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Muscle drain versus brain gain: technology transfer through player emigration and manager immigration

G.J. Allan (University of Strathclyde) and John Moffat (Durham University Business School)

It used to be the case footballers played in the land of their birth and the manager of a national side came from that country, too. But with increased mobility, within sport and in other sectors of society, that is no longer the case. Now it is not unheard of for a top-ranked club team to put out a side composed entirely of non-nationals, and the manager of the national side is much more likely to be foreign. Whether that’s a good idea is the cause of much debate among fans.

Questions such as these stretch beyond national pride and there is a small but growing body of academic research on the subject. While some may argue that the exodus of players to foreign leagues – the so-called ‘muscle drain’ – weakens national football teams by lowering the standard of the domestic league, there is empirical evidence to suggest that when these ‘migrants’ return to play for their national team, they bring with them enhanced skills and tactical knowledge.

Analysing the Value of Muscle and Brain

As the post-match pundits know, it is not easy to place a value on the skills and experience of footballers. Although some work has been done on player movements, the effects of manager migration remain unexplored; at least until Grant Allan and John Moffat undertook a statistical evaluation of this migration, addressing two of the fans’ key questions. Will the national team be strengthened by players playing abroad? And should the national team have a foreign manager?

The analysis, covering both players and managers, used a dataset based upon football organising body FIFA’s ranking points (derived from a team’s results) from 2010-2012; a method which had been used for previous studies. In common with other work, the researchers included variables such as climate, footballing heritage and available resources and, as a further refinement, introduced a weighting allowing for differences in quality between domestic leagues outside Europe.

Settling the Discussion

The results confirmed those of previous papers as far as player migration was concerned, demonstrating that for all years considered the effects of muscle drain were significantly positive, bringing marked worthwhile benefits in terms of the performance of the migrant player’s national side. Equally significant was the negative impact on national performance of an ‘imported’ boss, with the study closing with the observation that countries would be better served by employing a domestic, rather than a foreign, manager – a conclusion that will surely bring a resounding ‘I told you so’ from many an exasperated football fan.

The research does more than settle the supporters’ debate; it provides an important contribution to the wider migration literature. “It suggests that migrants to more technologically advanced countries who later return to their home country may bring enhanced human capital which can boost the home economy,” explains Dr Moffat.

“The difficulty, of course, is that there is no guarantee that they will return.”

The author