Where do footballers playing in the top five European leagues come from?

Written by Elliot Ross
The CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland (they study football) recently put out an interactive map  trying to show where footballers playing in the top five European leagues come from. Unsurprisingly, West Africa’s big five – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon – dominate the African numbers, each contributing around 20 players. Mali has ten, South Africa four, and perennial trophy-hoisters Egypt just two. Ghanaian representation in the big leagues has more than doubled in just the last four years, but overall the numbers are pretty flat, bad news for anyone fretting about the “progress” of African football.

The picture it presents overall is of top-level European club football being a game played primarily by Western Europeans, Brazilians and Argentinians.

But should we trust this odd-sounding outfit to tell us where the best footballers come from? After all, their rigorous statistical methods told them Chelsea would carry all before them in this season’s Premiership. Fernando Torres’ goals record at Liverpool must have put their analysis all out of whack.

The trouble with their map is that while it claims to show players by country of origin (an elastic category), in fact it shows them according to national affiliation, and this is why it feels like these numbers don’t quite do justice to African involvement.

So Kevin Prince-Boateng (b. Berlin) shows up as Ghanaian, but his brother Jerome, who plays for Germany, doesn’t. Mario Balotelli and Danny Wellbeck, strikers on either half of Manchester, were both born to Ghanaian parents before opting to represent Italy and England respectively. Are these players African?

DR Congo is shown as contributing only a single player to the top leagues (which must be nonsense even by the methods applied), but a player like Vincent Kompany, the current captain of Belgium and Manche$ter City, could easily have represented the DRC instead, as could Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku.

A more interesting map might look at how players representing European national teams have roots all over the world.

It’s also worth remarking that prohibitive Visa regulations make it extremely difficult for players from low FIFA-ranking countries to get work permits in European countries. Even three hours of dogged dialing from Raila Odinga couldn’t get McDonald Mariga a work permit in time for him to complete his mooted transfer to Manchester City in 2010, the work permit rules for the UK being among the most exclusionary.

Countries like Zambia, Malawi and Botswana are locked out of the scouting network for European clubs, which have few links with academies outside of the West African superpowers. If another Eusebio turned up in Maputo today, there’s a good chance he would never make it to Benfica.

4 thoughts on “Where do footballers playing in the top five European leagues come from?

  1. Your final point is a very relevant. Watching Zambia their technical quality seemed more impressive than European star studded Senegal, yet most Zambians are African based club players. A similar point extends to Egypt as well, although their players decide to stay at home because of a better domestic league.

  2. Thanks for this.

    Nice to hear about the near global dominance of African ( and West African) sportsmen without the usual Darwinian claptrap about ‘fast twitch muscles’ and other such ‘inborn’ traits.

    There are many dimensions to West African dominance of the European leagues. One downside is that the wholesale movement of good players (and the desire to do so) to Europe may have compromised domestic leagues in Africa. North Africans have supplied fewer players to Europe and seem to have florishing domestic leagues that produce great national sides. And perhaps better players. Remember Belloumi?

    There are so many African players in the English premiership that the timing of African Cup of Nations, and the exodus of players from contending clubs to Africa, is now widely seen as a factor in deciding the premiership title.

    And yes, if we were to include players who have recent origins in Africa it would include many more than you mention. Chris Samba, Patrice Evra, Nzonzi, Fabrice Muwamba, Louis Saha, Shola Ameobi and his brother, etc etc. And then there are the bi-racial players with an African parent…..We could go on and on.

  3. Interesting read, but I think it’s fair to only include those who plays for African teams. Otherwise it would not show information about the state of African football.

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