The global game — analysing international imports in Europe’s top five leagues

The Premier League. It’s the global game.

As the most-watched sports league in the world, the English top flight is estimated to have an annual broadcast audience of 4.7 billion — eyeballs that fuel the enormous amounts of money that swirl around the division.

However, the Premier League does not actually boast the most globally diverse number of players this season, with 68 nationalities represented across the 20 English teams.

Who has the widest representation across Europe’s top five leagues this campaign? That would be Italy, with players from 72 different countries represented in Serie A.

If you like this sort of football/geography content, you should stick around.

It will surprise no one to learn that the greatest share of players in each of the top five European leagues are those from the nation that the league is played in. The German Bundesliga largely consists of German players — what a shock!

But let’s dig deeper and explore how the spread of nationalities has evolved over the past decade. 

How much African representation is there in Ligue 1? And are we seeing more Brazilian players in the Premier League than ever?

The Premier League is a melting pot of nationalities that has fuelled the quality of football on display. From Frenchman Eric Cantona helping Manchester United to win the title in 1992-93 to Norwegian Erling Haaland smashing scoring records in 2022-23, players from overseas have lit up the division.

However, reduced opportunity for English talent to thrive became a growing concern — less than a third of players in the Premier League in 2013-14 come from, or are affiliated, with England.

Since then, there has been a steady rise, with 41 per cent of all players being English in 2021-22. This increase was accelerated by then-FA chairman Greg Dyke introducing a rule change in 2015 stipulating all clubs must include a minimum number of homegrown players in their Premier League squad. 

And while the overall trend points to increasing opportunities for English talent to prosper in the Premier League, it should be noted that there has been a notable drop this season. 

Brexit’s impact on transfers — where players need sufficient governing body endorsement (GBE) points to obtain a work permit to play in the Premier League — was intended to give greater opportunity to English talent, but a recent report from football analytics specialist Analytics FC suggests that these regulations have not had a significant impact when it comes to domestic playing time.

England’s share of domestic talent is made starker when compared with the rest of Europe’s top five leagues, as none of those divisions has less than 40 per cent of homegrown players playing.

La Liga boasts the highest share of domestic players, with more than 50 per cent of the division being made up of Spaniards across the past decade. 

Though the German Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 have stayed fairly consistent in recent years, Italy’s Serie A looks to be on a downward trajectory.

Forty per cent of their league representation is made up of Italian players this season — their lowest in a decade — with the president of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriele Gravina, highlighting the fact that there is cause for concern when it comes to nurturing talent within Italy. 

“The first few games weren’t positive, we hardly saw any (young Italian players),” Gravina said at the start of this season. “Then 67 per cent of the players are foreigners and this is not a good sign. However, there are some clubs that manage to enhance our talents, which isn’t lacking, and some are attractive even abroad.”

When it comes to player recruitment, which nations does each league most commonly look to outside of their native country?

The Premier League has had representation from 110 different countries in the last decade — more than any of the other top five European divisions.

Neighbouring Wales and Scotland unsurprisingly rank among the highest nations represented, but the largest volume of minutes played by players from a country outside the United Kingdom since 2012-13 is Spain (516,427 minutes).

Closely behind Spain is a large French contingent, but the growth in Brazilian talent has been particularly interesting. 

Just 14 Brazilian players were playing in the Premier League in 2012-13 — largely at Manchester United (Anderson and Rafael), Liverpool (Lucas Leiva and Philippe Coutinho) and Chelsea (Oscar, Ramires, David Luiz and Lucas Piazon).

In 2022-23, Brazil now has 36 players across 15 clubs — the highest volume of Brazilian representation in the history of the Premier League. This figure is only set to increase, with the GBE regulations meaning South American leagues are likely to provide more value for money in the transfer market. 

In La Liga, it is hardly surprising to see such widespread South American representation, with Argentina and Brazil the most represented nations outside of native Spanish players. 

Meanwhile, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile are also among the top 15 countries represented in the Spanish top flight over the last decade, with Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez and Arturo Vidal among the most well-known players from those nations.

The most obvious non-native player in La Liga in the past decade would be a certain Argentinian named Lionel Messi. Indeed, many of the league’s most famous players from over the years have origins outside of Spain — including Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Ronaldo Nazario (Brazil), Johan Cruyff (the Netherlands), Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano (both Argentina).

In the Bundesliga, border nations France, Austria and Switzerland make up the top three best-represented nations apart from Germany, with the increase in the number of French players being particularly notable.

Just three Frenchmen were plying their trade in the Bundesliga in 2012-13 — Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich), Matthieu Delpierre (Hoffenheim) and Jonathan Schmid (SC Freiburg). 

This season, that number is 42 players. French stars such as Benjamin Pavard, Dayot Upamecano, Christopher Nkunku, Randal Kolo Muani and Moussa Diaby are all showing that you can still be noticed by your international manager via a Bundesliga lens.

Furthermore, there continues to be a healthy smattering of Brazilian influence in Germany, as the league’s fifth-most represented nation. Those South Americans know ball.

This is reinforced further when looking at Serie A, where Argentine and Brazilian players have hoovered up the most minutes apart from Italians.

Beyond the obvious footballing nations, there has been a notable collection of Serbian, Croatian and Albanian players making the short journey across to Italy in the past decade.

Indeed, Italy has had a long-standing relationship with Balkan players  — cult heroes Goran Pandev, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Dejan Stankovic all forged their reputations in Serie A.

More recently, Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus), Edin Dzeko and Marcelo Brozovic (both Inter Milan) and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio) are just some of the names continuing the impressive lineage, with nearly 10 per cent of Serie A players coming from Balkan nations this season. 

Finally, Ligue 1 leads the way when it comes to Europe’s largest representation of players from African nations, partially as a consequence of France’s colonial history.

Francophone nations such as Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon are all among the top 10 countries represented here, alongside north African nations such as Algeria and Morocco.

Countless African legends have passed through Ligue 1 during their illustrious careers, including Jay-Jay Okocha, Didier Drogba and George Weah.

Those Brazilian magicians are also in the top five best-represented countries in France’s top flight.

As the planet’s “global league”, the Premier League has many international imports, but, from a British perspective, are we seeing more domestic players plying their trade in mainland Europe?

Once again, GBE regulations are making it increasingly difficult for British players to play in EU countries, but there has been a notable increase in the raw number of British exports featuring in the other leagues that make up the continent’s top five.

Since 2017-18, British players have enjoyed a steady rise in playing time abroad — with 30 of them getting experience outside of the UK (in the other four of the top five leagues) this season. 

Jude Bellingham (English) is the poster boy for success in the Bundesliga, following in the footsteps of Jadon Sancho (English) in making a name for himself at Borussia Dortmund. However, a word must also go to 18-year-old forward Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (English), who has made some impressive cameos for Dortmund this season, scoring three goals in his 400 minutes on the pitch in the league.

In Serie A, Tammy Abraham and Chris Smalling are flying the English flag in Roma shirts, with Fikayo Tomori (also English) establishing himself as one of the league’s most exciting talents at AC Milan. Meanwhile, young Scots Josh Doig and Lewis Ferguson are regulars at Hellas Verona and Bologna.

In Ligue 1, Englishman Folarin Balogun is having the season of his career in France, with his 15 goals putting him behind only Kylian Mbappe in the scoring charts. Elsewhere, Rennes boast two British players in the form of Wales’ Joe Rodon and the English Djed Spence, while Nice’s squad contains Aaron Ramsey (Welsh), Ross Barkley (English) and Joe Bryan (English).

Finally, it is notable how few British players have made the journey to La Liga in the past decade. Gareth Bale (Welsh) has been the sole representative at times, with the 2019-20 season’s three players — Bale, Kieran Trippier (English) and Oliver Burke (Scottish) being the highest collection of British exports in a single campaign in the past decade.

Wales, golf, Madrid”, indeed.

Whatever your opinion on the diversity of your favoured leagues and the development of domestic talent within them, the numbers suggest that Europe’s top five divisions are continuing to become more diverse as football’s popularity grows and grows.

(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

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