France may have emerged victorious but, as an economist, I can only conclude that the real winners from the 2018 World Cup were Croatia. Countries with large populations or high incomes should do a lot better than the rest. Croatia is a glorious counter-example. With a population half of London’s and living standards a third of the UK’s, Croatia’s journey to the final was nothing short of miraculous.
So how did they do it? Largely — thanks in part to a paucity of domestic opportunities — by embracing Europe. Not a single player from Croatia’s starting 11 against England in that painful semi-final plays in the Croatian domestic leagues. Ivan Rakitic is the beating heart of Barcelona’s midfield. Dejan Lovren plies his trade at Liverpool. Luka Modric , probably the biggest talent in the team, plays for Real Madrid. Others play for Juventus, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid.
Are Croatian players at the world’s best clubs because they are naturally brilliant, or does their brilliance stem from their experiences at the world’s best clubs? One way to find out is to see how much Real Madrid and Barcelona paid for their Croatian players and what subsequently happened to their market value.
Modric was Europe’s third-most expensive transfer in 2012 when he joined Real Madrid from Spurs but, according to Transfermarkt, his value rose a further £10 million in the following two years. Rakitic was valued at £18 million in 2014 before his move to Barcelona. He’s now worth £45 million.
Between them, Modric, Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic have won six Champions’ Leagues, have been Spanish champions four times and German champions twice. They are serial winners in part because they’re at clubs where winning, both domestically and in Europe, is all that matters.
In contrast, the Premier League’s riches tend to create a “stay at home” attitude for England players. They’re financially comfortable, too often end up on the bench and, mostly, are happy to compete only for domestic scraps.
If England are eventually to win the World Cup, they need experience in other leagues and they need experience of winning big — and frequently — at club level. Imagine, for example, how good Harry Kane might be if he spent a few years at the Nou Camp.
The Premier League’s loss might then be England’s gain. Many people — and far too many pundits — complain about the lack of opportunity for English players in the Premier League thanks to the presence of “too many foreigners”. That reeks of both Trumpian protectionism and Brexit paranoia.
The solution is provided by Croatia. If we want England to win the World Cup, it’s time for our players to become a little less English and a little more European. If football really is to come home, our footballers need to go somewhere else.
- Stephen King (@kingeconomist) is HSBC’s senior economic adviser and author of Grave New World (Yale)