Following yet another World Cup that ended in failure there was the usual post-tournament analysis to dissect the reasons England consistently falls short at major tournaments. “We need to be more like Germany” is the new “We need to be more like Spain. Let’s bring some tiki-taka to the Stadium of Light”.
One of the most popular exercises repeated every two years is the pointing of fingers at the number of foreigners in the Premier League.
It is true that the Premier League has more foreign players compared to other top divisions, and that the trend in England (and Italy) has moved in the opposite direction to say Germany over the past few seasons:
Yet, the impact of this shouldn’t be overstated nor looked at in isolation. In 2013 for example, there were more international transfers in Germany (345) than in most top divisions:
This map shows the number of players signed up to football clubs, across all divisions, and categories - this is the starting point - everyone loves football. Germans take it very seriously:
The following chart shows the number of players in top divisions that played for their club’s youth team for at least three seasons between the age of 15-21:
The trend in average age in top divisions:
The principle isn’t limited to top clubs. Even at a younger level, German teams need to hit quotas of players eligible for national youth teams. Clubs have an obligation to invest in youth development. And, when it comes to players coming through the youth ranks, Spain, despite a transitional World Cup, still leads the way.
The link between youth development and top divisions is the critical metric here.
Short-term thinking vs long-term planning.
The argument goes that it’s a price worth paying as the Premier League is the most successful franchise of them all. To some extent, commercially at least, this is true - as revenue (excluding players) shows:
The table though also highlights how Premier League revenue is primarily driven by media income (51% the average). Other areas, such as sponsorship and ticket sales show a far more balanced picture across divisions.
Premier League clubs also spend the most - these are the costs for the top leagues:
This spending divide is primarily directed towards player salaries (chart 1 vs operational costs in chart 2):
Simply put, the Premier League generates the most through TV rights, and spends the most to buy the world’s best players. There is nothing wrong with that. For the benefit of global audiences, the Premier League and Serie A have early kick offs. The Bundesliga doesn’t as it would make it difficult for away fans to travel.
It really comes down to how you measure success and the purpose of the game.
Finances? Actual profit and loss (average, and aggregate):
How many people are filling stadia week in, week out?
Trophies and World Cup winners?
A glorious past, but the worry from an Italian point of view is that club teams are getting older, young players aren’t breaking through, and unlike England, infrastructure is poor and there is no commercial justification - teams are losing money, the best players stay away (unless they’re nearing their 30s), spending is second only to English clubs and stadia are empty. In many ways a mirror of the wider situation in the country. Italy won the World Cup in 2006, and two years ago reached the final of the European Championship defeating Germany along the way - these recent successes place the team’s difficulties on a different level to England. Yet, the trends aren’t promising.
The Premier League is an extraordinary spectacle. Every week magnificent teams pack the best grounds in Europe. The Hollywood of football. The Harlem Globetrotters model. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it is an approach to football that cannot be replicated by a national team. In the long term, the challenge (aka failure at major tournaments) arises when a country’s entire system of football is put to the service of the short-term spectacle. But, no need to worry, the Barclays Premier League begins in 32 days.
(all charts via the FIGC 2014 calcio census)