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English football, a global game? No, English clubs still prefer to recruit close to home

The labour market for professional footballers is frequently presented as one of the best-known examples of globalisation because of the high profile increase in the number of foreign footballers. 

Yet research by LSE sociologist Dr Patrick McGovern finds that when it comes to buying foreign experience, English clubs prefer to shop close to home. Rather than become a truly global game, English football is merely adding a North European and Scandinavian flavour to its underlying mixture of Anglos and Celts.

In his analysis of 50 years of foreign signings, Dr McGovern concludes that: "Clubs recruit conservatively, with a clear tendency to hire those that most resemble domestic players (i.e. low risk foreigners). More specifically, the widely-cited trend of increasing diversity in player origins - more and more countries are represented in English football - masks an underlying trend in which the overwhelming majority of foreign players come from little more than a handful of countries."

His research reveals that:

  • English clubs tend to draw heavily on those foreign sources that most resemble local sources in terms of language, style of football, culture and climate. The vast majority of overseas imports come from northern Europe (the Netherlands followed by Germany and, more recently, France), Scandinavia and English speaking parts of the British Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, the West Indies etc.).
  • The most dramatic change over the past half century has been the decline in the number of players purchased from Scottish clubs. In fact, if Scottish players are considered as "foreign" we find that more non-English footballers were hired in the immediate Post-War era (1946-1955) than at any time since. Since then the recruitment of Scottish footballers has fallen dramatically to the point where it was overtaken in the mid-1990s by the importation of overseas players.
  • Players with more origins such as Africa or Latin America tend to be hired only after they have established reputations in other European leagues (e.g. Babayaro at Chelsea, previously at Anderlecht; Kanu at Arsenal, previously at Inter Milan and Ajax; Veron at Manchester United, previously at Lazio). Such risk averse behaviour is quite rational in a labour intensive industry where transfer fees and wages are by far the major costs.
  • 'Foreign' (i.e. non-English) managers tend to bring foreign players, especially from their country of origin. While Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger are probably the most well known contemporary examples, the pattern is actually most firmly established among Scottish managers at English clubs who are twice as likely to import Scottish players as English managers. Consequently, the appointment of more overseas managers may bring the recruitment of overseas players to a new level (as they themselves act in a risk averse way by 'sticking to those they know').
  • The largest elite clubs have hired almost two-thirds of all overseas players since the mid-1980s. Furthermore, only a handful of clubs have the resources to take the extra risk of hiring players directly from less-favoured sources (e.g. Latin America). This contrasts sharply with the recruitment of Scottish players from an earlier era, which was much more evenly distributed across clubs of all sizes.

Dr McGovern concludes: "The hiring of overseas players has compounded inequality in playing resources and team performance, while adding a strong regional Northern European/Scandinavian flavour to English football."


View a PDF of Globalisation or Internationalisation? Foreign footballers in the English leave, 1946-95|

Contact Dr Patrick McGovern, Lecturer in Sociology, LSE on tel: 020 7955 6653
Judith Higgin, LSE Press Office, on tel: 020 7966 7582.


Dr McGovern will be speaking about this research on BBC Radio 4's programme Thinking Allowed at 4pm on Wednesday 12 June.

11 June 2002