As World Cup competition intensifies in the coming weeks, European soccer fans are going to see a lot of familiar faces on their national teams—and on everyone else’s. A huge proportion of players on national teams from the U.S. to Australia spend most of their year in Europe. But if past competitions are any indication, the free flow of players across borders will create a more equal and exciting competition in Brazil. And therein lies a lesson for global migration on and off the pitch.
In a study of the increased globalization of soccer, Chrysovalantis Vasilakis of the University of Warwick found that relaxing rules on player migration confers significant benefits to those who move and to those who stay behind. In 1995, the European Court of Justice ruling made it far easier for players from outside the European Union to play for European soccer clubs, and for players already in the EU to move from one club to another. Vasilakis looked at the distribution of talented players, which he defined as those who have played at least three games for one of the 65 top national teams worldwide in a World Cup year. He also calculated how many of those players are employed by top clubs, and he considered the quality of each league, a measure based on the quality of clubs playing in them.
The European Court ruling led to a significant and swift increase in the proportion of the world’s talented players playing in Europe, Vasilakis found. Before the court’s decision, just six percent of the talented players in European leagues were migrants from outside Europe; four years later, 28 percent were. By 2010 roughly one-third of the most talented players in European clubs came from outside of Europe.
Unsurprisingly, leagues that saw a higher influx of talented players improved: Clubs in the league won more Europewide competitions. Meanwhile, talented players migrated to teams in strong leagues based in countries that were richer, closer to their home country, and shared colonial ties. That meant the better leagues, like the English Premier League or Spain’s Primera Division, extended their lead over other European leagues in countries such as Denmark and Romania. In this case, talented migration into Europe created greater productivity but also increased inequality. Everyone was better off, but it is true the best leagues benefited the most.
There was unvarnished good news for the countries that the talented migrants left behind. First, national teams in origin countries did better in international matchups the more their emigrants played in the top leagues in Europe. Vasiliakis estimates that the impact of greater global mobility of players lifted Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile 25 places or more in the 2010 FIFA rankings of national teams. This is something coaches have understood for years: To be the best, you have to play the best. “The more players we can get playing at the top levels [in Europe], the better it will be,” Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. men’s national team, told the New York Times Magazine. The 1995 European Court ruling made it possible for the most talented players to compete against each other regularly, which, Vasilakis says, should lead to more non-European national teams in the late rounds of the World Cup.
The draw of playing at the highest levels has also encouraged regions including Africa and Central America to produce more skilled players. Vasiliakis suggests that by “increasing the expected return to training, migration prospects foster the number of young players investing in training.” This is an athletic variation of the “brain gain” phenomenon witnessed in other forms of talent migration. The Philippines, for example, is the developing world’s top exporter of trained nurses, but the result isn’t a dearth of medical care in the country. The opposite is true: The lure of opportunities overseas means more people train as medical workers. The Philippines has more nurses as a percentage of its population than the U.K.
That all suggests that the free flow of talent across borders confers substantial benefits all around. It’s one more reason to hope that the U.S. passes comprehensive immigration reform and Europe lurches back from its flirtation with far-right parties. More immediately, it suggests this year’s World Cup might be one of the most exciting to watch in the event’s history—reason enough to celebrate the globalization of the world’s most popular game.