Football’s most perfect meritocracy

The transfer market rewards footballers on merit. If only the same could be said about managerial performance.
Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain celebrates a goal. Credit: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain celebrates a goal. Credit: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

If you’re looking for the most perfect meritocracy, try football. Of all professions, male professional footballers are probably the most fairly paid, at least as measured by their contributions to winning matches. (If you measured their contribution to society, you would end up with very different salaries, but that’s true of every profession from bond trader to nurse). Understanding why meritocracy works on the football field helps illuminate why it works less well everywhere else – including in football dugouts, where the market for managers is much less meritocratic.

Markets work best when they are transparent – when you can see who does what and place a value on it. That is preeminently true of footballers, who do their work in public. Women’s football may well be equally meritocratic, but as far as I know there have been no studies trying to correlate salary with performance in the women’s game. They are judged every few days by coaches, data analysts, journalists, and millions of fans. Not all these judges are equally expert, but almost all are experienced watchers of football. The wisdom of crowds helps decide who is good and who isn’t. Footballers get paid accordingly: the best typically earn the most, and the worst the least.

In our book Soccernomics, the sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I showed the results: the strongest predictive statistic in football is clubs’ spending on salaries. For the decade through 2016, for the English Premier League and the second-tier Championship, clubs’ wage bills explained about 90 per cent of variation in their league positions, taking each club’s average for the entire period. 

Of course, individual players are sometimes over or underpaid, but these market inefficiencies rarely last long. When Leicester won the English title in 2016, their budding stars N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez were undoubtedly underpaid. But the market rapidly corrected itself: richer clubs signed both men and raised their salaries. Conversely, an overpaid player will soon land on the bench. When his contract ends, or even before, he’ll find himself at a smaller club on a lower salary.

Footballers know all this, and so the main measure of merit in the changing-room is pay. ‘The degree of appreciation is expressed in money,’ explained the great Dutch player and coach Johan Cruyff. ‘So it’s not about the sum that you earn, but the hierarchical position that you occupy.’  

Some might object that football’s meritocracy is flawed because the best players don’t necessarily combine into the best team. Clearly there’s some truth in that: if you field six brilliant forwards, you might lose because your defence is weak. But in fact, being good at teamwork is part of being a good footballer. The best players can understand and adapt to their specific roles on the field. Kanté is a case-study.

Other sceptics might say that a focus on quality doesn’t capture ‘character’ – a player’s willingness to pull a sprint in the 90th minute, play through injury or dive in with a game-saving tackle. But that objection doesn’t work either. If ‘character’ or ‘leadership’ helps the team win, it will show up in the player’s paycheck.

Given that performance is public, there is almost no room for racial discrimination, nepotism or hiring people based on appearance. Lilian Thuram, the French record international, who after his career became an anti-racism campaigner, said, ‘Sincerely, I’ve never met a racist person in football. Maybe they were, but I didn’t see it. In football it’s harder to have discrimination, because we are judged on very specific performances.’

One recent trend could theoretically weaken meritocracy: the growing focus on players’ individual statistics. Ajax’s coach Erik ten Hag warns: ‘It’s all getting more egocentric. Young footballers often think, “I must score this many goals, get that many assists.” That undoubtedly has to do with their surroundings, with agents.’   

However, players hoping to impress richer clubs will still generally do best by serving their team. Football’s judges are good at spotting selfish play, and the array of stats thrown up by modern data analysis – such as a player’s sprints per game, or challenges won – helps the judges see beyond headline individual numbers. Clubs sometimes make mistakes, but in the long term, the ‘winningest’ players will still earn most.

If only the market in managers were as efficient. Szymanski, in a study of 699 managers in England from 1973 through 2010, concluded that at best 10 per cent looked like overachievers: that is, they consistently finished higher in the league than their clubs’ wage bills would have predicted. (Predictably, Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson registered the biggest overperformance).

Most managers seemed to make no difference. Indeed, how could they? Nowadays their average tenure is a little over a year, after which they are typically replaced by another mediocrity. Since it’s hard to see what exactly managers do, it’s hard to value their work. That explains why racism, ageism and sexism persist in their profession: almost all head coaches are white male ex-players with conservative haircuts aged between 35 and 60. The most mediocre lower-division male club still won’t hire the world’s best female manager.

Footballers inhabit a meritocracy. If only other professions were as fair.

Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper was educated at Oxford University and Harvard. He writes a weekly column for the Financial Times. He is British but lives with his wife and three children in Paris. His books include Soccer Against the Enemy (1994), Ajax, The Dutch, The War: Football in Europe During the Second World War (2003), and – as co-author with Stefan Szymanski - Soccernomics (2009). The Happy Traitor, his biography of the British-KGB double agent George Blake, appeared in February 2021. His next book, about FC Barcelona, is published in August.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.