Why don’t Spanish teams recruit heavily from Spanish-speaking leagues in North America (all those north of, and including, Panama)? While these countries produce the occasional star, the average quality of their players is relatively lower than that of South America and Europe. Panamanian, Nicaraguan, even Mexican (the strongest league in North America), players do not attract the lucrative offers that many South American players do. Why is that? Because the way regional football associations are organized. The average quality of their continental tournament is much, much lower than South America’s. Thus, their players are exerted less as they develop, and their average quality is lower when compared internationally.
It makes sense to recruit from countries with lower transaction costs. There are, for example, many African players who leave for France early in their careers. 19 out of 20 Ligue 1 (top flight) teams have African players on their roster (for Paris Saint-Germain, few transaction costs are high enough to impede them from signing players). France’s national team’s last roster include two players born in Africa. 20 out of 20 Belgian Pro League teams include African players in their roster. English Premier League clubs also buy relatively heavily from African leagues, but often French clubs act as intermediaries. Spain recruits heavily from Argentina, and has started to increase recruitment in Chile and Colombia; countries which have built strong national teams without (originally) having access to strong players playing in strong European leagues.
Why are transaction costs lower? Countries with shared history — namely, colonialism — form “linkages,” such as a widely known common language, oftentimes looser immigration laws — especially for those with high MVP (marginal value product) —, strong immigrant communities in receiving states, et cetera. Apart from the attractive relative real cost (weighing for average skill) of African players, linkages also make assimilation within teams easier. A team with relatively perfect substitutes performs better than those with relatively imperfect substitutes on average, because the strength of the relationship between the players matters a lot in football (it’s a common characteristic in teams with high discipline, relative to other teams in their league).
Although Spain colonized much of North America, including most of the geography between the western United States and Panama, it does not draw on players born in these countries nearly as often as those originating in South America. I suspect the reason for that is that the average quality of the North American player simply cannot compete with those of the South American and African leagues (growing African migration to Spain also creates a network effect through migrant communities, lowering transaction costs). The reason this is the case is because of the way continental FIFA associations are organized: CONCACAF is one of the weakest associations. It is one of the weakest associations because of the countries which make it up.
Consider the size of national football markets in CONCACAF nations. Most of Latin American enjoys football as its major sport, but most Latin American countries have very small national economies — they are not comparable to those of larger South American and European nations —, and in the two largest economies, United States and Canada, football (i.e. soccer) is not big compared to rival sports (basketball, American football, hockey, and baseball). In other words, the football market in CONCACAF is very small, and therefore much less competitive (assuming the football industry enjoys increasing returns to scale). In less competitive environments, the motivation to innovate is relatively low, and top leagues do not have to very internationally competitive to be regionally competitive. Think of Mexico’s domination of CONCACAF (on the league level especially), but the relative paucity of Mexican players in Europe.
Inter-regional competition matters. European leagues are strong because the UEFA Champions League is strong. The Copa Libertadores is a much more difficult competition than the CONCACAF Champions League — the latter almost exclusively dominated by Mexican clubs. Being inter-regionally competitive is attractive because it means higher revenue flows, largely as a result of prize money. Atlético Madrid, in Spain, has an average revenue between 120–140 million, and typically makes a loss (and has to sell players, on net, to make a profit). So far, UEFA will pay them ~40€ million for participating in the Champions League, a 33 percent increase in revenue. Most teams do not earn that much, but the prize money is lucrative and all participants draw from the cash pot. Regional competitions are strong when national football markets are large in association member countries. UEFA benefits from England, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, et cetera (the list is long); strong local economies, where football is the main sport.
Size of the market matters because of the assumption of increasing returns to scale. A few implications are,
- Larger markets will enjoy lower average costs, shifting the long-run average cost schedule down, and increasing the amount of firms in an imperfectly competitive market. In the football industry, this can mean stronger overall football associations, because of stronger competition between national leagues (stated another way, Spain’s second division is much better than Mexico’s). This creates a good environment for innovation and progress. Most groundbreaking tactical discoveries are made by UEFA teams — e.g. catenaccio, total football, and tiki-taka;
- Returns to scale internal to the firm will increase profits as average cost falls (and output increases). Relatively wealthy clubs have a broader recruitment base, as they can offer higher salaries (and often a wealthy life in the receiving state) than local competitors. They also typically have better youth programs, so they can better exploit the qualities of non-national players;
- If there are external economies of scale, lower average costs bring with them a cumulative advantage relative to competing regional industries. These industries attract more investment, at a higher rate than clubs in associations with relatively high average costs.
CONCACAF simply cannot compete with UEFA or CONMEBOL (yea, FIFA abbreviations are absolutely horrid) in average quality. I reckon that CAF (Africa) is marginally more competitive than CONCACAF. But, it’s not because their local markets are strong — well, that explains comparatively little. However, most of Africa enjoys strong, and exclusive, linkages with many European nations (France, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy). These same European countries do not recruit as heavily from Spanish-speaking countries (except for Brazil and Argentina, because of the strength of their leagues — CONMEBOL is the second-most competitive association in FIFA). Likewise, France, England, and Belgium recruit more Africans than Spanish team do on average. Spain often serves as an intermediary for South American players, who pass through Spanish clubs and then move on to other European squads. Thus, African players have a large market for their labor that is exclusive to them. National teams draw on their players who play for European clubs, and therefore perform more strongly than what the strength of their leagues suggests.
But, CAF also has decently sized economies where football is the primary sport. Africa might be the poorest continent in per capita income, but it has several large countries in population. Many of these countries also have large deposits of highly valued raw materials. Their national associations are most likely subsidized, and in absolute terms subsidies (and cash prizes) are likely to be higher in larger economies. CAF clubs have done better than CONCACAF clubs in the FIFA Club World Cup. The CAF Champions League is relatively competitive. Mexican teams have won six out of ten of their continental competitions. If the MLS is slowly improving it’s not because of CONCACAF, it’s because of the growing market for the sport in the United States.
Another piece of evidence is Australia’s national football association’s, the FFA, 2006 decision to leave the OFC (Oceania) confederation for AFC (Asia). While Australia dominated the OFC, not only enjoying the major share of regional cups, but almost virtually guaranteed entry into the World Cup finals, it judged that it could simply not grow in quality unless it benefited from stronger competition. And, the A-League and the Australian national team have benefited from this change. Regional competitions matter. They determine the total size of the market. Regional associations, or what are also known as confederations, which have large markets will be stronger than those which have small markets.
I originally asked why Spain recruits much more from South African than it does from North America, While there are many countries in CONCACAF that have strong linkages with Spain, the low average quality of their confederation makes CONCACAF players relatively less attractive. Where soccer as a sport is strong, the national economies are usually very small. Mexico is an exception to the rule, but neither is Mexico as wealthy as England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Canadian soccer is probably the most uncompetitive in the region. And, the market in the U.S. is still comparatively small (although growing). Therefore, Spanish clubs prefer to recruit from South America and Africa. The geographic fate of North American Latin America has condemned it to facing an extreme inequality in football quality, from the perspective of the worst-off (excepting AFC and OFC). Only very exceptional North American players are recruited by European teams, and its the rules which determine membership within regional associations that are fault.