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Analysing the Origin of Overseas Players Playing in the Major European Leagues: 2004-2016

Even to the most casual follower of professional football, you would not be surprised to learn that in 2016, more foreign players have been appearing in Europe’s major top-flight leagues than ever before.

However, if you disregard the first decade of post-Bosman migration, which dramatically altered the demographics of nearly every European league and instead focus solely on what has happened during the last four major European confederation tournament cycles, you can unearth some genuinely fascinating insights into how the make-up of teams playing in the continent’s major leagues has changed.

Since 2002, Scout7 has been archiving squad information on hundreds of different senior domestic leagues around the world, which means that club researchers with access to our database can monitor changes in demographics within their key recruitment markets, which can offer useful contextual information into how competitions are evolving and where clubs are looking for players.

Of course there will several factors behind key changes in each country: some will be economic, some legislative, some competition-related, but in the first instance it is important to simply establish the facts, in black and white, as to how each league is evolving.

In this Blog, we have taken six European leagues: the Premier League (England), Ligue 1 (France), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy) and Eredivisie (Netherlands) and reviewed all their squads in the season leading up to the last four European Championships: 2003/4, 2007/8, 2011/12 and 2015/16 to see how each league has changed in terms of nationality demographics.

Only players who made a minimum of 1 appearance during the season have been taken into account in the final figures. Split into four parts, here are the key findings we have unearthed, all using core data exported from Scout7’s international football database:

Part One: The Proportion of Foreign Players

Changes to the Volume of ‘Home’ Players Playing in Each League

To provide some context, we initially looked at changes to the proportion of minutes played by home-national players in each of the six leagues.

As Germany, Netherlands and in 2003/4 Italy, only had 18 teams in their top-flight leagues, we have measured this by the percentage of minutes, rather than by the total minutes themselves.

The most striking change has affected Italy, which has gone from being the league with the highest proportion of minutes played by home players in 2003/4 and 2007/8, to the second lowest in 2015/16 – a drop of over 25%.

Spain has also seen a major dip between 2012 and 2016. The volume of minutes played by Spanish players in La Liga remained relatively stable between 2004 and 2012, but the figure dropped by nearly 4% in 2016. England have also had a 6% drop in the last four years too.

In contrast, the Netherlands has seen a steady increase since 2008 and last season, nearly two-thirds of all minutes were attributed to Dutch players.

The Total Number of Foreign Players – a steady rise every 4 years

Since the start of the period analysed, there has been a total increase in the number of collective foreign players utilised by the leagues during each four-year block. There was a significant jump between 2004 and 2008 of 147 players, followed by a smaller rise of 44 during the next cycle. During the last four years, there was also a collective increase of 86.

The Total Number of Foreign Players – fluctuations league-by-league

Despite the collective increase of foreign players, when you focus on each league individually you find a massively contrasting picture.

In Italy there has been a huge jump in the number of foreign players in Serie A during the last two cycles, however the numbers for both France and Germany have remained relatively stable.

During the last cycle there was also a sharp rise in the number of foreign players in La Liga, whilst in the Netherlands the number of foreigners has seen a steady decline since 2008.

Part Two: The Origin of Foreign Players

In terms of where foreign players originally come from, it will probably come as no surprise to see the South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina dominating the numbers.

Brazil have provided substantially more players than any other country, peaking at a massive 162 players during 2007/8. Argentina have provided at least 100 players in 3 of the 4 seasons reviewed.

Changes in Total Number of Overseas Players (ordered by largest in 2004)

Country

2003/4

2007/8

2011/12

2015/16

Brazil

124

162

122

136

Argentina

100

89

111

101

Belgium

42

45

49

58

Serbia

41

30

37

49

Senegal

34

46

39

38

Denmark

33

38

29

27

Portugal

32

40

38

45

Uruguay

31

50

41

30

Czech Rep.

31

38

28

15

Ireland

31

26

37

21

Sweden

27

31

34

38

Croatia

26

30

29

36

Côte d'Ivoire

24

28

40

32

Switzerland

19

31

26

43

Poland

15

21

25

31

Key Fluctuations

Below the two major South American countries, it is fascinating to see how the number of foreign players from other countries has fluctuated in the six leagues during the period analysed.

Whilst some countries, such as Belgium, Sweden and Poland have seen an increase in representation during each cycle, others have seen major fluctuations, both ways, over 12 years.

For example, since 2012 Ireland and the Czech Republic have seen major drops, whilst Uruguay have seen their players drop from 50 in 2008 to 30 in 2016. In contrast, Switzerland have had a major jump since 2012, jumping from 26 to 43 players.

Focusing Solely on Players Originally from the Big-Six Countries Playing Abroad

You will notice that in the table and graph above, we have not included overseas players from the six countries we are focusing on. This is because we thought it would be worthwhile reviewing these in isolation.

It is common knowledge that very few English players have appeared in other major top-flight European leagues during the last 12 years, however there was a small increase from 2012 to 2016 of 2 to 7, thanks in part to a number of loanees playing in the Eredivisie last season.

At the other end of the scale, between 2012 and 2016 we have seen major increases in the number of French and Spanish players playing abroad. In 2004, only 17 Spanish players appeared in the other leagues, but by 2016 this figure has risen sharply to 66. After two cycles of gradual decline, the number of French players also rose by over 30 players after 2012.

Interestingly, despite the massive drop in home-players playing in Serie A, the number of Italian players playing abroad in the leagues reviewed has remained relatively stable, which suggests that it is getting harder for Italian players to get elite top-flight football on the continent.

Changes to the Numbers when Focusing Solely on Regular Players

Whilst our main study focused on total players utilised during each season, we also thought it would be worthwhile to filter the players down to focus solely on players who would be considered first-team regulars throughout those seasons.

When we took out the players who had played less than 1500 league minutes during the season, we found that the gulf between Brazil and the other countries shrank significantly. In fact, last season France sandwiched Brazil and Argentina, whilst Spain went from not even being in the top 12 in 2004, to being the fourth most represented nation in 2016.

Part Three: 2015/16 Top Four

A Greater Reliance on Overseas Players

Looking at last season in isolation, it was interesting to see how reliant the clubs who finished in the top-four of each league were on using foreign players on the field, compared to the overall league figures. Only the top-four in the Netherlands used fewer foreign players (32%) in their collective league minutes, compared to the league average of 35.1%

The two countries with the largest differences were Italy and Spain. In Italy, over three-quarters of the total minutes played by top-four players were made by foreigners, compared to the 57.9% league average. Spain’s national average was 42.2%, whilst their top-four used foreign players for 54% of all on-field minutes.

France Sandwich South American Heavyweights in Supply of Players

When looking at the origin of foreign players used by top-four clubs that appeared in more than 1500 minutes during the season, Brazil once again top the list, but what is significant is that the number of French players was substantially higher than Argentina, which was closely followed by Spain and Germany.

What is significant is that nearly 50% of all German players fitting the 1500 minute criteria were playing for top-4 clubs, which suggests that a large proportion of German players currently abroad are appearing for high-achieving clubs.

Part Four: 2015/16 Players U24

A Greater Proportion of Overseas Emerging Players in Italy and Spain

When looking at players aged 24 and under from last season in isolation, we have found that three of the six leagues have a greater proportion of overseas players compared to the total collective squad breakdowns.

The biggest difference can be found in Italy, with a 6% higher volume of foreign players in the U24 bracket compared to the full squads. Spain also has a small 3% increase.

Notably the percentages are lower in both France and Germany, which in the case of France may suggest that older foreign players are being purchased to compensate for home-national players migrating to play in the other major European leagues.

Will Current Trends Continue in Future?

In the last four-year cycle, we have seen massive jumps in the general number of foreign players in Spain and Italy, relative to the numbers seen in 2012, which has also had a direct correlation on the number of minutes on-the-field made by foreign players.

It will be interesting to see if those numbers flatten out, or if we will see the current trends continue.

In addition, given the new Premier League television deals now in place, it will be interesting to see if the total collective minutes made by foreign players exceeds 70% of the league total for the first time in 2016/17.

The Netherlands seem to be bucking the general trend and are actually less reliant on foreign players than at any time in the last 12 years. Does this suggest the country is incredibly efficient in producing players possessing the necessary attributes for their domestic league? Or given their budgets, does it mean that they are very careful and selective with their recruitment of foreign players?

Finally, it is also worth noting how remarkably stable the figures are in terms of the number of foreign players playing in France and Germany. Despite changes to the number of their own players playing abroad, the number of foreign players has barely changed in 12 years. Will this continue? Or will they eventually see changes similar to those that have happened in England and Italy, or more recently Spain.

Only time will tell.

by Andy Cooper PR & Project Manager

Published 29 November 2016

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