No Level Playing Field in Football’s Globalisation

In an increasingly prevalent variation on the “brain drain” issue that troubles small, poorer nations, “leg drain” is taking its toll on the world of football. But this trend is a mixed bag. A recent study suggests that globalization has a two-prong effect on the sport: It contributes to increasingly higher salaries for the best football players in Europe, yet also serves as an equalizer for national teams from poorer countries. In football’s free market, the best footballers play in many nations and for many clubs in the professional leagues of Europe. As a result, the Champion’s League in England or Serie A in Italy has produced more predictable favorites and fewer different winners of the league cup than in the past. Growing polarization between underdog clubs and elite behemoths like Manchester United leads to rich teams collecting the best players, producing wins and attracting even more star power. But when the World Cup rolls around, the “leg drain” reverses and national favorites return to play for home teams. This trend has improved the skills of smaller national teams and made for more balanced — and thrilling — battles on the field in recent World Cup competition. – YaleGlobal

No Level Playing Field in Football’s Globalisation

Larry Elliott
Saturday, January 14, 2006

The forces of globalisation are hindering the chances of another Derby or Nottingham Forest pipping Chelsea or Manchester United for the league title as they did in the 70s but are likely to make this summer's World Cup more competitive, according to a World Bank economist.

An in-depth study of the free market in football confirms what Premiership fans have long suspected: the influx of overseas stars has improved skill levels but at the expense of growing inequality between the elite clubs and the rest.

Yet national teams of poor countries have benefited from mobility of labour says an article by Branko Milanovic in the latest Review of International Political Economy. Since the national teams of rich countries cannot buy the best in the way that their clubs can, when a Didier Drogba returns home from Chelsea, the Ivory Coast team gains from his experience.

Using basic economic theory, Milanovic came up with the hypothesis that putting a good player with other good players would lead to all of them becoming even better players - or increasing returns, in the jargon of the dismal science. Given that some clubs are richer than others, he says you would expect a small group of clubs to dominate.

At club level, this is precisely what has happened. A study of the Champions League (formerly the European Cup) showed that there used to be a far better chance of an unknown or unfashionable club making it to the last eight than now. In the five years from 1958 to 1962, 30 different teams made it to the quarter finals (out of a possible maximum of 40), but between 1998 and 2002 this had fallen to 22.

A separate study of Serie A - Italy's equivalent of the Premiership - told a similar story. From the 1960s to the 1990s, there used to be three or four clubs on average from the poorer regions of the south. In 2002, for the first time since the second world war, there was not a single club from the south in Serie A.

Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, has condemned the greed of the modern game and, in words that could have been uttered by an anti-globalisation protester, accused Europe's top clubs of conducting themselves increasingly as "neo-colonialists" indulging in "economic rape". At the international level, Fifa has maintained limits on the inequality generated by the "leg drain", preventing rich countries from buying the national teams of poor countries. As a result, poor countries are able to capture the benefits of higher skills acquired by their players abroad when they temporarily return home to play for their national squads.

Adopting Fifa's approach to the "brain drain" of skilled workers, the paper says, might mean that the doctors, nurses, teachers and scientists who emigrate to the west should be obliged to spend one year in five back in their home country.

Milanovic says the ability of poor countries to hold on to their best players has made the World Cup more open. In the late 1970s and 1980s it was highly unusual for a newcomer to make it to the last eight of the competition but each tournament since has thrown up at least of couple of newcomers - including Cameroon, Nigeria and Turkey - who have made life difficult for fancied teams. Matches, the economist adds, are also getting tighter, suggesting some nail-biting nights for England fans this summer as the spectre of the dreaded penalty shoot-out looms.

© 2006 The Guardian Newspaper, Ltd.

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