Our directory of things of interest

Sports report

  • Written by  Benjamin Hennig
  • Published in Mapping
Sports report Benjamin Hennig
24 Nov
Benjamin Hennig gets to grips with the increasingly globalised world of football

Football is a truly global phenomenon. Statistics about real levels of support are problematic, but there are estimates of up to 3.5 billion fans of football globally. A study conducted in 2006 by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which represents 211 members as the global governing body of football, estimated 270 million people being active in the sport worldwide. FIFA’s data give a rough idea of football’s global importance and distribution.

From the statistics published, Asia emerged as the biggest player with 85 million footballers. Europe had 62 million, Africa 46 million, North and Central America had 43 million, South America 27 million, and Oceania 0.5 million. In terms of population share, Europe, South America and North/Central America are ahead of other regions with about seven per cent of their respective populations.

European football remains the most relevant globally when it comes to the revenue of its national sports leagues. England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France (with Monaco) have the most profitable football leagues. This makes the European administrative body, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) perhaps the most important of the six continental confederations that are part of FIFA.

England has only 2.4 times as many players than Iceland in UEFA competitions, even if it has a population 164 times larger

UEFA consists of 55 national members. According to the most recent statistics (from 2016), 20,344 players are currently participating in UEFA competitions. Here, geography plays an important role in understanding the global dynamics of football. European football leagues see significant inner-European flows of talent into the most prestigious leagues. But being such an important player internationally, 1,374 players from outside the UEFA countries compete in UEFA tournaments. By comparison, the largest single national representation from within Europe is that of Spain with 865 players. It should be noted that these numbers only count those in the European competitions, rather than all players in national leagues.

This month’s cartogram shows this share of international players in UEFA competitions. Each country outside UEFA is resized proportional to the number of players from there (the ten largest are labelled along with their respective number of players). Countries that are members of UEFA as well as countries with no players are not changed and are shown in grey. The map shows how dominant African and South American countries are in these flows of football migration into Europe. In addition, a ‘treemap’ visualises the overall geographical distribution of all players in UEFA competitions by country. It uses nested rectangles ordered by absolute size to display the share of players from each country. It is similar to early forms of cartograms, but does not include the geographical location in its display in order to give the hierarchical structure more prominence.

In the European-wide distribution of players it is interesting to observe that despite large differences in the overall populations, the numbers of those who compete at European level seem much closer to each other. The largest football nations do have the largest numbers, but with much smaller gaps to the smaller nations. England, for example, has only 2.4 times as many players than Iceland in UEFA competitions, even if it has a population 164 times larger.

Benjamin Hennig (@geoviews) is Assistant Professor in Geography, University of Iceland and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He is part of the Worldmapper project and is author of www.viewsoftheworld.net

This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…


Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems


The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…


Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…


The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…


Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires


Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…


Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades


Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…


National Archives map historian, Rose Mitchell, highlights some of the…


An expedition into the Jordanian desert is helping teachers and…


Trivia fans take note, Mount Hope in the British Antarctic…


An enormous hydropower development in Ethiopia is expected to put…


From nuclear warnings to whether your favourite band will ‘make…


New maps of global reptile distribution reveal significant gaps in…


Indigenous conservation schemes in Peru can be more effective than…


How are the EU member nations faring in the fight…


Violence against women violates human rights, and the lack of…


Deadly heat waves could become more frequent in cities thanks…


These 13 poignant infographics are in the running for the…