The diversity of A-League players, in terms of their nationalities, ancestries and where they developed, continues to expand. It’s a trend partly consistent with what happened over 28 seasons of the former National Soccer League (NSL), where a league of players mostly born and raised in Australia, England and Scotland in 1977 transformed to have almost zero British-born players by the time the NSL closed down in 2004.

In terms of FIFA country of affiliation, 28 nationalities were represented at the start of the 2014/15 A-League season, including four new demonyms – Hungarian (Richard Vernes), Senegalese (Malick Mane), Tunisian (Fahid Ben Khalfallah) and Macedonian (Mensur Kurtisi and Daniel Georgievski). Players from 61 different nationalities of affiliation have now taken part in the A-League since 2005.

Nationality of FIFA affiliation does not necessarily indicate a player’s self-identified nationality however. Macedonian representative Kurtisi for example is a proud Albanian rather than Macedonian, while it’s difficult to consider John Hutchinson – a Maltese international player due to his one-quarter Maltese descent – anything but born and bred ‘Aussie’.

Socceroo Bruce Djite, with a thick Australian accent and French second-tongue, was born in the United States and raised in Sydney to parents born in the Ivory Coast and Togo.

The fuzziness and complexity of categories related to nationality, ancestry and where players were raised makes analysing the influence of these player demographics difficult, controversial and potentially misleading. There is however one clearly-defined personal attribute that does provide a convenient characteristic for us statisticians to analyse the geographic and ancestral diversity of players – birthplace.

Granted that birthplace can also sometimes be a misleading indicator of local representation, nationality or ancestry, place of birth is the ultimate indicator of from where, and how far (if at all) a player has moved, in net terms, from their start point in life to the club they play for.

The distance between a player’s birthplace and club location can provide a broad indication of local, national and international origin all in the one statistic.

To assess the geographic diversity of players, this analysis considers country of birth, and distance between birthplace (regardless of country) and club for all players in the leagues analysed.

For convenience, a player born within 100km of their club’s home ground is considered a local-born product; this is a simplistic but useful definition. For Sydney players, this covers players born in neighbouring Wollongong and Central Coast. The 100km radius also puts Geelong-born players in the Melbourne local zone, Gold Coast within Brisbane, while for Newcastle the 100km boundary includes neighbouring Central Coast but not Sydney.

The A-League Season 2014/15

The 2014/15 Australian national league season kicked off with players from the 10 squads born in over 100 regions across 40 countries. For the first time, A-League squads include players born in Hungary (Vernes) and Senegal (Mane). A-League players have come from 68 different countries of birth over 10 seasons.

Just under one-third (32%) of players were born outside of Australia and New Zealand. Adelaide United (48%) and Brisbane Roar (38%) have the highest percentage of players born overseas, while Melbourne City (21%) and Melbourne Victory (24%) have the lowest.

32% of 2014/15 A-League players were born within 100km of their club. Only Sydney FC have more than half their players born locally, including three Wollongong-born players. All other clubs have less than half their squad born within 100km of their home city.

The Latin influence at Adelaide United this season helps make the Reds the team with the highest average distance between birthplace and club. Despite the inclusion of several Adelaide-born players, Adelaide United players were born, on average, 7100km from Coopers Stadium. Yet it’s not just a Spanish and South American thing at Adelaide United in 2014/15. Youngsters Awer Mabil, Bruce Kamau, and contracted youth player Mark Ochieng were all born in Kenya. Brisbane (players born an average 6400km from Brisbane) and Wellington (5800km) squads are next most diverse. Wellington’s squad includes the player with the furthest distance between birthplace and club, with Albert Riera born 19,400km away in Barcelona.

Players from Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory are playing closest to their birthplaces, squads from both teams born on average around 4000km from Melbourne.

Changing diversity of A-League players

The percentage of overseas-born players has increased from the first A-League season, from 26% in 2005/06 to 32% in 20014/15. In the A-League’s inaugural season it was New Zealand Knights (44% of players born outside Australia-NZ), Perth Glory (39%) and Brisbane Roar (33%) – who all finished in the bottom half of the ladder – with most overseas-born players, while Newcastle (9%), Melbourne Victory (15%) and inaugural premiers Adelaide United (18%) relied least on overseas-born players.

The percentage of players born within 100km of their club fell from 39% to 32% between 2005/06 and 2014/15. Where just one club has more than half of its players born locally in 2014/15, in the first A-League season more than half of Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Adelaide United players were born within 100km of their club.

The average distance between birthplace and club in 2014/15 (5200km) was around 28% higher than for the 2005/06 season (4100km), for all A-League teams combined.

Australia compared with other leagues

To get a sense of how the geographic diversity of A-League players compares with other national leagues, birthplaces of all players in the top tiers of the nine other countries are also assessed: United States, Japan, China, Netherlands, and the ‘big five’ – England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

32% of 2014/15 A-League players were born outside of Australia and New Zealand, which is less than the rate for all other nine countries combined (39%). The A-League’s foreign-born share is well below the top tiers of England (61% born outside of England and Wales) and Italy (57%), but far above that for Japan (12%) and China (16%). The Dutch Eredivisie currently has a similar percentage of foreign-born to that of the Australian national league.

In terms of local-born players, the A-League has a higher rate (32%) than the other nine leagues combined (22%). The United States (10%), Italy (11%) and France (14%) rely least on players born within 100km of club location. In fact, several US clubs have no players born within 500km of their base city. The Netherlands (50%) and Japan (39%) have the highest shares of local-born players at their top tier clubs.

Despite Australia having a lower share of foreign-born and a higher share of local-born players, the average distance between birthplace and club for A-League league players (5200km) is far greater than any others in this group of leagues. The average A-League player birthplace to club distance is well above the leagues with the next highest distance, the United States’ MLS (3900km), and Italy’s Serie A (3000km). At the other end of the spatial scale, the top leagues of the Netherlands (1100km), Germany (1500km) and Japan (1800km) have the lowest mean distances between birthplace and club.

The high distance between birthplace and club for A-League players is due to three geospatial factors:

  • the physical size of Australia–New Zealand;
  • the relative location of Australia–New Zealand;
  • the significant proportion of A-League players born overseas.

Physical size

While almost two-thirds of A-League players were born within Australia and New Zealand, around 40 of these players were born more than 1000km from their current club. Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper Lewis Italiano for instance was born in Perth, which at 5270km away is further than the distance between London and parts of the United States, or between Paris and Cameroon. As Australia is one of the world’s largest countries, the A-League’s tyranny of distance cannot be avoided. Potentially this could hinder opportunities for young players, and/or those with limited financial support to make the move to a long way from home, particularly compared with home-grown players in smaller and more densely-populated nations. One small saving grace for Australia – or parts of it – is the concentration of its population, and therefore players and clubs, in the south-east corner of the country. This makes migration from birthplace to clubs within this region more feasible especially for younger players.

Relative location

Relocating to Australia or New Zealand from another country is move further than, for example, a European player migrating to play in another European country. And so despite Germany having a much higher proportion of its players born outside of Germany compared with the A-League, the average distance between birthplace and Bundesliga club is almost a quarter (1500km) of the A-League’s corresponding figure (5200km), based on 2014/15 squads.

With 44% of its players born outside of the United States, the MLS relies more on foreign-born players than the A-League. MLS source countries are spread far and wide, mostly across Europe (30% of foreign-born MLS players are born in Europe), other parts of North & Central America (27%) and South America (24%). However the United States is not quite as isolated as Australia. Around 80% of foreign-born 2014/15 A-League players were born in Europe or the Americas – continents located on the opposite side of the globe.

Proportion of players born overseas

While the Chinese and Japanese leagues are also a long distance from source countries of many of their foreign-born players – Rio de Janeiro is 1500km further from Tokyo than London is from Sydney – the proportion of foreign-born players in China (16%) and Japan (12%) is currently much less than for the Australian league (32%). The A-League’s larger weighting of overseas-based players therefore pushes Australia’s overall birthplace to club distance higher.

Trends in other leagues

The increasing diversity of Australian league players is a trend generally consistent with other leagues around the world.

  Foreign-born (%) Local-born(a) (%)Average distance between birthplace and club (km)
Top tier league:2005/06 season2014/15 season2005/06 season2014/15 season2005/06 season2014/15 season
Australia25.632.039.232.040905240
USA28.644.38.6 9.727303940
China 6.316.431.321.712402450
Japan12.412.035.338.519601790
Netherlands41.431.748.249.714601090
England53.961.526.120.518602330
France37.238.618.014.319601950
Germany48.242.824.322.717201510
Italy35.057.216.810.823702970
Spain38.641.323.921.325602390
Overall33.939.126.422.920502190
(a) Players born within 100km of club.

In 2014/15, the average distance between birthplace and club for A-League players was 28% higher than for the first A-League season 2005/06. Declines in players born in other parts of Asia and the United Kingdom over this time were more than offset by large increases of A-League players born in mainland Europe (up 350%), South America (doubled) and Africa (from one to 10 players).

For the nine other countries in this analysis, the average birthplace to club distance also increased by 17% over this time. Countries with the biggest increases in this player diversity statistic were China (up by around 100%) and the United States (up 44%). The average birthplace to club distance in the top tiers of England and Italy also increased significantly (both up 25%), although not quite as much as for the A-League.

For China, the doubling of overall distance between birthplace and club includes a four-fold increase in players born in South America (mostly Brazilians) and a 100% increase in Europe-born players. An expansion of foreign player quotas combined with a much stronger overall financial backing has made the Chinese Super League a more feasible and attractive destination for players born in other countries. Nevertheless the number of Chinese-born players in the China’s top tier remains quite high, at 84% in 2014 compared to around 94% ten years earlier.

The significant increase in birthplace to club distance for MLS players since 2005 is explained by a 400% fold increase in African and European-born players, and three times the number born in South America (including significant increases in Brazilian, Argentine and Colombian-born) now playing in the United States.

Interestingly, the distance between birthplace and club increased by a quarter in the English Premier League despite a substantial decline in African-born (down 30%). The overall increase in England’s top tier is explained partially by a four-fold increase in the number of players born in South America since 2005/06, plus significant growth in those born elsewhere in the Americas (up 20%) and mainland Europe (up 12%) – especially large increases of French and Spanish-born players.

In Italy, there was a substantial increase in foreign-born players from all confederations apart from Asia – especially players born in other European countries, up 150% from ten years previous.

In the Netherlands – whose percentage of foreign-born players in 2014/15 is about the same as the A-League – there are much lower numbers of African and South American-born players now compared with 2005/06. Consequently, and contrary to the trend in most other leagues in this analysis, there was a decline (of 10%) in foreign-born players, and in the overall distance between birthplace and club (down 26%) in the Dutch top tier from ten years ago.

Conclusion

A-League clubs are sourcing their squads from a wider range of regions in 2014/15 than they did in 2005/06. This has been predicated on changes in the proportion of overseas-born (up) and local-born players (down), and average distance between birthplace and club (up). It’s a trend consistent with comparable young and developing (and competing) leagues around the world, especially the United States and China, and for some of the highest profile national leagues.

This changing environment provides Australian men and women increased opportunities to play and develop overseas. However, much like the tariff debate, Australians can’t expect to take advantage of overseas leagues opening their doors but close its own. The growing migration of players will have increasing impact on the football landscape at both source and destination regions. Adaptive strategies to deal with this global trend are essential for the further development of players, national leagues and national teams.

  •  Footnote: for this analysis, 2014/15 A-League players are those part of the official senior squad as at Round 5, or who had made at least one league appearance up to Round 5; 2014/15 squads for other countries (2014 for USA, China & Japan) are squads as at 1 October 2014 or who made at least one appearance up to 1 October; 2005/06 squads are those who made at least once appearance in the 2005/06 season (2005 for USA, China & Japan). For all A-League clubs ‘foreign’ and ‘overseas’ born players are those born outside Australia and New Zealand.