With the 2018 World Cup about to kick off, I’m making a brief detour into the world of soccer. For those who know me, this is a longstanding interest (see Culture of Soccer, XI Quarterly, and Futbol Americano, my PhD dissertation on soccer as a means for immigrant integration). For those with no interest in the beautiful game, I hope you might at least be interested in the backgrounds of players about to take part in the world’s biggest sporting event.
Soccer is a global game. The contours of the sport often reflect the shape of larger political and economic factors. In the 2014 World Cup, I wrote an article for Pacific Standard about the number of dual national players on each team’s roster (spoiler alert: there were a lot). In that article, I found that 24 of Argentina’s initial 30-man roster had dual citizenship (mostly a result of that country’s history of migration from Europe) while other countries such as Ecuador and South Korea had no dual nationals at all.
This year, I decided to look at a slightly more limited question: how many of the players on the 23-man rosters of each 2018 World Cup team were born outside of the country they represent? This was prompted by a recent New York Times article on the so-called “imported team” that Morocco is bringing to Russia. In that article, Tariq Panja wrote that “the success of Morocco’s campaign is also a reminder of how, as a revivalist nationalism sweeps across Europe, some players have come to consider the nations of their parents and grandparents a better fit than the countries they have long called home.”
Curious, I decided to do some crunching on the numbers behind this intriguing story. Gathering data on World Cup rosters as well as the birthplaces of players from Wikipedia, I found that Morocco is indeed an outlier. With 17 of its 23-man roster born outside of the North African country, it has far more players born abroad than any other nation competing in Russia.
I decided to then take it a step further and create a series of interactive maps, showing the places of birth of all players at the tournament. There are a few items that stand out in the maps below:
- While neither the United States and Canada qualified for the tournament, each country does have one player born within their borders in Russia (Japan’s Gotoku Sakai was born in New York while Morocco’s Yassine Bounou was born in Montreal).
- The long-standing tradition of nationalizing Brazilians to play for other nations continues. Portugal (Pepe), Spain (Diego Costa and Rodrigo), Russia (Mario Fernandes), and Poland (Thiago Cionek) all have Brazilian-born players in their ranks.
- Similarly, the tradition of African teams using players born in the lands of their former colonial powers continues. In addition to Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal have 9 players each born abroad, all in France.
- Portugal’s squad has four players born in France, a result of the large migrations of Portuguese to that nation in the post-World War II period.
But what stands out most to me is that teams whose diversity has been celebrated have few players born abroad. The famously diverse French team, for instance, has only 2 players born abroad. The background of many Belgian players lies outside of the European nation’s borders as well, but all 23 Red Devils players were born in Belgium. However, many players from these two teams are children of immigrants. With decades of migration from former colonies, European nations like France and Belgium now see the children and grandchildren of immigrants, born within their borders, representing them.