Monday, June 13, 2016

The Euros and the mobility of labour

The second-biggest football tournament in the world has kicked off in France.

When the French team won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Cup consisted predominantly of non-white players with an immigrant background. When the Swiss voted on yet another anti--immigration referendum, the national football team had only 3 of the starting 11 players who were not from an immigrant background). A growing number of players are gaining citizenship because of immigration, in most cases by their parents or even grandparents. While this has been going on for many years - the Republic of Ireland was one of the first to use “heritage” to recruit an almost exclusively English (or Irish descent) team - more and more new(er) and small(er) nations are doing it these days - this is described in James Montague’s recent book ‘Thirty One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey.’ Both Granit and Taulant Xhaka were born in Switzerland from parents who immigrated from Albania. Superstar Granit plays for Switzerland, while brother Taulant chose Albania. Albanian fans also heartily booed Kosovo-born Swiss players Valon Behrami and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Players of national teams have to hold citizenship of the country (nation) they represent, but they don’t have to play in the domestic leagues of that country. And the vast majority of them don’t. Only 206 of the 552 players (37 percent) play in their domestic league - in addition, two Welsh players play for a Welsh team in the English Premier League (another example of British exceptionalism). Just one “country” has selected all its 23 players from its own league: England. Russia and Ukraine come close, with 22 and 21, respectively. However, in most cases the national team is a selection of players from many different leagues; in the extreme cases of both Slovakia and Sweden the 23 national players come from clubs in 13 different countries. Hence, while there are 24 national teams at the EURO 2016, there are players from 36 different national leagues - and 38 different FIFA members, as there is one player from a Canadian team, which plays in the Major League Soccer of the United States, in addition to the Welsh anomaly discussed before. Ten players even play outside of Europe: 3 in Qatar, 2 in the US, and one each in Australia, Canada, China, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. In other words, players from leagues in five of the six inhabited continents are represented at the “European” Championship.

140 of the 552 players (25 percent) are under contract at an English club - while some are the stars of major clubs like Chelsea (like Belgian striker Eden Hazard) or Manchester United (like Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea), many are at best bench warmers, willing to give up playing time for lucrative salaries. No less than 5 national teams have a majority who play for English teams - in addition to the three UK teams (England, Northern Ireland and Wales) also Belgium and Ireland, while France is just one short of a majority. Only the German Bundesliga comes close to this dominance, with just 3 countries (unsurprisingly: Austria, Germany, and Switzerland).

Just 8 of the 24 national teams have a majority of players under contract with domestic teams; unsurprisingly almost all big countries with rich leagues (i.e. England, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and Turkey). The main odd one out is Hungary, which has 12 players from its impoverished domestic league, while Ukraine, with 21 domestic players, is a poor league with a couple of well-paying teams. Six teams have a plurality of domestic players, although in Croatia and Sweden this is shared with a foreign country (Italy and Denmark, respectively). Two teams have no domestic players at all (Iceland and Ireland), while Wales has just the two players from Welsh team Swansea City in the English Premier League. In additions, three countries have only 3 domestic players (Belgium, Slovakia and Switzerland, one 2 (Albania), and two 1 (Austria and Northern Ireland).

At this highest podium of European football 49 players (9 percent) are under contract with a team that does not play in the highest division of that country! The vast majority of them play in the second divisions of England, Germany and Italy, but 4 play in the English Third Division (League One) and 1 in the Italian Third Division (Lega Pro). And this is not even counting the player from a club in Liechtenstein, which plays in the Second Division in Switzerland.

What this all shows is that the European Championship is an increasingly global and globalized event. Not only do British citizens play for a multitude of “national” teams (including Ireland), but “Albanians” play for Switzerland and “Swiss” for Albania. Teammates from big German, English, Italian and Spanish clubs compete for different national teams. Most national teams are combinations of “native natives,” “native immigrants,” and “non-native immigrants,” just like their broader populations. Many are “guest workers,” hardly ever playing their games before their own national audiences - or even for foreign audiences, as they spend most of their career on the benches of (rich) clubs in the rich leagues.


The big European leagues clearly profit from the influx of foreign players, as do their main clubs - as can be seen from the international make-up of teams like Chelsea, Juventus, or Real Madrid. But this is not always the case for the national teams. The best example of this complex relationship is England, which has for decades now been the most important destination for foreign players. While it has seen big successes for national clubs (like Chelsea and Manchester United, its national team continues to struggle and hasn’t won a major tournament since 1966.

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