Player migrations

Footballer movements are fundamental by forming the basic network structure of the organized game (McGovern 2002; Poli 2010). Present since the beginnings of organized football, it has a long and complicated history (Taylor 2006). Flows of players are parts of a much broader flow of people, goods, services, ideas, and information (Magee and Sugden 2002). These recruitment networks are built upon personal connections crossing national boundaries (Taylor 2006) and are shaped by these social ties (McGovern 2002). They involve multiple stakeholders (Poli 2010) including clubs, scouts, leagues, associations, and player agents. Such varied stakeholders also creates uncertainty, especially when there are shady deals with illicit payments and murky ownership of players.

Player migrations are based on coupled decisions of players and clubs creating recruitment patterns (Taylor 2006). These decisions and migration ties are formed within extant football networks and, at the same time, when cumulated across players, clubs, and nations can change the form of these networks over time. Expressed differently, player migration is network generated and is a network-dependent process (McGovern 2002), one that is both dynamic and cumulative. We study the structure of these networks as they operate and change over time with a view to studying some of their dynamics.

Institutional arrangements and the organization of football

As noted earlier, every country has a body that organizes the game within its borders. The names of these organizational bodies feature the descriptors 'football association' or 'league' (or translations of them). In 1904, representatives of just seven national organizations formed the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). By 1914 there were 24 members. The British FAs remained aloof (Taylor 2006), consistent with their disdainful view of football elsewhere. By 2012, FIFA had 208 member associations including all nations in the UK and Ireland.[1] The confederations making up FIFA are: the Asian Football Confederation (AFC); the Confederation Africaine de Football (CAF); the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF); the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CSA); the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC); and the Union des Associations Européenes de Football (UEFA). This organizational structure is hierarchical: FIFA dominates its confederations, which dominate their national FAs which, in turn, dominate their clubs. All this is done by enforcing rules. The interests of these entities are not always consistent and can diverge starkly.[2]

The global system of football is Eurocentric with the members of UEFA long being dominant. Countries belonging to UEFA have always been over-represented in World Cup Finals, the preeminent tournament of the game organized by FIFA. Europe is dominant also by having the top five leagues in the world. Many players from around the globe reach clubs in these leagues: the EPL (England), Ligue 1 (France), the Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy) and La Liga (Spain). In short, Western Europe forms the core economy of football (Maguire and Stead 1998).

Media companies have had an interest in sport in general and, more specifically, football. Newspapers encouraged football from the earliest days. They benefitted also from the growth of this game (Murray 1996). In the 1930s, radio became a new media form by providing live accounts of games. It became the dominant source for news about clubs, players, football matches, and match outcomes.[3] Television provided a new market for use in commercial activities. It became an integral part of modern life (Murray 1996). As such, its impact on the organization of football was dramatic even though, as noted by Murray, it has not affected directly - yet - the way the game is played on the field in terms of team selection and the tactics employed on the field.[4]

Creating private TV companies created competition for the rights to show live matches. This resulted in bidding wars for these rights. One outcome was a flood of money into football with FIFA, its confederations, football associations, and some football clubs all acquiring huge new revenue sources. Murray (1996) (Chapter 8) provides an extended examination of some consequences of these media revenue sources. For our purposes, only some impacts are relevant. The foremost was the formation of the EPL when the richest clubs broke away from the rest of the English League to tap disproportionately into the new TV money source, while avoiding sharing their riches with smaller clubs. Another was creating cup competitions involving the top clubs of different countries as another lucrative revenue source.

The European Cup, the most prestigious of the UEFA competitions, started in 1955 as a knockout competition for which only the top national league champions qualified. It was expanded to include additional high-ranking top-league clubs. UEFA regulates its competitions, holds their media rights, and controls the prize monies. In 1992, the (reorganized) European Cup became the Champions League. It is very lucrative for successful clubs.[5] A second UEFA competition, the Europa League, was formed for the 2009/10 season with lower prize monies. It also has forerunners. It was known as the UEFA Cup after UEFA incorporated it in 1971. Before that, from 1955 to 1971, it was known as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. These competitions meant greater potential earnings and created new opportunities for some clubs along with increased risks. Footballers want to play in these competitions. This desire motivates player migration to European leagues.

It is well known that English clubs take home more than clubs elsewhere due to the £400m that Sky and ITV paid for Champions League rights. As a result, in England, UEFA competitions magnified differences between the 'big' clubs and other clubs: the largest clubs garner more resources and become even more dominant. They can pay higher salaries to their players, play before larger crowds, and have the opportunity of playing in UEFA competitions (McGovern 2002). At this top level, there was a rapid rise in the price of local players (reflected by increased transfer fees) in the early 1990s. In response, many EPL clubs sought cheaper foreign players instead of investing in local talent (Taylor 2006). Some of the bigger clubs were able to do both.

Some key features of football distinguish it from many other commercial ventures. Clubs are fixed in their locations (McGovern 2002). Even when they build new stadiums, these stadiums are very close to the locations of their old stadiums.[6] This means capital is fixed in geographic space for football. It is labor that moves geographically to generate the fundamental networks linking football clubs. Arrangements between labor and capital have been, and continue to be, inherently conflictual in capitalist societies. Within football, the tight control of players worked to the advantage of club owners. When not settled by force, most often, disputes are resolved in courts. Football was not immune, with some major labor issues settled there when players were able to file suits. Four cases are thought noteworthy for studying football networks.

  • [1] The source for this is: (accessed 4 May 2012)
  • [2] This was acute when CAF wanted more World Cup Final slots and seats on FIFA's board once they were decolonized. UEFA saw this as a serious threat. FIFA compensating clubs whose players were injured while playing for their national teams remains a contentious issue.
  • [3] Murray (1996) notes that cinema became the most popular indoor leisure activity in the 1930s and their newsreels nearly always had extracts from major football matches.
  • [4] There is some very recent evidence of very wealthy owners of Premiership clubs trying to exert influence in this direction.
  • [5] For example, in 2010/11, clubs reaching the playoff round received €2.1 million. The payment for reaching the round-robin group stage was €3.9 million. In addition, the clubs received €550,000 for each game played in the group stage. Further, a win nets a club €800,000 and, for a draw, the two clubs involved receive €400,000. Clubs reaching the first knockout round received €3 million, reaching the quarter finals netted €3.3 million, and reaching the semifinals added another €4.2 million for clubs. The runners-up received another €5.6 million and the Champions League winners walked away with another €9 million. These rewards continue to rise. As evidence of this the BBC (, accessed 17 November 2013) reported Manchester United earned £30m for getting to the Champions League's last 16 in 2013. Arsenal earned £26m, and Manchester City £24m. Chelsea earned £53m for winning the Champions League in 2012.
  • [6] Examples from the EPL include Arsenal's move from its Highbury stadium to the Emirates Stadium, Southampton's move from The Dell to St Mary's, and Manchester City's move from Maine Road to the City of Manchester (Etihad) Stadium. AFC Wimbledon moving 90 km to Milton Keynes and becoming the MK Dons was a rare (and conflictual) exception. Moves of (American) football teams in the USA where the Los Angeles Rams became the St Louis Rams and the Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts are unthinkable for most soccer leagues. Even more unthinkable are movements like the Kansas City Scouts (an ice hockey team) to Denver to become the Colorado Rockies before moving to Newark as the New Jersey Devils.
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