Diversity breeds success: foreign players in the Bundesliga

Just how international has the Bundesliga become? A look at the figures shows that globalisation has transformed the German top flight, with foreign players now outnumbering home-grown talent.

When Hamburg (HSV) won the title in June 1960, there was only a single player in the squad who wasn’t home-grown – and he was from Buxtehude, just 20 kilometres down the road. New technologies, improved transport infrastructure and trade agreements have since brought the world much closer together. And football has long become a global business.

We are living in a globalised world, and there can be few better examples of this than the German Bundesliga. At the time of writing in February 2017, the league’s three top scorers are Gabonese international Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund), French striker Anthony Modeste (FC Cologne) and Polish international Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich). Carlo Ancelotti, currently manager of Germany’s most successful club Bayern Munich, is Italian; his predecessor Pep Guardiola is from Spain.

Guardiola is now managing English Premier League club Manchester City; former Dortmund head coach Jürgen Klopp is now at Liverpool. German World Cup winner Toni Kroos plays for Real Madrid, while Mesut Özil, a German international of Turkish descent, joined Arsenal in 2013 having previously played for Werder Bremen and Real Madrid. The list goes on – and by the start of next season many players will have moved on once again, as the global transfer carousel keeps turning.

From registered associations to limited companies

Football has become an international business. Today, only five Bundesliga teams are registered associations (eingetragene Vereine – e. V.):

  • FSV Mainz 05 e. V.
  • Fußballclub Gelsenkirchen-Schalke 04 e. V.
  • RB Leipzig e. V.
  • Sport-Club Freiburg e. V.
  • SV Darmstadt 1898 e. V.

The remaining 13 clubs operate as limited companies (GmbH), limited partnerships (GmbH & Co KGaA) or joint stock companies (AG). Professional football players are now employees, who often seek transfers to advance their careers rather than out of enthusiasm for a particular club. How many of today’s top players remain loyal to their club when offered a more lucrative deal elsewhere? A large number of Bundesliga players are expats who have come to Germany to find better career opportunities and a higher salary than they could expect in their home countries.

German clubs also face stiff competition from the big clubs in other countries like Spain, England and France to attract talent from around the globe. The world’s best players can now command huge transfer fees. Last year, Paul Pogba became the most expensive player in the world when he signed for Manchester United from Juventus Turin. The transfer free, according to media reports, was 105 million euros.

The Bundesliga ...

... was established at the start of the 1963/64 season. 18 teams compete for the title each season, which comprises 34 match days. Teams play one home game and one away game against each of the other teams. Three points are awarded for a victory, one for a draw, and none for a defeat. The teams in 17th and 18th place at the end of the season are relegated to the 2nd Bundesliga, while the 16th-placed team plays two play-off matches against the third-placed team of the 2nd Bundesliga to determine who will play in the top flight next season. The top two teams in the 2nd Bundesliga are automatically promoted to the 1st Bundesliga.

Bayern Munich is Germany‘s most successful club and won the German title for the 26th time in 2016. The only club to have played in the 1st Bundesliga every season since it was founded is Hamburg (HSV).

German Football Association (DFB)

German Football League (DFL)

Official Bundesliga website

More foreign players than Germans in the Bundesliga

When the Bundesliga was established in 1963, only seven of its 300 players were foreigners. Last season (2015/16), things looked very different. Out of a total of 429 professionals, only 194 had German citizenship, while 235 came from abroad.

As early as 1995, the European Court of Justice (CJEU) ruled that freedom of movement for workers must apply to professional footballers within the European Union (EU). But in 1998 Otto Rehhagel, then coach of the reigning champions FC Kaiserslautern, made the headlines in the sports media for bringing on a fourth non-European as a substitute and thus exceeding the limit on foreign players imposed by the German Football Association (DFB). As a result of his mistake, the game was forfeited to Bochum.

Eight years later the rules were changed, and since the 2006/07 season the following applies:

  • Each German club must have at least twelve German licensed professionals under contract.
  • There is no limit on non-UEFA foreign players.
  • As of the 2008/09 season, each club must employ at least eight players who have come through German academies. Of these eight local players, at least four must have come through the relevant club’s own academy.

The change in rules has clearly had an impact: at the end of the 2015/2016 season, there were players from 54 different foreign countries playing in the Bundesliga. The best-represented nation was Brazil, with 18 players under contract, while there were 40 from Latin America, 18 from African countries and eleven from Japan.

Football’s integrative potential

Today‘s Bundesliga is not only a reflection of the impacts of globalisation and increasing commercialisation. It also shows the extent to which football can promote integration. This is well illustrated by the example of Sergej Barbarez. When the Yugoslav Wars broke out, Barbarez, who is originally from Bosnia-Herzegovina, happened to be visiting an uncle in Hanover. As it was unsafe to return to his home country, he decided to stay in Germany and, in 1992, his uncle organised for him to take a trial with Hanover’s reserve team. This marked the beginning of a highly successful career in German football, which also included spells at Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen. In 2001, Barbarez was the Bundesliga’s joint top scorer together with Danish striker Ebbe Sand.

In addition to the many players from other European countries and Latin America to have featured in the Bundesliga since the 1970s, a significant number of African footballers have also made their mark. The first was Ghanaian Ibrahim Sunday, who played for Werder Bremen from 1975 to 1977.

The most prolific African goal scorer in Bundesliga history is Anthony Yeboah, who found the net 96 times in 223 Bundesliga appearances. He was joint top scorer in the 1992/93 season alongside Ulf Kirsten (Bayer Leverkusen) and again in the 1993/94 season alongside Stefan Kuntz (FC Kaiserslautern). Fellow Ghanaian Sammy Kuffour can also look back on a highly successful Bundesliga career, having won a total of 17 titles with Bayern Munich between 1994 and 1997.

Deutsche Welle: African Legends in the Bundesliga

Baffoe and Thiam

The list of top scorers in the Bundesliga’s 50-year history includes 17 foreign players. The first to earn this accolade was Norwegian Jørn Andersen in the 1989/90 season, playing for Eintracht Frankfurt. Like Tony Yeboah, Robert Lewandowski has also twice been top scorer: in the 2013/14 season with Borussia Dortmund and in 2015/16 with Bayern Munich. And he stands a good chance of repeating the feat this season.

As these examples show, the Bundesliga has opened its doors to players from abroad. Players who perform well have every chance of making it to the top – wherever they are from. The all-time top scorer among foreign-born players is Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro. At the end of January 2017, he had scored a total of 190 goals in 420 Bundesliga appearances – and he is still playing. Just ten more goals and he will become the fifth player and the first non-German in Bundesliga history to join the 200 club. Pizarro has also made more appearances than any other foreign player and is Werder Bremen’s record goal scorer – a genuine success story!

Discussion on foreign players in the Bundesliga

On the one hand, players from different countries make the league more exciting and more diverse, and play a key role in its development. At the same time, it is vital for clubs to nurture home-grown youth players. The challenge lies in finding the right balance.

Write to us and let us know your views: What do foreign players bring to the Bundesliga in your opinion? How international is sport (e.g. football, basketball, volleyball) in your home country? Do you follow a particular Bundesliga club?


Author: Verena Striebinger

February 2017

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Merhawi haile
30 July 2019

I play 2division in Ethiopian league and I'm 19 years old

24 February 2019

Nice article but do you think that foreign players can cause a decline in the culture of the club

12 February 2019

Hi Max,
Do you know the website www.transfermarkt.com? If you would like to know more about transfers and foreigne players in the German league just take a look and explore their content.

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