Football transfers: A globalized market organized in networks

The mobility of players is not new. However, its global value and volume are today more important than ever. In this market, deployed over two periods of activity called "Summer Mercato" and "Winter Mercato", we can observe strategies on the part of clubs centered on one principle in particular: an increasing separation between the places of players’ training and the places of their employment. Transfer networks that respond to sporting, economic, and cultural logics have thus been built and consolidated, resulting in mobility routes that are now established.

The nerve center of this market is Europe. Poli and Ravenel explain this by the fact that "there [is] no disconnect between the sports geography and the geography of the real world. We will find in sport the dominations or the international geographic organization that we find in the economy and cultural domination. Sport reproduces the same pattern. There is no reason why sport as an economic, human and social activity should have patterns that are totally independent of what will exist in real life. There is a domination, in football, with a center that remains Europe [concentrating] the major clubs and a large part of the [well-known] players."

Poli and Ravenel also argue that the transfer networks’ strategies are organized in a way which is similar to that of the international division of labor: Some clubs are producers, others are stepping stones, and finally some are users. Thus, two broad categories of football nations have emerged: those who export and those who import, shown in Table 1. These two categories are not exclusive. The countries of the so-called European top 5 (with the exception of Italy, i.e., England, France, Germany, and Spain) are present in both tables. This is due to the very high level of football’s development in these leagues as well as their financial importance.

The table shows the number of “expatriate players” imported or exported, respectively. The International Centre for Sports Studies CIES defines an expatriate player as "a player who has grown up outside the national association of the club of employment and has gone abroad for sporting reasons." This is a standardized criterion for all leagues covered, so that comparisons can be made. Data for our analysis are those provided by the CIES Football Observatory in May 2019.

144 professional and semi-professional leagues are observed. The disparity in the number of associations covered per confederation[1] depends on two factors: geographical size and the availability of information on the number of teams involved; while all European countries are covered, in Africa only four competitions spread over three territories (South Africa - Algeria - Tunisia) are included.

Import: Expatriate players in Europe, the Americas, and Asia

In Europe, there is a very pronounced inter-continental mobility (65%). All confederations have players active outside their home territory. In the top ten countries exporting to Europe, we find Brazil with 824 players, or 9% of the total. France ranks second, with 727 players, followed by Serbia with 424 players. In terms of countries outside Europe, behind Brazil are Argentina (265), and Nigeria (249).

In the Americas, intra-continental mobility is very strong. The only exception are the 41 English players, the majority of whom play in the United States. Nine of the ten other countries that provide the largest contingents of expatriates are in the same geographical area. A proximity logic is therefore favored here. The first country is Argentina, with 456 players. Then come Colombia (234), Uruguay (216), and Paraguay (120). Brazil, although being the first exporting nation of players worldwide, is only 5th in its region, with 105 players.

When it comes to recruiting players abroad, Asian clubs have a clear tendency to go to other confederations. Almost a quarter (24%) of the expatriate footballers in Asia are the 306 Brazilians playing there. 199 European players, all nationalities included, are present in in Asia. The Spanish are the most present (67), followed by the French (41) and the Serbians (35). 39 Nigerian players are also to be noted, as another indicator that shows the integration of the Asian market in the global transfer market. Regarding the mobility between Asian countries, only two AFC countries are present in the ranking: South Korea (76) and Japan (46).

Export: Destinations of expatriate players

All European clubs use expatriate players. The main consequence of the Bosman[2] ruling is that more than 90% of UEFA nationals play in another country of the confederation, since there are no legal restrictions on their intra-continental mobility. The validation of a single labor market for European footballers within the European space has opened up employment opportunities for them, making European countries their preferred destination.

The South American transfer market has very strong intra-continental connections. The expatriate players from these countries, especially from Brazil, are very present in Europe and Asia, but even more so in the regional South American market where internationally known leagues such as the Brazilian or Argentine league are desirable destinations.

The same logic as in the Americas can be seen in Asia. Expatriate players from this part of the world are highly mobile within the continent, particularly to the Japanese and Singaporean leagues. In addition, two European countries appear in the ranking of their top 10 destinations. These are Germany, fourth with 21 players (including 9 South Koreans and 6 Japanese) and England, eighth with 19 players.

One reason for this is the increased exposure that Asian football received in the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan. The second factor is the implementation of recruitment strategies in countries targeted as potential economic markets, particularly in terms of television broadcasting rights and merchandising, by clubs which are recruiting Asian players in the hope that this will attract fans from Asian markets.

Faced with material and organizational difficulties, particularly in terms of training, African countries are experiencing a flight of muscle depriving them of their best young age talents. Their first-choice destination is Europe. With the Bosman ruling, players from Africa have seen their proportion of expatriates decrease. They have benefited less from this opening than European and, especially, South American players. Still, it remains to be noted the emergence of a regional market with the South African championship as its home base. Also, North African countries whose competitions are in the process of professionalization, are becoming increasingly attractive to players from the African continent, despite the fact that quotas of foreign players (often limited to four on the game sheet) reduce their potential mobility.

Export countries: A zoom on Brazil, France and Argentina

Brazil: A wide-spread positive football image that benefits the export of players

Brazilians are the number one expatriate players in the world. Cultural, socio-economic and sporting factors can explain this unchallenged position since the Bosman ruling.

Football is a strong element of identification for this country, whose international footballers, from Pele to Ronaldo, have always played the role of ambassadors in terms of image. Beyond this stereotypical image, many other factors must be considered when looking at this global expatriation, starting with the social structure of a country that offers little hope of social mobility for youth coming come from low-income backgrounds.

These difficulties are added to a Brazilian football system with structural flaws resulting in fragile business models for the clubs. Brazilian clubs rely mainly on transfers, especially internationally, based on the positive image of Brazilian players as technically very proficient. aided by the positive stereotypes associated with the technical value of the Brazilian player. "There is a hierarchy of relations between the big Brazilian clubs and the base, which, through a very selective system, will allow the best talents to emerge, to the detriment of the great mass of young people. Added to this are the direct relationships that foreign clubs have with their Brazilian counterparts, often created and maintained by former players." (Rial, 2015, 64).

As such, the Brazilian player enjoys what Ravenel (2018) calls "an exceptional competitive advantage." He explains this by the positive stereotype attached to Brazilian players that presents, according to him, a selling point. Corroborating this, Ribeiro and Dimeo (2009, 732) quote a Brazilian agent placing his players in the Faroe Islands and Iceland: "It is much easier to place a Brazilian footballer than a footballer of another nationality. There is an international fashion for the Brazilian. [...] The Brazilian always has the image of kindness, of party, of carnival. It doesn't matter how talented you are, it's always very attractive to have a Brazilian in your team.

Thus, 1262 Brazilian players are present in 86 world championships. Their number one destination remains Portugal (260). In addition to the language community, Brazilian players find, in Portugal, administrative facilities to boost their career: After one year in the country, they can ask for a special status allowing them not to be considered as foreign players and to pass under the radar of the quotas applied to foreign players. Also, access to a Portuguese nationality is easy for them. This allows them to access the European market, without restrictions based on their nationality of origin, and with the help of pre-established networks by the Portuguese clubs, renowned in this field.

In the rest of Europe, Brazilians are mainly present in the Mediterranean basin such as Italy (69), Spain (46), Turkey (35). In Asia, it is the Japanese clubs (65) that call upon them the most. By transferring to lower-rated leagues, these players hope gain exposure in order to join more prestigious clubs, often European, later on. Finally, it can be said that Brazilian footballers "are a bit like American basketball players, namely a globalized workforce, present in all countries and regardless of the level of sport." (Ravenel, 2017)

France: An established training system for mass players export

More than 800 of French players are expatriates, in 70 countries. It is the leading European country in this regard, and the second in the world. This mobility is helped by proximity: the host countries are often those bordering, or close to, France. Other geographical areas are also recruiting French players, notably the Americas with the American championship, Asia with the championships of the Gulf States and Africa with the championships in the North of the continent.

Ravenel (2017) indicates that "the French training system, set up early in the 1970s to improve the level of footballers, has become a reference throughout the world both for the quality and the quantity of the players trained."

In 2021, 37 training centers were recognized by the French Football Federation. It is a very highly competitive system where places are worth a lot. From a quantitative point of view, the three French professional leagues include 1.100 professional players. The training centers train no less than 1.800 players. The liberalization of the European market due to the Bosman ruling has provided opportunities to players who did not manage to impose themselves in their local clubs, as well as to players whose technical value allows them to target big foreign clubs.

The cultural factor is also to be taken into account in the explanation of these transfers. Some players prefer to stay in Europe and aim for moderately competitive leagues such as Luxembourg (71), Romania (29) or Switzerland (28), while others choose to join the leagues of countries in which they can be counted as a domestic player because of their nationality.

Argentina: Transfer networks based on historical and cultural links

With 713 expatriate players in 58 countries, Argentina ranks third in the world among the top football exporting nations. Unlike Brazil and like France, players stay largely within the region. The main destinations for Argentinian players are Chile and Mexico. Outside of South America, the presence of Argentinian players is notable in Spain (59) and Italy (50), with an almost complete absence in other parts of the world.

To explain the strong presence of Argentine players in the South American regional market, in addition to the recognized quality of their training and the history of their national team that contributes to their positive image, the shared language is obviously a factor of integration with their teammates, but also facilitates daily life. This has led to the creation of strong networks between Argentina and clubs in other Latin American countries, supporting players’ search for employment. Argentinean players combine the cultural proximity to other countries in the region with their sporting achievements to position themselves as the essential expatriate players on the American continent.

As for Europe, the presence of Argentinean players can be explained by the historical notion of Oriundi. These are Argentine and Uruguayan footballers of Italian origin who, from the 1920s onwards, were integrated into the Italian national team, contributing to the 1934 and 1938 World Cup victories.

With easy access to Italian nationality, they symbolized the strong cultural link between Mediterranean Europe and South America. Later, in the 1950s, the emblematic figure of Alfredo Di Stefano, an Argentine player of Italian origin, played a prominent role. Considered as one of the best players in history, he represented Argentina and then Spain at the international level and wore, among others, the colors of Real Madrid, winner of the first major European titles. Italy and Spain will thus remain the two preferred destinations, in Europe, of Argentine players after their debut in local clubs. In addition to these two countries, there is also a preference of Argentine players for Latin countries such as Greece, Malta and Cyprus.

Globalization, whose two main features are the concentration of economic power and the dispersion of production factors, is characteristic of the professional football transfer market, organized in networks. The winners of this order of things are the best clubs in the most financially competitive leagues. These dominant teams can concentrate talent even more strongly than in the past. This process lies at the heart of the deterioration of the competitive balance in Europe.

In the history of football, foreign players have long held a prominent place in teams. The existence of quotas limiting their presence forced clubs to be very targeted in their international recruitment. This situation has changed a lot today, especially in Europe. The abandonment or weakening of quotas in Europe has led to an increase in the flow of expatriate players. The main beneficiaries of the liberalization of the market in the wake of the Bosman ruling are the top clubs in the most financially powerful leagues, as these dominant teams can accumulate talent even more strongly than before.

However, the ability to recruit the best players regardless of their origin can be a trap. It can lead to clubs restricting or abandoning the development of local players and engaging in speculative bidding for the best foreign players, in a way that runs counter to the sustainability of clubs. An additional threat is that of a perpetuation of the flight of muscle from southern countries to northern countries, but this may be disguised because strong regional logics remain present in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.


[1] AFC: Asian Football Confederation
CAF: Confederation of African Football
CONCACAF: Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football
CONMEBOL: South American Football Confederation
UEFA: Union of European Football Associations

[2] The Bosman ruling is a 1995 ruling of the European Court of Justice, which has banned restrictions on foreign EU players within national leagues and allowed players in the EU to move to another club at the end of a contract without a transfer fee being paid.


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Ravenel, L., Poli, R., & Besson, R. (2017). Les footballeurs expatriés dans le monde. Géographie et cultures, (104), 37-56.

Rial, C. (2015). Circulation, bubbles, returns: the mobility of Brazilians in the football system », in Elliott, R. & Harris, J. Football and migration: perspectives, places, players, London, Routledge. 61-75.

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