Today the best opportunities can be thousands of kilometres away and come in completely foreign languages.
Football is not only the most popular sport in the world but one of the most globalized profession: thousands of players emigrate every year to develop their sporting careers. For a footballer, moving has ceased to be an option and has become almost mandatory. More and more players are leaving their country in search of better opportunities.
Until recently this phenomenon wasn’t nearly as widespread as it is today. In the 1980s football players travelling abroad were the exception. This movement of human capital was occurring especially in the peripheral countries of the footballing world. It was very strange to see a Spanish, Italian or English player perform in a foreign league. It was rather the players from Eastern Europe, South America and Africa who moved to play in the Western European championships.
Globalization radically changed things. One milestone being the Bosman Ruling, which in December 1995 declared quotas of foreign players belonging to member states of the European Union illegal. From there, there were no legal obstacles limiting Spanish footballers to signing to English clubs, for example. Or for the Italians to start looking towards new horizons and offering themselves to the German or French market. Twenty-one years later, statistics showed that only 206 of the 552 players who participated in the 2016 Eurocup played in their domestic leagues.
Alejandro Piacentile Valderrama, known as Alex Piache in the world of football, embodies this trend more than anyone else. Coming from Spain, this defender has worked in five other countries: Andorra, England, Nicaragua, Bolivia and, now, USA. Piache confesses to making these moves due to “curiosity” rather than as a necessity: “For me, it was about getting out of my routine and getting to know the world through football. But I never thought it would directly affect my success as an athlete and as a person on the whole”.
“In Spain the competition is so great and the level is so good that sometimes it eclipses a player’s potential to improve, which means that more and more workers in the world of football go abroad in search for fresh opportunities”, Alex explains, who today works as a technician at Switchbacks FC (USL league, USA). “The ability to adapt to new places is absolutely essential to succeeding outside of your comfort zone, which is what then allows a player to acquire unique experiences. This way, one learns different footballing cultures, languages, creating new friendships and, in some cases, family“.
“In Spain the level is so good that sometimes it eclipses a player’s potential to improve”
According to data from the CIES Football Observatory, Brazil is by far the country with the most expatriate players. As of May 1, 2017, there were 1,202, and 65% of them played in Europe. Further down the line are France and Argentina, with 781 and 753 players, respectively, playing in foreign leagues. Then follow Serbia (460), England (451) and Spain (362). But the country home to the Premier League continues to be an exception to the growing globalization of ‘the world’s favourite sport’. In fact, 60% of English expatriate players are either in Wales, Scotland or Ireland, that is to say, next door and in a context that requires little to no adaptation. In addition, the vast majority of the remaining 40% develop their careers in English-speaking countries, such as the US or New Zealand.
Borders have collapsed not only in professional football, but also at its grassroots level. Players who leave their country to train in more beneficial environments are getting younger. The Marcet High Performance Academy is, in this sense, an example of this. Every year, it welcomes in students from all over the world, who come to Barcelona on a quest to find quality training and education.
Of the approx. 200 players who spent this season coursing Marcet’s Professional Program, less than 30 were of Spanish nationality. This means that the vast majority of students have to face an important process of adaptation -both cultural and sporting- in the midst of their adolescence.
“many players decline important offers because they value the place they live in”
Having specialized professionals is undoubtedly a plus when it comes to acclimating to a new context, explains by Shirali Ibragimov : “At the beginning I thought I couldn’t live in Spain. I suddenly found myself in another culture, with another diet, everything was different from how it is back at home in Turkmenistan and I could only really manage to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Spanish. But I held on to the prospect of developing as a player. [Technical director] Carlos Rivero told me that I should be spending more time with my colleagues at the residence if I wanted to adapt to my new surroundings and learn Spanish, and that was exactly what happened”.
Like Shirali, most of his teammates dream of signing to a Spanish team, for how football in this country has shaped the sport in recent years thanks to its success both nationally and internationally. “… and also for the quality of life,” adds Matías Irace, a technician on the MPEP: “I know of many players who decline important offers because they value the place they live in. It’s clearly either a playmaker or a dealbreaker. Europe is attractive because of a certain quality of life people look for“.
Irace, from Rosario, knows this all too well. The technician first made an appearance in his own country’s first division league at the age of 20 wearing Rosario Central‘s colours, a club which would take him to many Copa Libertadores matches. After that experience travelling was key to keeping his career moving forward. At first playing in both Spain and Italy. Then settling down as a coach in Barcelona. “Having to leave your country is never easy, it’s a difficult change because you’ll spend some Christmases alone, some days will end in tears… Football is for people who are willing to make certain sacrifices“.
News of recent years reflects the importance of the quality of life that Irace speaks about. According to ‘El Confidencial’, it has been the economic crisis of this decade has changed Spanish players’ mentality: “The progressive decrease in Second and Third Division players’ salaries, combined with the uncertainty of even paid them, has led to more and more players considering crossing borders”.
Take ‘El Confidencial’, for example, a country that until not so long ago nobody associated with football. In recent years, the Asian giant has hired more and more European professionals: players, coaches, trainers alike… Carlos Lozano was one of them, although his experience with the Shangai Greenland Shenua lasted only seven months. “Mainly due to reasons concerning family”, explains Espanyol‘s physiotherapist: “I’m very happy for everything I lived there, but Chinese culture is very different from ours. For me, the most difficult thing was by far being so detached from family and friends“.
Migrating to another country and having to get used to a new reality is never easy. The Brazilian, Lucas Silva, signed by Real Madrid in 2015 and transferred last February to Cruzeiro, has just declared that he has no intention of returning to Madrid. Despite his experience in one of the best clubs in the world, he prefers to stay in Brazil. Portuguese player, André Gómes, Barça midfielder, recently brought to light the details of his difficult adaptation to Barça: “I don’t feel right on the pitch, I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, everything became hell because I started to feel a lot more pressure”.
The personal stories of these top-level players show that for a footballer the ability to adapt to new contexts can be as important as their technical and tactical skills. Fewer and fewer players can afford to choose the country in which they develop their sporting career. Getting used to the idea of packing your bags can be an added value and a determining factor in future signings because the best opportunities can be thousands of kilometres away and speak completely foreign languages.