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July 2021

The big five, is it fair?

The big five, is it fair.

Written by Adam Brogden.

The 2013 demographic study into football will be published sometime in June, in case you are unfamiliar with these sorts of studies, I’ll explain.  They are basically a look at world football as a whole, and they highlight the movements of individuals from one area of the globe to another. Usually for financial reasons, or sporting reasons with a large financial goal maybe a step or two away for a talented footballer or sports person.

Brazil and France still lead the way in exporting their footballers, so something within both set ups must appeal to the wider footballing community; Spain is also on the rise for exporting talent but not to the extent of the previously mentioned nations.

Also contained within these studies, we have statistics on the varying leagues across the globe and specifically Europe. Age and financial variations are highlighted which gives us an indicator as to which national leagues attract the best talent. The big five (England, Spain, Germany, Italy & France) have the most international players; on average around 50% of the players are full internationals, this drops for other leagues to around the 15% mark. Although Russian clubs are making a sustained growth trend in this area within the last two seasons rising from 11% to 30% of full international players playing regularly for Russian clubs, which also highlights their increased influence on the European game, both in a financial and sporting manner.

What we see in the smaller leagues across the European game is, the lower the international representation, the lower the average age of the league, below 25, if my sources are correct. So we can directly point to these leagues being feeder leagues for the big five, with young promising players intentionally moved into these leagues to gain experience and exposure to European football.

The routes usually chosen for footballers outside of Europe are as follows.

Brazilian players usually go into Portugal then on into the big five.

West African players usually go into France and Belgium, then on elsewhere. Whereas, a lot of talented Turkish and Japanese players are finding their way into German football.

Argentinian players are finding their way into both Italy and Spain, although, a certain percentage are starting to ply their trade at Portuguese sides, before being moving on.

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What these studies are starting to highlight is the movement of promising talent, players that have appeared at youth international level finding their way into the feeder leagues for the big five or directly into these leagues at lower level clubs.

Also we are starting to see a trend with non-internationally known players, making the move into the EU’s middle nations that are financially restricted with regards to the big five, usually with a club budget under £10million but over £3million a season, they import unknown talent (or rather a scout network imports them) into the country, which in turn, if successful will sell the contracted individual on into higher paying league/s.

When I mention middle nations they consist of Switzerland, Ukraine, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Romania and Israel. These national leagues are starting to see an increase in traffic passing through their competitions.

The nations that still rely heavily on youth production are Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, Cyprus, Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland and Slovenia, with Slovakia leading the way, a country very close to my own heart. The clubs within these smaller footballing nations have budgets of under £3million a year, so it makes sense to take the long-term home grown route.

To get people to understand the changing nature of our game, remember back to the days of Czechoslovakia and how competitive their sides were, and yet today both are described as very small footballing nations. But whilst both countries played under the one name, they reached more international finals and have a better history than England when it comes to finishing in the top places at international tournaments.  They can produce some of the most talented of footballers. One player who I would have loved to have seen wear the Arsenal shirt was Pavel  Nedved, what a player, what a haircut and to think this man beat Thierry Henry to the 2003 Ballon D’Or by a quite a large margin, the closest an Arsenal player has come to being European player of the year.

When looking at the squads for these smaller nations clubs, we see that 40% on average are home grown players in their respective first teams, with the rest made up of the countries’ nationals who were trained at other clubs. So it is little wonder that on the international stage I would prefer to watch some of these smaller nations compete against one another as it makes for a better match, technically speaking. The players have known each other longer which breeds stability and understanding.

At a national level, if some of the top clubs within the smaller nations could keep hold of their better talent, instead of losing them to the big five or bigger paying leagues, we could and probably would see some very competitive teams coming out of these smaller nations.  But whilst the elite of Europe are hunting for the best talent with larger budgets at their disposal the smaller footballing nations don’t really stand a chance.

Croatia for me, is a very, very good side at international level yet their national league cannot hold on to its talent.  The same is true for the Czech republic, an absolutely smashing international side but again the national league leaks its best talent. So we have the biggest economies able to attract the better talent.

What’s wrong with that? Most people will agree that this is how life works. But when you consider Europe’s decision to allow sport to adhere to a different set of rules from the rest of society, then we must also question the same imbalances that keep smaller nations in a form of footballing poverty. If Football truly wishes for all its teams to be competitive then we should be looking at slowing the foot drain of the smaller footballing nations or at least making sure the astronomical transfer fees we see today are actually filtering through to the training clubs.

My own opinion is that the solidarity payments are not sufficient and are in need of changing. At the moment, when a player is transferred, only 5% of the transfer fee is for the clubs that nurtured the player between the ages of 12 to 23. This needs to be raised to at least 25%. A quarter of any transfer fee should be finding its way to the training clubs; this should be a non-negotiable rule within the player status and transfer regulations.

How and why FIFA have allowed this situation to arise smacks of mismanagement from our governing body. The elite leagues have been allowed to pillage and plunder the smaller nations at will, and the results are for everyone to see.

The last time we had a European player of the year outside of the big five was Igor Belanov back in 1986, and he played for Dynamo Kyiv of the Ukraine. Since 1986 only seven winners of the Ballon D’or have been nationals of one of the big five, the rest of the winners have been imported talent.

In the 58 year history of the European cup/Champions league; the tournament has been won only 13 times by teams outside of the big five. In recent times we have Porto (Portugal, and I don’t wish to go into the background of how they did that) and Ajax (Holland) who have won this tournament in 2004 and 1995 respectively and before that Red star Belgrade in 1990. Only 3 sides in the last 20 years to have been crowned champions and who originated outside of the big five leagues.

So I wish to leave you with this one thought, and that is; do you think football is fair for all, or just a competition between the big five?

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17 comments to The big five, is it fair?

  • Stuart

    I think Spain exporting players more now is to do with the economic crisis. As a recruiter, I too get to see similar trends as in football, people follow the money and right now the money is not in Spain which is why most of my candidates are coming from Spain at the moment. Here in the UK (and other parts of Europe I’d also assume) we really are protected from the truth of how bad the situation is in Spain right now.

  • Very decent text.

    Only, Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) won ECC in 1991.

  • WalterBroeckx

    Coming from a small football nation (but seemingly on the rise for the moment thanks to our most successful players having their education in Holland and France) I still remember the days when our top teams were in European finals and could compete with the best of Europe.
    In those days you could still compete with gathering the best youth of your country and fill them up with some foreign talents.
    The Big money has changed the football world and not for the good of the small nations.

  • Sav from Australia

    Top quality article and writing, Adam.

    “do you think football is fair for all, or just a competition between the big five?”

    I don’t think it will change. Its not fair, it would more exciting otherwise, but the same countries that dominate football also dominate in economic terms. As such, they have a vested interest to keep the world revolving around money.

  • gee

    I’ve had a similar thought on how Africa and countries within Africa have that same problem of talent drain, for both local leagues and national teams.

    Although it was a tragic story but Victor Moses could easily be playing for England, same with Frimpong.

    also the Dutch colony Suriname, how many world class players that played for Holland had some kind of influence from that island?

  • It's Grim Oop North

    Sort of off topic, the challenge to FFFP regs has started apparently – make of this what you will, and note it comes from a player, not a “massive” club 🙂

    Is it wrong to hope the challenge fails?

  • Adam

    Its grim, we are nattering about this here.

  • It's Grim Oop North

    Ta Adam,

    didn’t think to look there, I’m sure there’ll be a dedicated article for it soon 🙂

  • weedonald

    In order to try and answer your excellent question Adam, we need to realize somethings essential to this debate:

    1)Football reflects,albeit poorly at times, the nature of the real world….the rich get richer, the poor and middle class get poorer and those in power are corrupted by the rich. Is it fair? Definitely not….is it life, most definitely!

    2)FIFA,EUFA and the local Football Associations are filled with stuffed suits whose principal purpose is to enrich themselves. Given this fact, it comes as n o surprise that the big 5 nations are favoured and protected when it comes to tapping up and devouring talent from the less wealthy, less in-favour Footballing Nations.

    3)This excellent article simply acts as a reminder and predictor of what is becoming more and more inevitable, with the implicit and complicit involvement of our Football authorities. The big 5 are too big to ¨fail¨ and too lucrative a resource for the aforementioned crooks, oops… I meant governing authorities, so they,ll NEVER bite the hand that feeds them or kill the golden goose! Therefore expect such abuses and indifference from these people to continue unabated.

  • Mark

    The solution for the smaller countries is to form leagues that are multi-national. Why not an eastern european league? Why not a northern european league? I think these kind of leagues could start to challange the big five leagues. If the bigger clubs in Belguim, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and may be even Scotland formed a league there would be more potential revenue from TV and more competition. I think this is what Southeast Asia needs to do too!

  • Adam

    Mark, its a nice idea, but each league or nation is an association in its own right, with voting rights within FIFA and UEFA.

    They would have to dissolve the associations and form another? And I don’t know what effect that would have at international level?

    There are, though, many sides from an association that play their football within another, so a precedent has already been set, but I’m not sure you could just combine national leagues without it having an impact on the National sides?

    Agree though with the principle idea.

  • @Adam, I have more time to discuss a few things from your article. All-in-all, I would agree with you that something has to be changed.

    However, I would first discuss a basic idea of The Big Five with an accent on France. What makes them a member of The Big Five? French clubs haven’t been exactly the most successful clubs in Europe neither before introducing of Champions’ League in 1992-93 nor after that happened. It might sound like a shock for someone but French clubs managed to win European cups in just two occasions – Olympique Marseille won the very first edition of Champions’ League (and never had a chance to defend the title due to match-fixing scandal that ended with relegation of OM to Ligue 2) and PSG won Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996. Compare it with Netherlands that have had three different Champions’ Cup/Champions’ League winners in six occasions (Feyenoord 1970, Ajax 1971, 1972, 1973, 1995, PSV 1988) or Portugal that have had Porto and Benfica being the best European clubs in four occasions (Benfica back in sixties won ECC twice, Porto did it in 1987 and 2004), never mind other European cups. Furthermore, current UEFA coefficients confirm that France are no longer member of The Big Five league. Of course, it will probably change when PSG and Monaco start collecting points.

    I tend to think that I have some knowledge about ex-Yugoslavian leagues with an accent on Bosnia and Croatia, to a lesser extent Serbia.

    1) Bosnia suffered the most of war attrocities and that included infrastructure. Perhaps Mr Broecx can write a word or two about players (late Suvad Katana, Mario Stanić, Željko Pavlović, Gordan Vidović…) that had a lot of success in Belgium. Just before war started, all four of them were members of FK Željezničar Sarajevo. At World Cup 1998 Vidović played for Belgium, Stanić played for Croatia and late Katana failed to reach WC with Bosnia. Željezničar – if I’m not wrong – didn’t get a single penny from Belgian clubs for aforementioned players. Bosnian stadiums are mostly crappy and players don’t have proper training grounds.

    Second problem that Bosnian football suffers from is corruption at more-less every level. Ivica Osim managed to correct some things when it comes to Premijer Liga but in lower leagues situation is still horrible. My friend – who was a coach of one club that plays in second tier of Bosnian football – told me after one away game that he felt relief when hosts scored second goal and took 2-0 lead. “That meant”, he explained, “we won’t be beaten on the pitch any more.” To be a coach in that kind of football at every level means that you don’t exactly have time to teach footballers virtues of the game. It was about ten or eleven years ago when my brother was playing for the youth categories of local club. His coach told him on Wednesday: “_______, let your nails grow by the Sunday – we play an away game!” Luckily, my brother left his boots and started training karate. Corruption on every level also means that coaches don’t value true quality – daddys’ sons are more likely to be picked over a decent talent that doesn’t have a rich daddy as support. It’s also questionable whether Bosnian coaches know to recognize true quality. Edin Džeko is one of rare players in our starting 11 that has played in Bosnian league since both entities are participating in it but he was mocked and considered as Kloc before a foreign coach Jiri Plišek (from Czech Republic) saved him from the swamps of our football and took him to Teplice for 50.000 euros. That example leads to another question related to your text, Adam – do clubs like Željezničar (btw, it is my first football love, a club that I have loved since I was six) deserve any money for Džeko given that they did nothing for his football talent?

    2) Croatia have a problem with monopoly and it started in 1995. Hajduk Split have been the only Croatian club to reach quarterfinals of Champions’ League (they achieved it in 1995) but after they lost to Panathinaikos in Champions’ League Qualifying Round in 1995 on away goals, they couldn’t keep up with Dinamo (it is a very symbolic thing that Dinamo were called Croatia Zagreb from 1993 to 2000). Dinamo were supported by Croatian president Franjo Tuđman so they were capable of assembling a strong team that included Dražen Ladić, Dario Šimić, Robert Prosinečki, Silvio Marić, Kruno Jurčić…all members of Croatian national team that won a bronze medal at World Cup 1998 plus some internationals like Bosnian Edin Mujčin and Australian Mark Viduka. However, due to lack of real competition in Croatia, that team never managed to progress from Group Stage in Champions’ League. After Tuđman died, Croatia Zagreb were renamed to Dinamo but they went through a few tough years when Hajduk and Zagreb respectively managed to claim titles. Dinamo have had to work more with their youth categories, young South-Americans and players from other Croatian clubs while selling their best players in order to continue their domination on Croatian level. Our Eduardo, Bayern Mario Mandžukić, Lyon Dejan Lovren, Inter Mateo Kovačić, former Spuds Ćorluka, Kranjčar and Modrić were all members of Dinamo. However, Dinamo haven’t been in European cups in spring for more than 40 years.

    One of the reasons is their domination in Croatia, both on and off the pitch. The best example is the one of Lokomotiva Zagreb. It’s basically Dinamo feeder club that should have had a status of Barcelona B in Spain – they should never have been in the same level with their parent club. However, Lokomotiva are not only allowed to participate in Croatian First Division but they are also holding second spot which means they will represent Croatia in Europa League! That wouldn’t be possible if Croatian FA weren’t heavily influenced by powerful Zdravko Mamić, a psychopath that is also a very smart economist.

    In all three countries – including Serbia – journalists do their dirty part by promoting players that don’t deserve praise. In all three countries there is something that is called “3-for-3”. That means that club A and club B make a deal that both of them will win their home game.

    It is a shame that players from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia don’t have better conditions to show their talent as there is a plenty of it. In Premiership Nemanja Vidić is a captain of FAnchester United, Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Džeko are playing for Manchester Oilers, Branislav Ivanović is one of the best players of the Chavs, Asmir Begović has been one of the best goalkeepers in England for two seasons… Bayern Muenchen have their best goal-scorer in Bundesliga in Mario Mandžukić, one of the towers of Borussia Dortmund defense is Neven Subotić, Real Madrid won against FAnchester United in Champions’ League thanks to Luka Modrić’s equalizer as well while Miralem Pjanić from AS Roma is one of the best midfielders in Serie A – his compatriot Senad Lulić that plays for Lazio should be mentioned among best wingers in Serie A as well. If we add Slovenian and Montenegrin players as well, our possible reinforcement Jovetić, Juventus striker Vučinić and Inter goalkeeper Handanović would make a wonderful Yugoslavian line-up as well.

  • Adam

    Hey Josif,

    Firstly, it comes down to where the bigger wages can be earned, I take most of my information from studies from Birkbeck university and CIES football observatory and FIFA and that’s how they have categorised them, although I understand your issue. Its a financial categorisation.

    Basically you are highlighting exactly what the intention of the piece was meant to, is the big-five fair?

    Some of the players you mentioned I would have loved to see in an Arsenal shirt, and this is where the problem lay. With people such as myself who would happily see a player move from his home nation and entertain me in mine.

    Instead of what is right for the sport, these individuals could have stayed in their nations and helped the clubs progress and win honors as well as further funding, but they were willing to leave for the riches that the big-five can offer, also the club owners wanted or needed the finances.

    You highlight the point of the article perfectly. Keep the talent together and progress together. But you have the richer economies on your doorstep all too willing to plunder and pillage.

    Is it fair, NO. How can we stop that? Money. And the only way I see is the solidarity payments for training clubs no matter how influential.

    The corruption issues within your home nation, I have no knowledge of so would appreciate any literature to guide me.

    Lastly, you point to honors, and I agree, the days of homegrown sides seem to be at an end which is a shame, but may also highlight the integrating nature of nations.

  • Adam

    My point in trying to highlight passed winners of personal honors, is that there are not many big five nationals who win, the players who are deemed the very best come from smaller economies.

    I hope that came across.

  • Adam


    How would more money coming into your nation help with the infrastructure, would the club owners hoard the money, would there be a need for rules governing the spending of solidarity payments?

    How could we make sure the money earned via training payments, stayed within and benefited the clubs?

  • @Adam, I understand your point and it really makes a lot of sense.

    You mentioned Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) as an example of team that managed to win ECC despite being out of The Big Five. Now, there are some stuff in the background of that success that couldn’t happen today and that fit with your point perfectly.

    1) There was a rule in Yugoslavia that a player can’t go abroad before his 28th birthday. In 1990-91, Crvena Zvezda won ECC and Yugoslavian league with the likes of Prosinečki, Savićević, Jugović, Mihajlović, Pančev, Belodedici…in their team. Dinamo Zagreb had Ladić, Boban and Šuker, Hajduk Split had Štimac, Jerkan, Bilić, Jarni, Asanović and Bokšić (six players from starting 11 of Croatian national team in EURO 96), Partizan Belgrade had Predrag Mijatović, Željezničar had already mentioned talents that were good enough only to keep them in the league, Velež Mostar had Meho Kodro… Basically, you could find decent players in more or less every team in the league.

    2) Those were days before Bosman ruling when number of foreign players that could be fielded (only three), not to mention that free transfers couldn’t happen in a way they have happened ever since 1996.

    3) English clubs were banned from European competition.

    However, examples of Džeko and many others suggest that having an option to go abroad is a way out for those who are prisoners of their respective countries in transition. Can infrastructure help clubs? Well, an example of HNK Orašje is an interesting one. While Iljo Dominković (from Orašje) was one of the most powerful men in our FA, Michel Platini himself opened The Goal Center in Orašje that was built in some UEFA development project (why Orašje, a very small town with a football club that reached first tier of Bosnian football only after the war, was picked?). When Dominković lost his power, Orašje found themselves in troubles and out of Premijer Liga despite Goal Center.

    18 years after the war Bosnian football is still learning baby steps when it comes to regulations and overall situation (over half a million unemployed in a country that has 3,5-4 million people). A strict control from UEFA (and we all know how much moral that organization has!) would probably be one of required steps to keep use of payments under proper framework.

    About literature on corruption – well, you can check some results from previous seasons in Premijer Liga. You’ll notice that it wasn’t very often that visitors took a point, never mind all three of them. In lower leagues, losing a single point at home may condemn your team to relegation.

    The most comical thing I’ve read so far happened few years ago when Modriča (another club that rose and fell thanks to political connections of their board) were relegated due to home defeat of Rudar Prijedor. The journalist who wrote a report from that game was moaning how friends from Prijedor forgot what Modriča did for them and how they betrayed them by not letting Modriča win home game.

  • Adam

    May 8, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    1) The point you make is so valid, with the EU’s rules on freedom of movement, you couldn’t hope to keep the talent you mentioned under the current climate. Plus I can guarantee, those players should have helped to build a league and keep it successful for many generations to follow.

    I couldn’t possibly agree to going back to such a rule (not allowing people to move) however, I am a great believer in slowing or making sure remuneration is appropriate for such a talent drain. Not that it will solve the problem but, hopefully, over-time the smaller leagues could build themselves up and keep hold of their talent that little bit longer, which, in turn could breed successes.

    I am a great believer in; Each time a player moves 25% of the transfer fee should be split between the clubs the player was at between the ages of 8 and 23. 1% for each year a club has invested in training a young person, this should actually encourage clubs to train numerous young people from an earlier age. As well as adding much needed funds at grass roots.

    Even academies for the young between the ages of 8-16 that are not affiliated with a professional club but are registered with an association should be legible for this payment. Who knows over time we may find that these sorts of academies can become self sustaining as well.

    There is so much that could be done, but we all know it won’t happen.