The World Cup, which begins this week in stadiums across Brazil, is a battle of nations. But the top football leagues in the world are far more geographically concentrated. Over the next few weeks, footballers who play together professionally during the regular season will soon find themselves pitted against one another on opposite sides of the field.
UCLA planning doctoral student Patrick Adler crunched the numbers on how national team members for the 32 qualifying nations are distributed among the various professional leagues during normal play. A majority of World Cup team members play professionally for a club outside of their home country. Nearly two-thirds of the players taking to fields across Brazil this week normally wear the jerseys of teams based outside of their home country.
But these football carpetbaggers aren’t distributed evenly:
- 100 percent of Russian national team players play in Russia.
- 96 percent of players on England’s World Cup team play in England. The remaining slot on the roster is filled by Fraser Forster, who plays in Scotland (which fields its own national team).
- 87 percent of the Italian team’s players normally play in Italy
- 74 percent of players on the German team play in Germany.
- At the other end of the spectrum, Uruguay has no players on its national rosters who play at home. The national teams of the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s each have just one player—4 percent of their total roster—who regularly plays at home.
- Less than half the U.S. World Cup team—just 39 percent—plays on U.S. professional teams. Four play in England, and four play in Germany, the result of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s explicit recruitment of German dual citizens.
- While U.S. professional leagues attract foreign talent in many high-level sports, the strength of football in other parts of the world leads to this reverse migration of talented American players abroad. Just 3 percent of World Cup players are employed by the U.S.’s Major League Soccer.
Broken down by continent, many European national teams are mostly made up of players employed by professional teams within Europe. On the World Cup teams for Belgium, Croatia, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Russia, not a single player plays for a team outside of Europe. In contrast, the five African teams that qualified for the World Cup are largely made up of players who regularly play on other continents: Ghana (18 percent play at home), Nigeria (13 percent); Algeria (13 percent); Cameroon (9 percent); and the Ivory Coast (4 percent).
Overall, 40 percent of World Cup players represent the 13 European national teams. But far more play for European leagues—72 percent play in Top Division European clubs, and a full 75 percent of all World Cup players are employed by either Top or lower division European clubs.
Adler also took a closer look at the relationship between a national team’s FIFA rankings and the quality of the pro leagues in which its members play. He looked at which country’s national teams have the most players in six top-ranked leagues: Spain’s La Liga, the English Premiere League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, Brazil’s Brasileiro Série A, and Argentina’s Primera Division. (These six top the International Federation of Football History and Statistics’ country rankings, though you can imagine the relative ranking of leagues is also the topic of endless debate among fans).
All of Germany and Spain’s players play in the top six leagues while 96 percent of England’s and 87 percent of Italy’s do. A majority of players for Brazil (78 percent), Argentina (75 percent), Belgium (74 percent), Switzerland (65 percent), Uruguay (61 percent), Chile (57 percent), and France (57 percent) also play in the top six leagues. The national teams whose players are most likely to play for professional teams that are based within their home country’s borders are, unsurprisingly, the countries with the top-ranked professional leagues.
In addition, and also perhaps predictably, Adler found a reasonably close link between the quality of the league that its players normally play for and a national team’s FIFA ranking. The graph below, from Adler, shows the relationship between the percent of a national team’s players in the top six leagues and its FIFA team score.
Spain and Germany, which have the two highest FIFA rankings, are the two national teams made up entirely of players in the top six leagues. This pattern holds as you move down in both the FIFA rankings and the ranking by proportion of the roster in the top six leagues. Countries with about 30 to 45 percent of their national team players in top leagues tend to fall in the middle of the pack on the FIFA rankings—teams like the United States, the Netherlands, and Algeria.
Soccer has always been an international sport, and the economics of modern professional competition have only made this more the case today. Players cross national borders to make it into the top professional leagues, and increasingly they reverse this journey to better their chance of making a World Cup team. The World Cup will be a battle of nations, but allegiances aren’t always so clear cut.