The 89th edition of the CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report compares 48 leagues around the world according to the demographic characteristics of the players in their squads: 31 top divisions of UEFA member associations, nine of CONMEBOL, six of AFC and two of CONCACAF: the American MLS and the Mexican Liga MX.
Figure 1: sample of the study (October 2023)
To be included, a footballer had to have already played in domestic league games during the ongoing season or, this being not the case, to have played matches in adult championships during each of the two preceding seasons (B-teams not included). The second and eventual third choice goalkeepers were considered in all cases.
2. Players’ age
On average, the 20,779 players analysed were 26.38 years old on the 1st of October 2023. The Slovenian top division is the youngest (24.16 years of age on average), followed by ten other leagues from UEFA associations. The non-European competition with the youngest players, the Venezuelan top division (25.46 years), is only in 12th place. You have to go down to 22nd place to find a second non-European league: Argentina’s Primera División (26.29 years).
At the other end of the table, the three leagues with the most experienced footballers are in Asia (China, Japan and Saudi Arabia). With the top divisions from South Korea, Peru and Ecuador, six of the eight oldest leagues are outside Europe. These results indicate the existence of geographical specificities in the age of the players making up the squads, with a much stronger focus on young players in Europe than elsewhere in the world.
Figure 2: players’ age, by league (October 2023)
Geographical differences in the age of players in squads are also apparent at club level. Indeed, 18 of the 20 clubs with the youngest footballers are European, with two Belarusian teams topping the list (Energetik-BGU and FK Minsk). Venezuela’s Mineros de Guayana and Colombia’s Envigado are the only non-UEFA clubs in the top 20.
Figure 3: youngest clubs (October 2023)
Conversely, twelve of the 20 clubs with the most experienced footballers are outside Europe, with China’s Qingdao Hainiu heading the list (31.48 years of age on average). All of the UEFA association teams in the top 20 oldest clubs are from Mediterranean leagues (Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Spain), reflecting the existence of geographical determinants in the age structure of teams within the European continent itself.
Figure 4: oldest clubs (October 2023)
3. Expatriate players
Spatial differences also emerge in terms of the presence of expatriate players in squads. Expatriates are defined as players who play outside the association in which they grew up, having left it following recruitment by a foreign club. No non-European league features among the eight competitions with the highest proportion of expatriates, with only the American MLS (9th) and the UAE Pro League (20th) in the top twenty.
In contrast, ten of the twelve leagues with the fewest expatriates are located outside Europe, the only exceptions being the top divisions of two countries in a conflict zone: Ukraine and Belarus. The analysis therefore shows that the internationalisation of the footballers' labour market is far more advanced in Europe, and the United States, than anywhere else in the world.
Figure 5: % of expatriates, by league (October 2023)
All of the 20 teams with the highest proportion of expatriate players belong to UEFA member associations, with two Cypriot clubs heading the list: Pafos FC (92.3%) and Aris Limassol (88.5%). The leading non-European team, Portland Timbers of MLS, is only 22nd (74.2%). Al-Wasl from the United Arab Emirates is the Asian club with the highest percentage of expatriates (57.1%), as are Chile’s Colo Colo in South America (37.9%).
Figure 6: highest % of expatriates, by club (October 2023)
4. Squad stability
There are also major differences between leagues in terms of the stability of squads, as measured by the percentage of new recruits. These are defined as players who have been with the club for less than a year. Their proportion varies from 32.1% in the Japanese J1 to 56.7% in the Turkish Süper Lig, with an overall average of 44.2%. In 264 of the 775 clubs analysed, players signed in the last year account for at least half of the footballers.
While the East Asian leagues (Japan, China and South Korea) are among those with the most stable clubs, several South American championships (Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia and Uruguay in particular) are in the opposite situation. In Europe, four of the five major leagues (big-5), the Dutch Eredivisie and the Nordic countries' top divisions are among the most stable, while the championships in south-eastern Europe (Turkey, Cyprus, Serbia, Greece and Romania in particular) are particularly unstable.
Figure 7: % of new signings, by league (October 2023)
Taking into account the average tenure of players in the first team of their club of employment, the lowest value was measured for Cypriots AEZ Zakakiou, with 24 of the 27 players in the squad recruited during the last year and an average stay of 1.11 seasons including the current one. Most of the most unstable teams play in less competitive leagues and are of a rather modest level.
Figure 8: most unstable teams, average stay (October 2023)
Many top clubs are among the teams whose players have been in the squad the longest, reflecting the link between stability and performance. The top 20 most stable teams include Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid, as well as other well-structured clubs such as Athletic Club, Heidenheim and SC Freiburg, three Japanese teams, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, Czech Republic’s FC Slovácko, as well as the top clubs from China, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Figure 8: most stable teams, average stay (October 2023)
The demographic analysis of the composition of football teams in 48 leagues around the world reveals major differences in the strategies followed by clubs. The European labour market stands out from the others, with both a greater presence of young players and a higher proportion of expatriate footballers.
In terms of age, the average measured across the 31 top divisions of UEFA associations analysed is almost one year lower than that recorded in the 17 non-European leagues in the sample: 25.97 versus 26.96 years. As far as the proportion of expatriates is concerned, the difference is 19.8%: 43.6% compared to 23.8%. These results reflect the greater propensity of European teams to rely on young players, whether having grown up domestically or imported from abroad.
While the South American and Asian leagues tend to be similar both in terms of age, with relatively few young players, and origin, with comparatively few expatriates, they differ greatly in terms of squad stability. The proportion of players who have been with the club for less than a year is 9.8% higher in the nine South American leagues than in the six Asian leagues analysed: 49.0% compared with 39.2%.
Also regarding to stability, there are spatial specificities within Europe too, with fairly different levels emerging around a double polarity of West (more stability) - East (less) and North (more stability) - South (less). These geographical differences also reflect economic disparities, with the most competitive clubs tending to have a more stable workforce than the others.