England players need to get out more to have a chance of winning the World Cup

Level playing field? Raheem Sterling attacks. Rhona Wise/EPA

Like football, globalisation creates winners and losers. For now, the England football team is one of the back markers.

By globalisation we mean free movement: it is the increase in mobility across national borders of capital, of goods and services, and of labour. Winners of globalisation tend to be those countries, regions, cities and individuals that, in the words of Dani Rodrik, “have done their homework”. That is, those that have developed domestic capabilities that can take full advantage of the mobility of capital, goods and labour.

Football is a global game in 2014 but not so long ago this was far from the case. It benefited a lot from the wave of globalisation which started around 1990. In his great history of the game, David Goldblatt paints the time between the early 1970s and the early 1990s as the years in which “things fall apart”, as the Dark Ages of International Football. In Europe, because of hooliganism; in Latin America, thanks to the generals.

Across the whole of Europe, hooliganism was a serious issue and some may even argue that it remains so as evidenced by events in Dortmund after the 2006 Germany-Poland match. The UK government was one of the first to tackle organised violence with the English Premier League, created in 1992, part of this response. The other side of the Dark Ages were the generals in Latin America. The problem in Latin America was epitomised by military dictatorships using the World Cup for political purposes. Argentina 1978 provides notable examples, chiefly among them, the Cruyff no-show and the Argentina-Peru match.

Free movement

Deep integration is one way to develop domestic capabilities that can take advantage of the free mobility of goods, capital, and labour and European integration is one of the most powerful examples. In December 1995, the European Court of Justice (the highest court in the European Union) decided that football could not opt out from the free movement of labour enshrined in the Treaty of Rome. This became known as the Bosman ruling – after the player that most came to symbolise the campaign – and it has changed world football because it prohibited European clubs from discriminating against foreign players.

What do economists know about migration and the performance of national teams in major international football tournaments? It may surprise some but the answer is “quite a lot.” Branko Milanovic wrote the seminal piece on this in 2005. He argues that free movement of labour benefits the game by making it more competitive, by reducing inequality (measured as average goal difference) between national teams.

In 2007, Garry Gelade and Paul Dobson found that the percentage of national team players playing abroad has a positive and significant impact on national team performance. More recently, it’s been estimated that migration of national team players significantly improves the international performance of the national football team. They also find that this effect is larger, the larger the gap in quality between playing at home and playing abroad.

Three unmovable lions

How is migration good for team performance in World Cups? Most of this literature identifies human capital spillovers as the main reason. The idea is that players learn from other players. For instance, it has been shown that, all things being equal, more linguistically diverse teams do better in the Champions League. It has also been argued that migration is good for performance in World Cups because of the better quality of training facilities, diet and equipment in other countries.

This is a good general explanation because the vast majority of national team players in this World Cup play in countries that are richer than their countries of origin (think of the many African players currently in European teams). But what about England? Training facilities can not be that much better abroad.

If migration in particular and globalisation in general are so good for the performance of the national team, how come England has not won a major tournament since 1966? After all, the Premier League is a commercial and sporting success: a global brand that has supplied the largest number of players for this years’ World Cup (although Bayern Munich leads at a club level with 15 players in the tournament), a league in which 13 of the 20 clubs are foreign-owned and the football league that generates the largest TV revenues in the world.

In the 2014 World Cup, there are only two national teams with every single one of their players based in their home countries: England and Russia. The only Englishman not playing in England is a goalkeeper who plies his trade in Scotland. The Russian coach is Italian. Hair-splitters should have a field day debating whether England or Russia wins the title for least globalised team in the 2014 World Cup.

Incidentally, Italy is the third least globalized team, with 19 of 23 players in the domestic league (but has an Argentina-born player and a Brazil-born player in the squad). Yet what seems evident from the make-up of the 32 teams that qualified for Brazil is their diversity in terms of players from clubs in different countries (that is, Russia and England seem to be outliers).

The final whistle

A lesson for England is that globalisation is a two-way street. Foreign players benefit from playing in England but the reverse is not true because there are few top English players playing abroad.

How can migration be good for international football performance? One example is that migration allows exposure to different cultures, in this case, to different refereeing styles. The rules are the same the world over, but their interpretation and enforcement differ.

One example: tackling. England is where “football is a contact sport” and the “tackle” is king. If you ask English fans what is the most memorable play in the history of international football many would say Bobby Moore’s 1970 tackle on Pele.

But English fans must have noticed that referees abroad do not seem to enjoy tackles “from behind” even if a stud does graze the ball first. World Cup referees often punish such tackles with a foul and possibly even a yellow card – let’s call the 2010 World Cup final the exception, but where was the referee from again?