The Decline of English Players Abroad

The English national team hit an all-time low in 2016. After being humiliated by the mighty Iceland in Euro 2016, England fans must look back wistfully on the days when pundits would forecast that they would be “knocked-out by the first decent team that they meet”; it seems that these days England struggle to progress far enough to meet a decent team. You have to go back to 2002 to find the last time England beat one of the world’s top ten teams in a major international tournament.

A lot has been written about the impact of the EPL, in particular the proliferation of foreign players and the resulting difficulties faced by talented young English players to get playing time. On average, less than a third of the players starting games are English; 25 years ago, in the first year of the EPL, it was more than two thirds. However, while England certainly has the lowest fraction of home-grown players in Europe’s top-5 leagues, Italy and Germany (both around a half) are not much further ahead. Two thirds of the players starting games at the highest level in France and Spain are home-grown.

Another English Trade Deficit

If the competition is so tough at home, why don’t more English players go abroad? Surely they would benefit from the experience: a different style of football, exposure to new training methods and coaching techniques, tactical variations, the fans, weather, scheduling; perhaps even different refereeing standards.

Figure 1 shows the number of English, French, German, Italian and Spanish players that have moved abroad to one of the other big five European leagues in the last fifteen years[1].  For example, since 2000, five English players have moved to Spanish clubs in La Liga; over the same period, 48 Italian, 85 French and 15 German players have transferred to the top level of Spanish football.

Figure 1: The number of English, French, German, Spanish and Italian players that have moved abroad to play in another top-5 European league since the 2000/01 season.

When measured in players, England has a huge trade deficit with the other four countries (and in fact, with all other European countries). More than twice as many Italians have played in the EPL than English players in all the other top leagues put together. Spain, Italy and France have all exported more than 100 of their players since 2000, England has exported just 16 – and three of those are David Beckham[2].

Germany has the second fewest players to have moved abroad to one of the other big European leagues: 55 since 2000. But look closely, and you find that half of them played for the German national team while they were abroad; over the same period only four of the 16 English players played international football while playing abroad. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to infer that (at least when it comes to football) German exports are superior to English ones.  

It wasn’t always this way. The table below compares the number of players moving to the top leagues abroad in the periods 1960-1980, 1980-2000 and 2000-present. In the second half of the last century, there were generally fewer players playing abroad, but they were much more evenly distributed between nationalities. For example, more English players played in the top leagues abroad than Spaniards. However, since 2000, the number of Italian, Spanish and French footballers moving abroad has exploded; meanwhile, the number of English players has more than halved.

Table 1: Total number of players moving abroad to play in a top-5 European league since 1960.    

So is there no longer any demand for English players? Are they too expensive? Or, are they just reluctant to move abroad? Certainly money must be a big factor - the average salary in the EPL is nearly double that of La Liga (e.g. see here and here), and so many English players would have to take a pay cut to move abroad. I don’t have the data, but I expect that the disparity increases for young players

Where have all the Gaffers gone?

The lack of foreign playing experience may also have repercussions at the coaching and managerial level. At the beginning of the 2016/17 season, only five EPL teams had English managers; the previous season it was eight. There are currently only four English managers, two Welsh and one Irish, with the remainder coming from Germany, Holland, Portugal, Argentina, Spain, Croatia, Italy and France [updated on 23/08/2017].

In stark contrast, more than half of Bundesliga managers are German. Three quarters of Serie A teams are managed by Italians, and the same is true in Spain and France. Even in the Championship less than half the managers are English. There are precisely zero English managers working abroad in Europe’s major leagues. 

Perhaps this is a self-perpetuating cycle. Few English players move abroad, and so miss out on the breadth of experience that might make them better managers and coaches in the future. This in turn has a detrimental effect on the development of young English players, who are then less likely to be sought after by major foreign teams. And so it goes on. 

Gary Neville may have failed during his brief tenure at Valencia, but he gained experience that few other young English coaches have. I hope others follow his lead.

[1] Players that transferred to a foreign club pre-2000 are not included.
[2] Beckham is included three times as he played for Real Madrid in Spain, PSG in France and AC Milan in Italy.


  1. That's a great article and very interesting statistics! I would guess the money aspect is dominant. From your figure it's clear that the Premier League is the most popular (only exception are Italians, who are more likely to go to Spain than England). That must also be true for English players, who as a consequence stay home.

    If that trend is recent, happening over the last 10-20 years, that would explain why England's abroad players is the only decreasing number.

    As a German and a Bundesliga fan, I find it frustrating that anywhere abroad, apart from the national football, I can only watch Primera DivisiĆ³n and Premier league. Hardly anywhere do they show Bundesliga. And we are fricking world champions!

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      In the mid 1990's Italian football became a big TV attraction in the UK, partly because the standard of football was perceived to be (and probably was) much higher, but also because there weren't that many EPL games being televised at that time. There are so many EPL games shown live now that it seems to squeeze audiences for foreign leagues (with the exception of Barca-Real, maybe).


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