Soccer Migration in the World System

World Systems Theory, developed by social theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, posits that the nation-states of the world, as a result of long term historical interactions and conflicts, are presently interconnected in an unequal network of flows. These flows are principally theorised as being economic in nature. Capital (money) moves around the world market, via multiple transactions, and substantially lands in the coffers of the already-rich nations.

In World Systems Theory the world is made up of core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral nations. If using traditional Marxist terms, the core nations would loosely correspond to the bourgeoisie, while the semi-periphery and periphery would correspond to the proletariat. The core nations control the global means of production, and the peripheral nations are positioned as servants of the core. Certainly the picture is more nuanced than this, but the concepts underlying most dependency theories stem from a Marxist framing of the world.

The foundations of the ‘World System’ – dependency theorists would argue – were laid throughout the colonial era (arguably 1492 – 1945) by the international business activities of Western nations. The untapped and unrealised riches of the Global South were appropriated by the North, through means fair and foul. These nations became part of a periphery whose substantial purpose (in economic terms) was to serve the interests of the core nations. Petroleum, diamonds, coffee and slaves (inter alia) were lifted from Africa, for example, in order to feed the rapacious economies of the colonisers.
In the post-colonial era, the withdrawal of occupying forces, generals, governors and viceroys has not opened up a gateway to economic growth and development for those nations in the periphery of the World System. Rather, their position has been consolidated by ‘softer’ means. Trade agreements, for example, may lock poorer nations into a relationship of imbalance with richer nations. Some nations are so heavily dependent on the export income generated from a single crop or resource that their hands are effectively tied at the bartering table. This continuing imbalance of power between nations is known as neo-colonialism, and it follows much the same lines as the colonialism which preceded it.

Sport does not exist outside of the global market of the World System, and the global soccer market in particular exhibits many of the same characteristics as its parent system. 

(There is of course one peculiarity of the global soccer market, which contrasts sharply with the World System more broadly – notably the absence of North America within the core. In the 2013/2014 season there were more players from Chile in the Big 5 European leagues than players from the US and Canada combined. Data from the CIES observatory. The reasons for this can wait for another blogpost)

If the global market regards soccer players as commodities (and it does), we should expect two outcomes. First we would see the appropriation of these ‘commodities’ by the core at the expense of the periphery and semi-periphery. Secondly, we should expect that the geographical lines along which these ‘commodities’ flow will be similar to those of the world economy more broadly.

When an overseas player is bought by a European club, some of that player’s wage will return to his home country, to parents, brothers, sisters, and through charitable donations. However, much of the money generated within the economy from buying overseas players is money generated for the big football businesses of the European football core. The Premier League, Sky TV, players’ agents, etc. all make substantial profit from the appropriation of playing talent from peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. This being the case, the sending country’s opportunity to build successful, sustainable and globally competitive leagues remains minimal. This suits the core countries, as they retain their position of supremacy, and quash any possibility of real competition in the global soccer market.

Consider secondly the directional flows of playing and managerial talent.  Talented players from Africa (periphery) and South America (semi-periphery) come to Western Europe (core) in order to ply their trade. This is in part due to the economic dominance of core nations, who are able to purchase the services of the world’s best players, as well as offer comfortable and secure housing, substantial freedom from war and conflict, political stability, and high quality health services. It is also in part informed by colonial ties, which see players from former colonies often migrating to the imperial power or to nations who share a language as a result of these ties.

Religious and familial links also constitute a significant ‘pull’ factor in global soccer migration. The emotive 2012 documentary The Beautiful Game, which follows the fortunes of a handful of African footballers, evidences the power of the migratory pull of the European game. Lanfranchi and Taylor’s excellent bookMoving with the Ball: the migration of professional footballers’ covers this whole topic in great depth. It is highly recommended!

The future of the football market is inextricably linked with the wider market and its fluctuations. The long term processes which have shaped both the World System and the global football landscape are not likely to let up any time soon.

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