WHEN Brazil captivated the world in 1970 with their wonderful football and charismatic team of all talents, all 22 members of their squad were playing in Brazil, half coming from São Paulo-based clubs. Of the 22, only one, Jairzinho, went on to play in Europe, and that was towards the end of his career. Others, such as Carlos Alberto and Pelé, joined the North American Soccer League circus with New York Cosmos.
The Brazilian team that emphatically beat Italy in the final was a relatively mature one – Félix, the keeper, was 32 years old, Gérson and Pelé were both 29, Brito 28 and Everaldo 27. Rivellino, who was often referred to as a “youngster” was actually 24, a year older than Tostão. Clodoaldo was just 20, the baby of the team.
At the time, most people in the UK and indeed South America, had not travelled outside of their country of residence, let alone worked abroad. Movement of labour was restricted and travel was more expensive and certainly inaccessible. We didn’t really know what the other side of the planet looked like, but Mexico 1970 introduced us to a colourful new world. It was part of a process that included cheap package tours and Vesta’s dehydrated exotic foods. From a football perspective, thanks to the spectacle that was the World Cup, we started to become more international – we wanted to see more of Pelé, Rivellino, Beckenbauer, Riva and Müller. Actually, for most of the world, the summer of 1970 was the last they saw of Pelé in action. Great foreign footballers were, mostly, great by reputation and heresay until 1970.
The game was still very insular and confined to home and in truth, we were only going to see the aforementioned stars on TV, either in rare glimpses of national team football or UEFA club games. Overseas movement of manpower was still a rare thing and from a British point of view, it had been deemed a failure. There were only nine players among the 16 World Cup squads of 1970 that were not employed by a club from their home nation and six of those were Swedish. Another two were in the West German squad, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger of AC Milan and Helmut Haller of Juventus. The nine represented just 2.5% of the total squad members that went to Mexico.
Brazil’s team of local-based players may have been of its time, but the tide was gradually turning. By 1974, the number of expat players had risen to 8% of the World Cup roster, with the competition’s outstanding player, Johan Cruyff, having moved from Ajax to Barcelona for earth-shattering wages in 1973.
West Germany’s triumphant squad was the first to include a non-domestic player, the brilliant Günter Netzer, who was on Real Madrid’s books. Although out of favour with West Germany’s coach, Helmut Schön – he barely featured in WM 74 – Netzer was the first Real Madrid player to be part of a World Cup winning squad.
The West German squad of 1974 was selected from only seven clubs, the lowest number among the 21 World Cup winners. Twenty years earlier, West Germany enlisted their squad for Switzerland 1954 from 15. When West Germany won the competition in 1990, the number of expats among the 24 competing countries was 134, some 25% of the total and the German side had five overseas players.
Germany’s Bayern Munich, unsurprisingly, have provided 24 World Cup winners, ranging from Hans Bauer in 1954 to France’s Corentin Tolisso in 2018. But Bayern are not the most prolific club in terms of World Cup winners, that honour belongs to Juventus, who have provided 25, including three Frenchmen (Deschamps and Zidane in 1998 and Matuidi in 2018).
Recalling players who had decided to further their career outside their traditional market has often been the subject of heated debate. In 1978, the Argentinian administration was toying with the idea of banning players from moving abroad and Cesar Luis Menotti, the chain-smoking coach, agreed to limit the number of European-based candidates for his squad. Menotti’s final selection included just one – Mario Kempes, and it was a wise decision, for he was not only the leading scorer, but also the player of the tournament.
After winning the competition, the squad was soon picked-at by European clubs – Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa were signed by Tottenham and the ill-tempered Alberto Tarantini went to Birmingham, while Daniel Bertoni moved to Sevilla. By the time Argentina won their second World Cup in 1986, seven of their squad were playing abroad, including Diego Maradona at Napoli.
For UK football fans, interest in the continental game received a renaissance in 1991 when Paul Gascoigne moved from Tottenham to Lazio. With the introduction of TV programmes like Football Italia showcasing teams that included some of the world’s best players, access to the cosmopolitan game that was hinted at in 1970, truly began. Today, just like the men who fill the shirts of our favourite teams, we have sight of football from almost anywhere in the world. There are no mysteries from South America anymore.
Argentina and Brazil have long given up on trying to keep their best players at home and clubs now rely on selling-on talent into Europe. As a result their domestic football has undoubtedly declined and their clubs struggle to compete on a global stage that now includes the US and China.
Like Brazil, Argentinian players have been good travellers in recent decades and in 2018, only four of their 23-man squad were playing domestic football. In the five World Cups since 2002, the three top South American countries (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay), have largely sent expat-heavy squads to the competition – just 18% have been home-based players.
Although South America can still produce outstanding players, Europe has dominated the World Cup, winning the last four competitions. Moreover, a European side, Germany in 2014, has won the World Cup in South America, thus ending the theory that it could not be done. Germany’s 7-1 victory against hosts Brazil in the semi-final may well have been the end of a long, mythologised era. If Brazil win the World Cup again, it is possible their entire squad will be drawn from abroad, such is the appeal for players to find work in Europe and beyond. That hasn’t happened yet, although France’s victory in 2018 was a landmark in that it was achieved with a squad that had a majority (14 versus nine) of expats, the first time this had happened.
The last World Cup winning squad comprising only home-based resources was Italy in 2006, in fact the Italians also named a 100% Serie A squad in 1982. This probably explains why Juventus have more World Cup winners to celebrate than any other club in the world. It may also highlight that top Italian players (like the English) do not travel as much as some other nationalities and that traditionally, Italy has been a magnet for overseas talent rather than an exporter of players. Only one Italian, for example, has won the UEFA Champions League while playing for a non-Italian club, Christian Panucci in 1998 (Real Madrid).
The question is, could the coronavirus deter players and clubs from building multi-national teams, which in turn will mean fewer expatriates playing World Cup football? In 2018, over 70% of squad members were not playing in the country of their birth. Of the 736 players, 129 were employed in England, while another 255 came from clubs in the other big five leagues (Germany, Spain, Italy and France). Over 50% came from five leagues – underlining the concentration of talent in the game. To unpick that will be difficult, so it is safe to assume that any change, should it happen, will be gradual. Nevertheless, the transit of players since Mexico 1970, which at its best adds a degree of sophistication to the game, not only mirrors the effect of globalisation, it is also a symptom of the industrialisation of the modern football industry.