When drains and gains coincide: Migration and international football performance

It is well known that international migration may affect human capital in origin countries in both positive and negative ways. Migration of skilled workers may lead to a direct loss of human capital for the origin countries of migrants. However, migration may also induce human capital gains through several channels. The possibility of migration increases individual incentives to invest in human capital. Migrants’ remittances may allow more families to afford such investments. Some migrants return to their origin countries after a while, with new skills acquired abroad. Depending on circumstances, the net impact of skilled migration on human capital may be either negative or positive, what is sometimes referred to as “brain drain” or “brain gain”.

Clubs’ losses, national teams’ gains

In football, migration of players accelerated with the 1995 Bosman ruling of the European Court of Justice, which removed restrictions on the number of players originating from European countries that could be recruited by European clubs, and which was extended to other origin countries (and sports) by the Malaja, Kolpak and Simutenkov cases and the 2000 Cotonou agreement. Similarly to the familiar brain drain concerns, the globalization of the market for football players has been accused of causing a “muscle drain” for developing countries, depriving them of their most talented players to the benefit of professional leagues in rich countries.

However, a particularity of football player migration differentiates muscle drain from the brain drain. Unlike most skilled migrants, who can only work in one country at a time, football players can play for their home country national team while being hired by a foreign country club. Thus, not only are national teams not deprived of migrants’ talents, but they may actually benefit from the additional skills acquired by these players in top foreign leagues.

Nevertheless, although some sports analysts argue that football player migration indeed raises the quality of home countries’ national teams, other analysts dispute this. Ad hoc observations do suggest that developing countries have done better since the start of substantial migration of their football players to rich country competitions. African teams have performed increasingly well in World Cups in the past decades. For example, Ghana, with many national team players employed by European clubs, managed to reach the quarter final in the 2010 World Cup. This is an important achievement for an African country, with only two precedents: Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.

In a recent paper (Berlinschi et al. 2010) we analyze the effect of migration on national team performance. We quantified the effect of skill acquisitions abroad by assigning to each national team a migration index that weighs each migrant player with the quality of the foreign club where he is training. After controlling for a variety of factors that are typically associated with football performance, such as a country’s per capita income, population, football culture (year of foundation of the national football association), temperature, historical performance (number of World Cup appearances), football institutions (number of Champions League wins), and confederation, we find a significant positive effect of migration on the national team of the home country.

This result is robust to a variety of changes in the empirical specification, such as using alternative measures for international football performance, to excluding countries without migration of national team players, to including players that had once migrated to a UEFA league, but had returned to their home leagues at the date at which we constructed the migration index, to using a different definition of a migrant player, to using different weights for the quality of the foreign club, to using a different measure for historical performance and to using a difference-in-difference estimation approach with a comparison of data when restrictions on football player migration were very low (2010) with data when restrictions on football player migration were very high (1994). Hence, our evidence suggests that while developing countries’ football clubs may experience a “muscle drain”, their national teams experience a “muscle gain” at the same time.

Underperformers and overperformers

Interestingly, our empirical model, explaining around 70% of a country’s international football performance, allows us to observe which countries perform (far) below and beyond expectations. If we focus on the 100 highest ranked countries, the most highly overperforming country is the oil-producing nation Bahrain. The most highly underperforming country is Belgium: while our 2010 model’s predictions rank Belgium 26th, in reality Belgium’s FIFA ranking was only 66th (currently Belgium’s ranking is 53rd). However, Belgium has the majority of necessary resources to perform well in (international) football: a high per capita income to invest in sports facilities, a football tradition dating back to the end of the 19th century, a good climate for outdoor sports and excellent World Cup statistics (11 appearances since its inception in 1930). Importantly, Belgium also has a high migration index because many Belgian players currently acquire additional skills in Europe’s top football leagues (for example, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini, Simon Mignolet and, since this summer, also Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen all play in the English Premier League).

If our model’s predictions come true, the international football performance of Belgium will improve in the near future. Having failed to qualify for the two most recent World Cup editions, qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil would be a good start.