Football and big cities: Explaining the success of Amsterdam (and Rotterdam) as hotspots for talent development in football

Marjolijn Das and Michiel van Nieuwstadt share the results of their new research about football talent development in big cities. The purpose of this study is to investigate which geographical and socio-demographifactors play a role in the success of football talent development in the Netherlands

Many football players who reach an elite level in the Netherlands are born in Amsterdam (and Rotterdam is not doing badly either). Two years ago one of us drew attention to the surprising fact that when a boy is born in Amsterdam, his chances of playing in the Eredivisie for men, the highest football division, are roughly twice as large as those of boys born elsewhere in the Netherlands.

How can this be? Matters of football attract interest easily, and it isn’t hard to find explanations for Amsterdam as a hotspot of talent development in Dutch football. Is it the presence of Ajax, as is often suggested? Or is the success due to the urban environment itself? According to some sport scientists, urban areas are especially suited to facilitate a culture of playing football due to their layouts with lots of small parks and squares, and the opportunities for youth to meet each other on the streets. Logical as these explanations may sound, they have never been tested quantitatively in the Netherlands until now.

In a study that was published in the Journal of Sports Sciences last month, co-authored by Marije Elferink-Gemser, we examined geographical variation in the success of football talent development in the Netherlands. We used public data on the regional background of male elite players and combined this with public data on municipal characteristics from Statistics Netherlands and other sources to predict ‘talent yield’ of a municipality, i.e. the proportion of men that reach an elite level. Figure 1 clearly shows the positive relationship between talent yield and the degree of urbanisation. In the two lowest categories of urbanisation –the more rural areas- the median talent yield is even zero, meaning that more than half of these municipalities brought forth no elite football players at all.

Graph Football and Big Cities

Figure 1. Median talent yield of municipalities (no of male elite players/1000 youths) by degree of urbanisation

Amsterdam has a high talent yield (0.71), as does Rotterdam (0.48). The municipalities of Diemen, De Ronde Venen, Haarlemmermeer and Ouder-Amstel, situated close to the Arena in the southeast of Amsterdam, are hotspots of elite players too.

On first notice, one might think that the presence of reputed football academies like those of Feyenoord en Ajax, might have an important effect on the talent development of football players (although Eindhoven scores well below the average: 0.14).

In our study we were able to look into possible causes of the variations in talent yield across municipalities in more detail. We found that income, population density, share of the population with a non-western migration background and the presence of a successful talent academy within a municipality were all positively related to talent yield.

Importantly however, when bringing all these variables into one model the effects of the degree of urbanisation and presence of a talent academy disappeared. Income and the share of the population with a non-western migration background were the only two variables that had an independent (positive) effect. Eindhoven, host of one of the three most successful Dutch football clubs and the fifth largest Dutch city, may be a case in point: The municipality had a relatively low talent yield and, in the years that our players grew up, also a relatively low share of residents with a migration background– for a big city at least.

Our finding that, on average, municipalities with a higher average income have a higher talent yield is in line with earlier research showing that financial support helps children to succeed in sports. The fact that municipalities with a higher share of residents with a non-western migration background yield higher numbers of male elite football players may not come as a big surprise either. The overrepresentation of players with a migration background in elite football meets the eye in national teams and competitions all over the world. The role of migrants in football has been studied before, but the overrepresentation in football of players with a first- or second-generation migration background has not been researched to our knowledge. In future studies we hope to look into possible explanations such as personal motivation, parental expectations and the role of the home environment.