are from this geographical zone. This finding shows that the importation of players in the region essentially follows a logic of proximity. English players are the only exception. This is mainly due to their strong presence in the United States (38 expatriates out of the 41 employed in the region as a whole).

Figure 5: top associations of origin of expatriate players in the Americas


Similar to the Asian context, Brazil is the most represented origin among expatriates under contract with the European clubs surveyed: 824 players. However, the proportion of Brazilians among expatriates is much lower in Europe (9.2%) than in Asia (24.0%). While European clubs have developed extensive recruitment networks (149 different national origins), 65.6% of expatriates still come from other UEFA associations.

France is the second-ranked player exporter country on a European level (727 players, +61 with respect to 2017), followed by Serbia (424, -4), Croatia (327, +27) and England (327, -12). Aside from Brazil, the most represented extra-European origins are Argentina (265 players, -15) and Nigeria (249, +1). All confederations are represented in Europe, which reflects the centrality of this continent in the global economy of professional football.

Figure 6: top associations of origin of expatriate players in Europe

4. Conclusion

The international path with the most expatriates involved goes from Brazil to Portugal. On the 1st of May 2018, 240 players from Brazil were playing in Portugal at professional adult level. The two other main migratory channels between associations at worldwide level link England to Scotland (110 players), as well as Argentina to Chile (106 players).

Despite regional differences, this report shows that player migration is a well-established reality in global football. The development of professional leagues across the world will most probably imply a further growth in the number and percentage of expatriates. This process will firstly benefit players from traditional football countries, from where a strong proportion of expatriates still originate (43.4% for the ten main exporting nations).

Figure 7: main migratory channels at worldwide level (at least 50 expatriates)

While importing some players from abroad may be useful for nations aiming at developing their football level, their real challenge lies in the ability to improve the standard of training given to local talents. To reach this goal, the setting up of a long-term strategy is a must.

A good collaboration between clubs, professional leagues and national associations is also of crucial importance. In a very competitive context, irrespective of football’s level of development, all associations must consider these aspects to be in the position of maintaining or improving their results.



Monthly Report n°35 - May 2018 - World football expatriates: global study 2018