FIFA World Cup 2018: How Belgium have benefited from recession and UEFA regulations
Belgium will face France on Tuesday in its first FIFA World Cup semi-final in 32 years. This small nation has gotten to this stage with the help of a ‘Golden Generation’, a group of players that play at some of the best clubs in Europe.
However, this golden generation may not have come up by chance. In fact, it may have come about as a result of clubs responding to (a) the global economic downturn of the late noughties and (b) spending regulations introduced by footballing authorities. From transfer data for the past decade, we see the number of Belgians playing in the ‘Big Five’ leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France started rising around the same time Europe went into recession. In the 2007/08 season, there were 12 Belgians playing in the Big Five leagues. Last season, in 2017/18, that number had risen to 53.
Interestingly, the number of Belgians kept rising even while transfer spending plateaued in the early 2010s, partly from the recession. In the 2009 summer transfer window, clubs from the Big Five spent $2.6 billion on buying players, according to CIES Football Observatory. Transfer spending didn’t cross that mark for the next three summer windows, till the Big Five spent $3.1 billion in 2013. Another reason why this plateauing of transfer spending may have come about is because of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations introduced by UEFA in 2011.
FFP rules limit spending by clubs to a certain amount over their revenue to ensure long-term financial stability. Initially, clubs could spend up to $60 million more than their revenues over a three-year monitoring period. Spending over those limits could mean fines, transfer bans and even exclusion from European competitions. Transfer spending by the Big Five picked up again after 2013 as money came in from TV companies and new broadcast agreements were signed.
After that, most clubs were able to increase their spending and still abide by FFP. But as transfer spending in summer windows plateaued and sometimes fell from 2010 to 2012, why did the number of Belgians in the Big Five not fall but keep rising? This is because of the kind of Belgians that were being bought. They were mostly young players and because they were younger, they came cheaper and so clubs were able to afford more of them. We can see how clubs were signing more Belgian youngsters by looking at the Belgian team itself.
If we divide the 23-member World Cup squad into players born before January 1, 1990 and after it, we see that players born before 1990 joined a Big Five club at an average age of 23. Compared to that, the players born after 1990 joined a Big Five club at an average age of 19, four years younger. So the global recession and FFP spending rules may have led to clubs from the Big Five buying more Belgian youngsters, who came cheaper. Thus giving them experience of top-level football that is paying off all these years later in this Belgian run to the World Cup semi-finals.