Dr Dan Parnell



December 2016

A networked view of the international mobility of minors in football

Originally published on The Football Collective here.

By Alex Bond, Paul Widdop and Dan Parnell

The recent CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report investigated the international mobility of minors in football. The findings suggest a trading or mobility network of under 18yr old male athletes. However, they do not necessarily interrogate and unpick this network, which might show how it is structured globally and locally. This short blog post aims to extend their findings and explore the structure of the trade network regarding minors within football. Indeed, there are many ethical, moral, economic and, of course, legal debates to be had on the matter (the latter two can be read further in FIFA’s regulations on the transfer of players and KEA’s and CDES’ report).

There is a long history of academic research focussing on the labour market within professional association football – especially in Europe. Walters and Rossi (2009) edited series of research papers investigating the issues and challenges of Labour Market Migration in European Football – focusing on concepts such as, muscle drain, feet drain and feet exchange. On top of this, Frick (2007) empirically inspected the major European leagues’ labour market. Other research has focussed on Africa’s role within the European labour market, such as – Poli (2007) who provides specific insight into Africa’s status in the European Football Labour Market; and Darby (2000; 2007) who looks at African football labour migration to Europe and African labour migration to Portugal respectively. More recently, Bullough, Moore & Goldsmith (2016) examined UEFA’s home-grown rule and player’s migration and opportunity, and Rossi, Semens & Brocard (2016) book which explored the role of sport agents within football’s labour market. Other useful books on the topic, consist of Maguire’s (2010) Sport and Migration: Borders, Boundaries and Crossings, Elliot & Harris’ (2014) Football and Migration: Perspectives, Places, Players and Tiesler & Coelho (2008) Globalised Football: Nations and Migration, the City and the Dream.

The recent CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report highlights a very controversial issue within the European Football Labour Market – namely the migration of minors. Of course, this raises moral and ethical implications, that will stir a range of opinions. Darragh McGee seems to be at the forefront of minor migration within sport, so readers are directed to his 2012 book Displacing Childhood: labour exploitation and child trafficking in sport, or his conversation article last year What the next FIFA president could do to tackle child trafficking in football. Additionally readers may find Brackenridge et al. (2013) Child Exploitation and the FIFA World Cup: A review of risks and protective interventions useful. Nevertheless, the purpose of this blog post is to further interrogate the network of minor migration presented by CIES, without providing judgement on the topic or its implications.

The CIES report that within the top 5 major European leagues (Premier League, Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga and Serie A), the percentage of players migrating increased from 24.1% to 55.2% from 2009 to 2015. Additionally, over the same period the average age dropped from 23.2 to 21.1 respectively, which is attributed to the increase in minor migration figures, which in 1995 was 51 and in 2015 was 184, most of which the final destination was England. The report goes further to include a section on the ‘Networks’, and provides useful information regarding the relational direction, and flow of minor’s migration in football. Within this section they include information on minor’s migration across Europe in October 2016, but they don’t locate the work in a social network analysis framework, so therefore cannot show how the network is configured. Here we use the information in the report and place it with an SNA. The below figure shows the data held in the report in network form.


This is a small-scale network based on the information provided in the CIES report, relating to the movement of minors as of October 2016. So whilst it offers an insight into the migration flow, it doesn’t explain net migration and is only a snapshot in time.

Obviously, much of this network could have been deducted through Figure 7 in the CIES report. Including that England is the clear end destination. But SNA allows us to look a bit more critically at the structure.  In network terms England has the highest in-degree and betweeness values within the network – which is a characteristic of a star topology seen here – suggesting that the England node (represented as a circle) has the most connections going into it or in this case, the majority of minor migrants from other countries migrating to England. However, England has the smallest (or none to be exact) out-degree, meaning no minor football players migrate abroad. It is Belgium who has the largest out-degree value, as they have the largest number of minors migrating, primarily to The Netherlands, and secondarily France and England. Again, deductible from the report.

What is not so deductible from the report is the structure of the network, so if we look a little closer, and apply K-core (clique of countries) (this establishes a core of nodes, or countries in this case, which are interlinked – this is a relaxed clique in that not every country (node) in the core is linked symmetrically), we find a number of countries (nodes) which were fundamental to the international transfer of minors across Europe as of October 2016. Therefore, we can depict that England, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany and the Republic of Ireland, are all embedded to the mobility of minor footballers within Europe. Thus, research is needed to track this network historically, and continuously to investigate net-migration of players over time – and account for the impact of huge political changes across Europe, such a Brexit and the right populist movement. Considering the centralised structure of the network, then political shifts affecting the (K-)core, such as Brexit, could have detrimental implications on the network robustness. Finally, research of this nature could aid policy decisions, by providing evidence of whether we need tighter interventions to control the movement of minors within football across Europe.


Manchester: a global centre for sport

Conference film content from our ESRC Festival of Social Science event, here are the contributions:

Making a difference off the pitch the social and community contribution of sport in Manchester

The economic and commercial contribution of sport to Manchester, the region, Britain and beyond

Introductions to The Football Collective

The Football Collective held its first conference on Wednesday 30 November. Check out some of the insight films from members of the collective who give their take on things. 

Go to our YouTube channel here.

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Sport management issues in an era of austerity

Very pleased to present a recent research article, which introduces our special issue for the European Sport Management Quarterly. Together, with Karl Spracklen and Peter Millward we offer an insight to sport management issues in an era of austerity and an introduction to our special issue.

Read the article here and access it on academiaedu here.


The guanxi of football

From British railways to Hollywood A-listers, a world of connections lies beneath Chinese football investments

Originally published in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Society Post here and the South China Morning Post here.

The purchase of a second-tier English football club by a Chinese conglomerate provides a window into a business culture of relationships and reciprocity, Simon Chadwick, Paul Widdop and Dan Parnell write.

When Chinese conglomerate Fosun International Limited acquired English second-tier football club Wolverhampton Wanderers (commonly referred to as Wolves), many of the club’s fans anticipated a cash windfall and some high profile player signings. Neither happened; indeed, the team’s performances were so unsatisfactory early on in the season that the team’s manager was sacked.

Fosun were clearly unhappy, as languishing in the lower reaches of second-tier English football neither cast the company in a positive light nor added significant value to China’s current football revolution. Even so, Fosun is unlikely to see its first foray into European club ownership as a disaster.

Football alone was never likely to be the only reason why Fosun bought Wolves. As a conglomerate, this might seem an obvious thing to say, as this type of organisation owns multiple businesses across a number of often-unrelated industrial sectors. At one level, Wolves could be just another investment in a broad portfolio of Fosun properties.

However, at another level, acquiring assets in football brings a much broader range of potential benefits. Fosun owns a 20 per cent stake in Gestifute, football super-agent Jorge Mendes’ player representation agency. Together, Gestifute and Wolverhampton have opened up a network to Fosun that is ultimately intended to be of much greater value to the company.

Networks in Chinese culture are so fundamental to doing business that China even has a name for it: guanxi. The literal translation of guanxi is often difficult to pin down but is sometimes defined simply as ‘relationships and connections’. Guanxi is rather more profound than Westerners might imagine, based upon their own notion of ‘connections’. It is a form of reciprocation – what Westerners may call ‘a favour for a favour’. That is, Chinese business people will often give something to someone in return for, at a later date, being able to ask that person to give something back or to exert influence on their behalf.

This is intended to enable Chinese businesses to create connections, relationships, and networks that help them bypass normal governance systems or conventional business practices. An important aspect of this is the social ties between individuals, which are intended to provide direct or exclusive access to insider information, business contracts or scarce resources.

In this context, it seems that Fosun’s acquisition of Wolverhampton Wanderers is a classic case of guanxi. Owning a successful football club in itself is good guanxi; with President Xi and senior members of his government having committed to a Chinese sports revolution, being part of the global football network makes good sense for Fosun.

Yet even if Wanderers do little more than play out the coming seasons in mid-table mediocrity, Fosun may not be too concerned. After all, guanxi dictates that there’s more to the Wolves deal than meets the eye. Indeed, having undertaken a social network analysis (which was derived from media sources) of Wolves and its new owner Fosun, it appears that the club is simply a hub in a much more significant collection of relationships and connections.

The diagram below gives some idea of what this network looks like:


Wolverhampton Wanderers’ owner Fosun is owned by Chinese billionaire Guo Guangchang. Guo is widely acknowledged as being one of China’s richest men, with a net worth of around US$5.9 billion. Guo has built a corporation with interests in everything from mining to pharmaceuticals to real estate. In many ways this is Guo’s guanxi, his network extending way beyond second-tier English football.
More significantly, in football terms, Fosun also set-up Foyo Culture and Entertainment Co Ltd. It is this company which in turn owns a minority stake in Mendes’ Gestifute. This provides agency services to football players through a subsidiary company, Polaris Sports. Among Polaris’ clients are Real Madrid players Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez. Polaris also works with current Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, who has long-standing links with Jorge Mendes (his agent for many years).
Together, Gestifute and Polaris partner with American company CAA Sport (a global sports and entertainment agency), which has numerous clients across football including FC Barcelona and Chelsea. The agency is itself part of a larger company – CAA (Creative Artists Agency), which represents a number of Hollywood ‘A-List’ celebrities. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are two of CAA’s clients.
Cruise and Pitt may not appear to have too much in common with a post-industrial town in the middle of England, and are unlikely to be turning out on a Saturday afternoon in Wolves’ famed gold kit, yet our map of Wanderers’ guanxi network shows there is a road that stretches from Hollywood to Wolverhampton. This begs the questions: why, and what is the return on investment for Fosun?
In recent years, the Chinese conglomerate has diversified into films and television, via its production company Fosun Pictures. The network connections to Cruise/Pitt/CAA therefore make a lot of sense, especially if one looks ahead to a Fosun-produced Hollywood blockbuster at some stage in the future.
This still seems a long way, though, from Wolverhampton. However, the town’s location in England’s West Midlands conurbation (home to Birmingham – England’s ‘second city’) may hold some clues. Rumours are currently circulating that British terrestrial television broadcaster Channel 4 is about to relocate from London, with Birmingham thought to be its favoured location. It is also rumoured the move may be part of the development of a much bigger media and entertainment complex in the city.
A corporation like Fosun, already investing heavily into the sector, would therefore appear to be ideally placed to bid for contracts that might emerge out of such a development. At the same time, there are major plans for Britain’s HS2 rail link to pass through the West Midlands, which would generate further business opportunities. Fosun recently became the first private Chinese company to own a bigger stake (US$ 6.9 billion) than the government in a high-speed railway project. The company is therefore ideally placed to bid for HS2 work.
And this is how guanxi works: when Fosun bought Wolves, the conglomerate was not simply just buying a football club. It was buying into a network of relationships and connections that Guo no doubt knew would have much broader, deeper and financially lucrative implications for the conglomerate. While it seems unlikely that Brad Pitt will become a regular spectator at Wolves’ home games, the fact he forms part of the club’s wider network reveals a great deal about both guanxi and how Chinese business works.

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