Monday, August 2, 2010

How Argentinian is Lionel Messi, and How Danish Is Nicklas Bendtner? A Different Take on Player Backgrounds at the World Cup

How Argentinian is Lionel Messi? Sure, he was born in Argentina, but left for Barelona when he was 13. So is he more "Argentinian" (as a soccer player, of course" or more Spanish (or Catalan, if you like)? Messi isn't the only one about whom you could raise this question. Nicklas Bendtner went to Arsenal when he was 16. The reverse is true as well: some players leave their home country and play for their adopted country - think Alfredo di Stefano - and in recent years, changes in citizenship laws have made it easier for players to maintain dual citizenship and choose the side they wish to play for - think Mauro Camoranesi or the Boateng brothers.

In an earlier post, I (implicitly at least) raised the question of how "German" the German team really is. But instead of categories like citizenship or ethnicity, why not think about the composition of World Cup teams in terms of where players ply their trade?

Thanks to Carlos Lemos and Daniel Lima from Estadao, here's a great analysis of where World Cup players play their "regular" soccer - that is, the league and country they compete in for their day job. Click on it, and you'll see output that connects each country/team with the league their club team plays in.

To make it work, you can roll over countries on top to see what clubs players are with, or roll over the bottom to see where players from a given club are from. Ribbon width indicates number of players. The greater the width, the more players from that country or team.

Several things stand out:

  1. Some countries (Italy, England, and Germany, for example) draw their squads entirely from their own domestic leagues. That is, not a single Italian, Englishman, or German played their club football outside their home countries.
  2. Some leagues are incredibly globalized - the most impressive are the big European leagues (Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and EPL), but even the slightly weaker Dutch Eredivisie had players from a number of countries represented. So, clearly the UEFA leagues are the "best", on average.
  3. The most interesting part of these graphs is how much things have changed since 1994. Take a look at the 1994 graph below and compare it to the 2010 graph above. Clearly, national sides now draw on players who play in leagues around the world, not just their home leagues.
  4. While about 65% of players in the 1994 World Cup played in domestic leagues, in 2010 only about 40% did - that's almost a complete reversal. Think about it: in the 2010 World Cup, the majority of players did NOT play in their domestic league.
  5. While 55-60% of players in 2010 played in a UEFA league, 63-70% did in 1994 - that's another indicator that the number of European World Cup teams has been reduced over time.
  6. There used to be a clear differentiation across positions, with attackers most likely to play in a European league and goalies least likely to. This has changed; there's very little differentiation across positions now - another sign of an increasingly global soccer market.

One more thing for friends of American soccer and MLS. The US team is becoming internationalized, too. While U.S. players played in "only" six foreign leagues in 1994, the number in 2010 was nine. But MLS is a vastly "American" league, with only a couple of players (from Honduras and New Zealand) at the World Cup hailing from somewhere other than the U.S.

PS: Thanks to Nathan Yau at for finding this cool analysis.