Playing in the top leagues in the world is what every young player dreams of the moment they decide to turn their hobby into a serious pursuit and make it a career. With the top flights of England, Spain, Italy and Germany being the ultimate destination for tens of thousands of ambitious footballers and coaches from every corner of the globe those leagues cease to be strictly domestic. They have become the pinnacle for the best of the best and therefore international in nature from the supporters to backroom staff. This makes them less about developing local players and more about rewarding players for reaching an elite level.
Almost every league outside these four, assumes the role of developer of talent. Leagues are like rungs on a ladder and players climb those rungs as their ability improves. Countries like Croatia, Belgium, Portugal, Argentina and so on continue to produce elite players who often go on to be the leading players at some of the biggest clubs in the world. However, their domestic leagues are a far cry from the Premier League or Bundesliga in terms of overall quality and competitiveness.
Neymar, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric are just an example of the world class talent coming out of countries whose leagues are seen as feeders to the top European clubs and leagues. With the increased movement of players and coaches, league strength – although it plays a part in the overall strength of the talent pool – doesn’t seem as important as it used to be, at least in terms of competing internationally.
Taking a look at various second and third tier leagues from around the world, it is interesting to see the focus on local talent versus imported players. There are certain squad rules for different competitions as well as other factors which play a part in the make up of squads but the question is how much is development of local talent an underlying issue for clubs which are more or less separate entities answerable only to their own fans.
Talent pool, scouting networks and financial constraints might have more of an impact than regulations put in place by national and regional bodies.
Segunda División (Spain)
In the 2016/17 season, the 22 clubs with their match day squads of 18 contested 42 rounds not including promotion playoffs. There are no limits on EU players but for non-EU players there is a limit of two per team.
There were 242 starting spots up for grabs per round of which 19.6% of them were taken up by non-Spanish players or around 2.2 players per side.
Levante won automatic promotion and the league by 14 points with a focus on local players, often only including 1 non-Spanish player in the starting lineup. On the other hand, Mirandés finished bottom of the league and were relegated without using any foreign players.
Getafe and Real Valladolid used around 4 to 5 non-Spanish starters per game and finished third and seventh respectively.
The Eredivisie has no limits on where players are from as long as non-EU players have a salary of around €400,000. There are 18 teams who compete in 34 regular season games and they can name up to 12 subs on match day.
Due to the colonial history of the Netherlands they have a lot of international players from African and Caribbean nations but most of them were born locally. Around 35% of starting members in the Dutch league were not born in the Netherlands.
2016/17 Champions, Feyenoord, usually started 3 imported players which was similar to the relegated and bottom placed, Go Ahead Eagles. Teams such as Twente, Heerenveen, NEC and Vitesse often put out teams of more than half non-Dutch origins. Dutch giants, PSV and Ajax would name matchday squads of up to 9 or 10 imports but usually only around 4 to 5 would start.
Liga NOS (Portugal)
Portugal’s top flight has 18 teams who play 34 rounds with 18 member matchday squads. Portugal are the current European champions and have arguably the best player in the world in their ranks. Liga NOS has traditional European powers in Benfica and FC Porto while Sporting is also well-known as a team that produces a lot of top quality footballers.
There are a limit of four non-Portuguese players on the pitch at the same time however Brazilian players are exempt. It wasn’t unusual to see clubs in the 2016/17 season fielding up to 10 non-Portuguese players in a game with more on the bench.
Up to 54% of the starting spots on matchday in Portugal went to non-Portuguese players.
Portugal are the 9th largest exporter of players with up to 392 playing professionally abroad.
1. HNL (Croatia)
The Croatian top flight is known for being a prodigious supplier of talented footballers despite not having the club success in Europe that they once did. There are 10 teams in the 36-round top flight and the matchday squads have 18 members.
Around 30% of the starting spots are taken up by non-Croatian players with the bigger clubs such as Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split and Rijeka often using from 5 to 7 imports from kickoff.
Cibalia and RNK Split were both relegated. Cibalia would often field starting lineups of Croatian players whereas RNK would start from 2 to 4 non-Croatian players.
Croatia export the 7th highest amount of players in world football with 477 professional players overseas.
The J League follows the AFC’s 3 plus 1 rule which allows sides to field three non-Asian players plus one Asian player not from that league’s country. There are 18 teams in J1, 18 players in the matchday squads and they play 36 rounds.
Despite being allowed to field up to 4 non-Japanese players, only about 15% of starting spots are used by foreign players.
Urawa Reds had the overall best record in 2016 and is one of the richest clubs in the competition but would often not start any foreign players. Kashima Antlers – who won the championship – also weren’t fussed to use their starting spots on foreign players, often starting with only one and even zero visa signings.
Nagoya Grampus and Avispa Fukuoka were both relegated despite often starting their 3 allowed non-Asian players.
Japan provides around 85 players to other Asian leagues which makes it the second highest of Asian countries and 4th overall.
K League Classic (South Korea)
Like J1, the K League has adopted the 3 plus 1 rule. There are 12 teams and 33 rounds for the 18 member matchday squads. Also like their Japanese counterparts, Korean sides didn’t hesitate last season to rely on local talent with only about 16% of the starting spots going to non-Korean players.
FC Seoul won the league and occasionally fielded their full compliment of visa signings. Jeonbuk finished runners up and only had three foreign players – opting not to sign an Asian player – but often only started two of them at a time.
Sangju Sangmu is the football team of the South Korean military and is made up of young footballers fulfilling their compulsory military service so naturally they didn’t use any foreign players.
Suwon FC and Seongnam FC were relegated with the former starting up to four foreign players (two being Australians Bruce Djite and Adrian Leijer) while the latter would usually start only 1 or 2 foreign players.
Of the Asian nations, South Korea has the most players playing in other Asian leagues at 106, this is the third highest of all nations.
Australia has a 10 team national league that plays 27 regular season rounds, 9 of those teams are based in Australia while one is Wellington, New Zealand. There is a limit of five non-Australian signings per team, from anywhere in the world.
Last season 29% of the starting spots of the Australian-based teams were taken up by imports. Sydney FC won the league, often only going with three non-Australians while Newcastle Jets who finished bottom also rarely went above two or three.
One trend amongst most A-League sides was that when their foreign players were fit and available, they started. Western Sydney and Perth Glory more often than other sides would have two of their imports in the bench.
Major League Soccer (USA)
The 2016 MLS had 20 teams split into 2 conferences with 3 sides from Canada. Excluding the Canadian teams, the 17 US sides gave 52% of their starting positions to non-US born players.
Foreign player spots are not fixed to teams but to the league. In the latest guidelines, there are 176 international slots for the current 22 teams in the competition. Teams can trade for those spots meaning some teams can acquire the right to more foreign players while others can give up their rights.
New York City, Portland Timbers and Orlando City were the teams who consistently had the most foreign players in their starting lineup, often being between 8 to 10 players. Sporting Kansas City and New England Revolution rarely started around 3 to 4 foreign players per game.
Serie A (Brazil)
Brazil is still the top exporter of football talent across the globe. It’s first division has 20 teams, playing 38 rounds.
The clubs can have a maximum of 5 non-Brazilian players in their squads. Despite this allowance, most clubs routinely started no more than 2 foreign signings. Only around 9% of available starting spots were taken up by non-Brazilian signings on matchday.
In the 2016 season, Palmeiras were champions. They often fielded all-Brazilian sides throughout the season. São Paulo – who finished 10th – used the most foreign players in their starting lineup often opting for 3 or 4 a game.
Population plays a part in the reliance on locals or foreign players. Brazil has the second largest population (207 million) of the leagues looked at but the lowest use of foreign players. Football is the most popular sport which could help explain this but as we see with Japan it isn’t the only explanation.
Japan has the third highest population (127 million) and the second lowest usage of foreign players but football isn’t the most popular sport. Both countries have limits on the number of foreign players but neither comes close to using the spots allocated for imported players.
Croatia has the smallest population at 4 million while being the second highest exporter of players amongst this group of countries. It’s use of foreign players is in the middle of the pack at 30% but like Brazil, football is the main sport of interest.
Portugal has the second lowest population (10 million) but the highest use of foreign players in the starting lineups. Portugal have eight more first division teams than Croatia, the same number as Japan and only 2 less than Brazil. Unlike Japan and Brazil, they have no player limits and are members of the EU which makes it easier for importing foreign talent.
The US has the largest population (323 million) and the second highest usage of foreign players. Despite a 2012 study that showed around 30% of US households having someone who plays football, the overall popularity of the sport is still behind the traditional powers such as baseball and American Football.
Standard of the local players is an important factor. The demand for top Brazilian, Croatian, Portuguese and Dutch talent means that their best players are often snapped up by clubs in bigger leagues. The average player in those countries tends to be better than what is available in most other countries which sees Brazilian and Croatian players in particular spread around all the corners of the globe.
Playing outside their native countries can be a very good career path for many whether they are above or below the national standard of the first division in their own countries.
Brazil has the population and player pool to keep replenishing their stocks as does Croatia who with only 10 teams in the first division, don’t have as many spots to fill. Even without clear player limits in Croatia, they still produce enough players to not have to rely too heavily on imports.
Japan and South Korea are in a similar position to each other. Both countries produce high level players for their region, yet being Asian, moves to Europe can be more difficult than for other regions whether it be due to bureaucracy, perception of ability, culturally or economically.
Japanese and Korean players can make good money in their league and they can get good money as the plus one in other Asian leagues. Their playing standards being so high – for Asia – means that clubs in these leagues don’t recruit as much from other Asian countries because they are producing local players of an equal or better standard.
The economics of the leagues is another very important factor. The money on offer to go abroad is a big incentive for players of all standards. A Brazilian player doesn’t need to be a star in the Brazilian top flight to go abroad and make a good living from the game in a lower standard league abroad.
Players from countries with weaker economies will also be targets for richer leagues. In Australia, there’s been an influx of Spanish players because the overall quality is good but given the economic conditions of the country, they don’t carry the same price tag they once would’ve.
Many of the foreign players in Portugal are from South America and Africa, in the Eredivisie there are many Caribbean and African nationals. Given the historical and economic considerations, it isn’t a surprise to see these leagues utilize the best talents of those regions.
England is not known for being an exporter of players because today there is so much money throughout the leagues. League Two – the fourth division – has an average salary of over 67,000AUD which is only about 12,000AUD a year less than the Belgian Pro League, arguably less of a gap than the playing standard. It is no surprise then that English footballers prefer to stay in England albeit in lower leagues than go abroad.
A large talent pool appears to be key for most clubs in the above leagues when recruiting local players. Even within those leagues there are different rungs that clubs sit on. In Croatia, Portugal and Holland the bigger clubs use the most foreign players but they also lose a lot of players to overseas clubs.
The teams below them seem to be the ones who give local players their start and don’t – for reasons of economics and standard – import talent as much. These clubs are often rewarded financially when their local talent reaches a level that attracts the interests of the bigger clubs within the league or clubs from leagues abroad.
Culture, standard and economics seem to be more important than player restrictions imposed on leagues by governing bodies. In Korea, Japn and Brazil the clubs didn’t go close to using all their allocated foreign spots on the starting spots or even matchday squad.
It is clear that the more opportunities given to local players to move up the rungs of the footballing ladder – which includes those higher overseas leagues – the more it will benefit at the very top.
Many of these leagues and their clubs seem to have accepted their role and position in the global game which has allowed them to grow and develop in unison. A natural environment and football culture seems to be more conducive to development than any artificial equalisers.