South American footballers have been an integral part of football in Europe for many decades now. Following the liberalisation and globalisation of the transfer market in the ‘90s, their number has exploded and nowadays there are practically no leagues in the UEFA region without at least one expatriate South American player. The financial disparity between European clubs and the rest of the world perpetuates a “talent drain” system, through which many players move to Europe at a very young age and spend their prime career years there. The best South American players are no exception, as most of them are generally found in one of the so-called “Big Five” leagues.
In this article, we assess the phenomenon from various perspectives. The estimated market values for South American footballers playing in the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, the Spanish LaLiga, the French Ligue 1 and Italian Serie A in our overview refer to July 2022 and are based on our proprietary algorithms (whose methodology you can read about here). Transfers of the currently ongoing transfer window that were officially announced before 18 July were taken into account (e.g., Raphinha is accounted for as an FC Barcelona player for the purposes of this article). Finally, it is important to note that players of South American origin who are now playing for a national team of another continent were excluded from the analysis (e.g., Jorginho was born in Brazil but has dual citizenship and is now a member of Italy’s national team).
Our data reveal that in early July 2022 there were 218 players from South America (CONMEBOL) at European “Big Five” league clubs. Not counting European nationalities, only Africa (CAF) had more players than that (246 in total). Other confederations and regions, such as Asia, Oceania or North and Central America, were far behind in this regard.
Which South American nations provided the most players? As the chart shows, there were almost 100 Brazilians plying their trade in these five leagues. Regular World Cup participants Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia follow them in this ranking. It is worth mentioning that Bolivia were the only CONMEBOL nation without a single representative player in Europe’s top leagues at the time of writing.
The ranking of the 10 most valuable South American players according to the Football Benchmark models also confirms the prevalence of Brazilian talent in these leagues. There are no fewer than six who made the top 10, including Vinícius Júnior, who is the runaway leader with a EUR 136m valuation. The young winger and his 22 goals across all club competitions were instrumental in Real Madrid winning the LaLiga and UEFA Champions League double. Vinícius is also currently the fourth most valuable footballer globally, and also boasts the highest value increase since the start of the 2021/22 season, according to our market value estimates.
There are four players in the top 10 who changed clubs in 2022 and signed long-term contracts, contributing to their high valuation. Liverpool FC’s Darwin Núñez and Luis Díaz are both from the Portuguese Primeira Liga, Arsenal FC signed Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City to lead their attack in the new season, while Raphinha was prized away from Leeds United FC by FC Barcelona as one of their many new signings.
Moving on to club-level analysis, we find that – by quite some margin – Real Madrid CF have the highest total squad value attributed to South American players. In addition to Vinícius Jr., four other Brazilians (Rodrygo, Éder Militão, Casemiro and Reinier) and Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde are on their books, too. They are followed by Liverpool FC, who also had two players in the overall top 10 ranking by market value.
Tottenham Hotspur are in third place – their South American contingent having been recently boosted by the signing of Richarlison from Everton FC; the Brazilian forward is currently valued at EUR 61m. Interestingly, the six South American players of Real Madrid are worth almost twice as much as the six players of Paris Saint-Germain FC (including Neymar and Messi). Age is one of the main factors here as the average age of PSG’s six is 30, while that of Real’s is only 23.5 years.
Among these 10 clubs, it is also notable that Atlético de Madrid have the most South American players in their squad (nine). Lower down, among the familiar names of other European top clubs, Aston Villa FC may be a surprising inclusion. The Birmingham club’s five-man group of Douglas Luiz, Emiliano Buendía, Diego Carlos, Emiliano Martínez and Philippe Coutinho all have an estimated market value between EUR 20 and 30m.
It is also worthwhile to adjust the angle of the analysis and ask the question: which “Big Five” league clubs have the highest percentage of their squad value associated with South American players? Five clubs are the same as in the ranking by overall value, but there are a few interesting observations.
It is notable that four out of the first five teams in the list are from the Spanish LaLiga. Almost half of the total value of Elche CF’s squad comes from their seven South American players; the most valuable of them is Argentinian forward Lucas Boyé (at EUR 14m) who scored 14 goals across the last two league campaigns.
Finally, let’s take stock of all South American players in the five leagues within the analysis. As shown by the table, currently LaLiga has the most (70), which is not surprising given that it is a favoured destination among many South American players due to the language and the cultural similarities with their home countries.
The Premier League is in second place, just about edging out Serie A. It is important to note that the total value of such players is by far the highest in the English top tier, which indicates that many highly rated South American stars end up playing there during their peak years. Eight different Premier League sides currently have at least one CONMEBOL nationality player who is valued at EUR 30+ million.
The German Bundesliga is fifth both in terms of the volume and the total value of South American expat players. The most valuable among them currently is Piero Hincapié, Bayer Leverkusen’s highly sought-after defender from Ecuador (worth EUR 26m).