Football’s Flat World: Lessons On Migration And Diversity From World Cup 2022

Over 100 players at #WorldCup2022 play for countries they were not born in. The soccer stars illuminate the case for easier global mobility for talent.

Shankkar Aiyar | Published 12:11 PM IST, 10 Dec 2022

Madre Mia, where does that boy come from’ asked Luis Enrique, the manager of the Spanish soccer team after Morocco defeated La Roja, aka Spain 3–1 to enter the quarter finals in World Cup 2022.

Enrique was asking about Casablanca-born Azzedine Ounahi, who dons Moroccan colours and plays for Angers SCO in France. The granularity of the question illuminates the empirical. He could have been asking about over 100 players across teams. The question is an expression of the global context and illustrates the upside of migration and diversity.

Mobility and the Beautiful Game

The beautiful game has enabled the breaking down of barriers for a borderless, flat world for talent. Morocco’s goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who blocked Spain in the penalty shootout, was born in Montreal and plays for Sevilla FC in Spain. Achraf Hakimi, who sealed Spain’s ouster and plays for Paris Saint-Germain in the French League, was born in Madrid. More than half of Morocco’s players were not born in Morocco but in Netherlands, Belgium and France.

French Star Kylian Mbappé and Moroccan Striker AchrafHakimi | Pic Twitter | @KMbappe

The saga of mobility is not limited to players from Morocco. Swiss striker Xherdan Shaqiri, also known as the Alpine Messi, is of Kosovar Albanian origin. His mate on the forward line, Breel Embolo was born in Cameroon. Ace English striker Raheem Stirling is born in Kingston, Jamaica. Portuguese keeper Diogo Costa was born in Switzerland, his mates Pepe in Brazil and Raphael Guerreiro in France. American star Timothy Weah comes from Liberian parentage — his father George Weah is a winner of Ballon d’Or honour.

Over 125 players in Qatar are playing for countries they were not born in. Half the players playing for Tunisia and Senegal, a third of those playing for Canada, Australia, Croatia and Ghana hail from migrant families and four of ten playing for African teams were born in France or outside of Africa.

Many of the teams may not have qualified for Doha if it was not for migrant players. An interesting analysis by Remitly Global Inc, a digital services provider for immigrants in 170 countries, shows 41 per cent of the 661 goals — 82 per cent for England and 89 per cent for France — in the qualifying rounds were scored by players who are first generation migrants, or have migrant parents and grandparents.

The parents of French star Kylian Mbappé, the top scorer at WC2022, are from Cameroon and Algeria. Five of his mates on the team come from migrant families. A post by Migration Museum shared widely shows seven members of the English team have migrant parents/grandparents. Kyle Walker and Kalvin Philips parents’ are of Jamaican heritage. Rising star Bukayo Saka’s parents are Nigerian.

Remittances and Emigrant Nation

Migrants, who make up roughly 12 per cent of the population in advanced countries, boost both the home and host economies. Annually around 2.8 million migrant workers shift from less developed to developed economies.

In 2022 over 281 million people are defined as emigrants, living in countries they were not born in. The magnitude of the number outlines the scale of the phenomenon and potential. At 281 million, ‘emigrant nation’ would be the fourth most populous nation.

These folks share prosperity through cross border transfers. This year total remittances from developed countries to low and middle income households across countries are expected to touch $ 626 billion — of which over $ 100 billion is headed for India. More than 70 countries rely on remittances for at least 4 per cent of their GDP. If remittances of $ 626 billion were considered as gross output, ‘emigrant nation’ ranks at 26, and ahead of 211 countries.

It is estimated that between 2022 and 2030 over $ 5 trillion will be remitted from developed economies to developing countries. As a source of capital, remittances are three times the combined quantum of official development assistance and foreign direct investment.

Although barely 15 per cent of the earnings of migrants is remitted this forms a lifeline to millions of households improving human development and building of assets in the home economy. Despite the fact that migration is a force for good and fosters inclusive growth, countries are instituting new mechanisms to curtail movement of persons — consider the waiting period for visas.

There is no dearth of studies validating the underlying potential of migration to empower people and enable opportunity and prosperity. A study by McKinsey in 2015 observed “the world’s 247 million cross-border migrants contributed 9.4 percent of global GDP, or roughly $6.7 trillion worldwide.”

Analysis by the IMF shows a “1 per cent increase in inflow of immigrants relative to total employment increases output by almost 1 per cent by the fifth year” — of which two thirds is due to rise in labour productivity. The IMF study attributes dynamic gains from immigration to the complementarity between skills of natives and immigrants.

Migrants add to working age population, arrive with skills and contribute to technological progress. Their participation in the host economies delivers a positive impact on public finances. Most importantly, contrary to the fears spread by xenophobic doomsday prophets, migrants pay more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits — just in 2016 in the US, immigrants added $ 2 trillion to the economy and paid $458 billion in taxes.

Aging in the Developed World and Migration

The political rhetoric against migration persists and flies in the face of realities. Data on evolving demographics shows the working age population in the developed world is shrinking. In stark contrast working age population in low and middle income economies will expand.

The scope for technology to bridge the gap for manpower and substitute human interface has limitations. Services accounts for over two thirds of the GDP of advanced economies. This translates into need for personnel. Already the gap in availability of manpower is showing up in developed economies.

For instance health systems need health workers. The spectre of shortage is reflected in data published by Mercer and is now described as a crisis in the US and a ‘ticking time-bomb’ in Europe. In the UK farm produce rotted on fields due to shortage in farm hands for harvesting. Ensuring security services calls for boots on the ground and the gap is showing up in Canada and in the United States.

Manpower shortage is impacting growth and the balance between costs and prices as demand for labour has pushed wage inflation. Inflation in the OECD bloc is above 10 per cent and is more than three times the targeted levels in the US forcing rapid rate hikes in advanced economies.

Population growth in the US for instance has been the slowest between 2010 and 2020. In a recent speech US Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell cited Trump-era restrictions on immigration that have led to a continued worker shortfall. A study by Giovanni Peri and Reem Zaiour at UCL Davis shows by the end of 2021 there were about 2 million fewer working-age immigrants living in the United States.

It is apparent that with rising dependency ratio, that is the proportion of folks over 65 years dependent on those in the working age, the developed economies will have to rethink their politics on migration. It is estimated that immigration rates will need to be doubled for the US to be globally competitive. Policy impulse on the economic imperative though is coloured by politics — whether it is Brexit in the UK or the rise of the far right in Europe.

On November 15 the number of people on the planet touched 8 billion. World population is expected to touch 9.7 billion in 2050. Studies published by the UN shows the population of 61 countries or areas in the world are expected to decrease by 2050 and more than half the increase in population is expected to be concentrated in just eight countries.

Doha, interestingly, is a milestone in the debate on migration. It is at the Doha Round of the WTO in 2001 that the issue of immigration aka Mode IV was flagged and discussions between advanced economies and the global south broke down. Developed economies who evangelised opening up of trade and investment found no hesitation in steadfastly resisting the opening up mobility of labour. The stance has not changed even though the dividends of migration-driven diversity are visible — in sports, in C-Suites and in the political arena.

A confluence of factors — the pandemic, the war, disruptions — impacting global growth has catalysed attention on the issue and signals the need for action. For two decades and more India has raised the flag on mobility of labour at different multilateral forums. This month India assumed the presidency of G20. The context and the platform afford India the opportunity to put the issue on the agenda and script a pathway.

Shankkar Aiyar, political-economy analyst, is the author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter.

This column was first published here. Previous columns can be found at Thought Capital.



Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India, ‘Áadhaar: A Biometric History’ and ‘The Gated Republic’. Studying how politics rules the economics of people!

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Shankkar Aiyar

Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India, ‘Áadhaar: A Biometric History’ and ‘The Gated Republic’. Studying how politics rules the economics of people!