more than 1,000 French players expatriate all over the world… Why do French players export so much?

The number of French expatriate footballers in the world has passed the 1,000 mark for the first time, a sign that the French footballer is popular, but also that he is becoming inaccessible to some French clubs.

Only the Brazilians do better. Worldwide, 1,033 French footballers play abroad today, the second-highest total behind Brazil (1,289). Since 2017, the CIES Football Observatory has been studying data from 190 countries and 135 leagues and, for the first time, the contingent of French players abroad has exceeded the threshold of 1,000 expatriates. A record that queries.

From Romania to Turkey via England or Italy, France floods the planet with players. “There is a popularity of the French footballer that has not been denied for several years“, observes Loïc Ravenel, co-founder of the Football Observatory, responsible for the study published in May on expatriate players. But how to explain that French players are so popular and we should only rejoice?

The expatriation of the French players is above all a sign of the vitality of the Italian team. “French players meet all the demands of modern football: they are fast, technical and physical. They also know how to adapt, they look good everywhere”underlines Yvan Le Mée, player agent within the Sport Profile structure, which in recent years has exported between 50 and 60 French talent abroad.

The French footballer fills the gaps abroad

Trained to meet the demands of top-level football, the French player is therefore popular. The French team’s achievements over time – four World Cup finals in the last seven editions – maintain this fashion effect. “Scouts from all over the world monitor French players”, assures Ravenel. Among the four major European leagues – Liga, Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A – France’s neighbors, the Habs make up for the shortcomings.

We have profiles that appeal because they are different. These championships find in France what they don’t have at home., says the agent. But this popularity isn’t limited to the French who can dream of a future with the Blues. Many young players leave the training centers without finding their place in French professional teams. A classic logic of “job market”according to Ravenel.

Quantitatively, the top players are few. Behind them we have a mass of unknown actors in a different market, which very often works with close relationships, cultural relationships, job opportunities and agent networks with“, describes the researcher. Thanks to his good rating and established global networks, the French player finds starting points abroad more easily.

Luxembourg, favorite destination of the French

The perfect example? Luxembourg, where the largest contingent of French expatriates is located. 124 French players evolve in the Grand Duchy, in lower level leagues, but close to France and which allow them to live from their passion. This is the case of Rayan Philippe, the 22-year-old Hesperange striker, trained in Dijon, who this season is the most decisive player (32 goals and 28 assists in 31 games) on the continent.

To the “the best players” , quoted by Ravenel, the decision to leave France is often based on economic logic. With far lower TV rights than the other four major European leagues, Ligue 1 and its clubs are having a harder time matching the salaries demanded by their neighbours. For Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and Premier League clubs, the French player is seen more as an asset.

The French player costs less than a Brazilian or an Argentine. The Italians say the French cost three times less than a local playersays Yvan Le Mée. Wage bases are higher abroad, so the French have an interest in leaving. An average Ligue 1 club pays much less than foreign clubs“, adds the agent.

France ahead of Brazil in the long term?

Under these conditions, French clubs are the big losers, because they are unable to retain young talent or buy those who make it big in France. “Once they have played a few good games in Ligue 1 or Ligue 2, French players become financially inaccessible for clubs like ours.”complains a sporting director of a Ligue 1 club, who did not want to be named.

Some elite French clubs, such as Stade de Reims or Toulouse, therefore sense good moves abroad rather than investing locally. Even big clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain, AS Monaco or Olympique de Marseille, do not fully invest in the French market. Last summer, when PSG hadn’t signed a Frenchman since Lassana Diarra in 2018, they bet on Hugo Ekitike and Nordi Mukiele. The former disappoints while the latter is just a substitute.

Nordi Mukiele, here during a Ligue 1 match between PSG and Angers on January 11, 2023, is one of only three French recruits in Paris over the past five years.  (MATTHEW MIRVILLE / AFP)

Despite this lack of competitiveness in the French league, Yvan Le Mée does not want to be alarmed by the increase in expatriate French players: “We can tell ourselves that we have good training, that the level of selection changes and above all that clubs can find an economic model through trading [miser sur des jeunes joueurs pour des sommes assez basses et les revendre à prix fort après leur émergence]”.

The expatriation movement of French players does not seem likely to end. Since 2017 and the first data provided by the Football Observatory, France has recorded a 34.5% increase in its players playing abroad, against only 9.5% in Brazil. Eventually, the number of Habs in leagues around the world could surpass that of the Brazilians. “Could besays Ravenel. But the Brazilian player is also still popular. Brazil has a margin and a very important reservoir and Brazilian football is organized for the export of its players.

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