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.

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