Got World Cup fever yet? I bet — even if you are an American. (“That first game is a must-win,” you’re now breathlessly telling all your friends.) Chances are you’ll watch at least a couple of games during this World Cup, see a guy make a dashing strike towards the goal, and wonder “Where does he play the rest of the year?” (Or, “What is he doing the other three years he’s not doing this?”) Now we have data on this! There are 736 players in this year’s World Cup. 114 play for clubs in England during the season; 81 play for clubs in Italy; Germany has 78; and Spain has 64. You can take this deeper — there are 23 players on the England side for this World Cup, and 22 of them — all but one — play for British teams during the year. (The black sheep is Fraser Forster, who plays in Scotland.) Russia has 23 players, and all 23 play on Russian clubs (kinda weird, as you’d assume one Russian would be good enough, or want to play, in something like Serie A). By contrast, only 1 player on Ghana’s national side plays his club ball in Ghana (same situation as the Ivory Coast team). The Netherlands — a country with a good development program but also talent that gets poached by bigger leagues — reflects that trend line, as about half the team plays in Dutch leagues during the year and half doesn’t.
What does this tell you? Not a ton besides the fact that European leagues are more lucrative and will naturally attract the best talent in the world, as that’s where the best talent would go to play and be compensated fairly. Nothing about the above numbers should surprise you, but they’re fun facts to toss out during a few viewing parties. Oh, and also: 19 of the 23 Brazilian players (home side!) play outside of Brazil during the club season, so you can toss a “cherish being home!” thing out.
Final context around this: Spain and Australia are both in Group B. You would think that, when they meet, Spain will blow them off the field. You’re probably right. But consider this: Spain’s players predominantly play in top-flight European leagues, which have longer seasons. Australian players don’t, and their smaller, less-privileged leagues have shorter arcs. When the two teams meet, an average Spanish star has probably played about 500 more minutes of soccer over the past year than a top Australian player. Now, the Spanish guy is probably also far more talented, but these are dynamics around which you can consider potential upsets.