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