THE PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE INDEX
FOOTBALL EDITION

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As the year of the Tokyo Olympics draws to a close, we wanted to understand the statistics behind truly mastering a sport and to celebrate the achievements of the few who do, by calculating the chances of someone being a professional athlete in their country of birth. We then added to the study by calculating where most professionals come from for a range of globally popular sports.

Making it to the top of a sport requires decades of extreme dedication and many thousands of hours of training and practice, which must all be in addition to a complementary set of in-built physical features that mean some people, and not others, have the tools to succeed.

Beyond physical attributes, your country of birth can heavily influence whether the ecosystem is favourable to excelling in a sport. For example, an almost religious love of football across the nation ensures Brazil continues to produce elite footballers by the hundreds, despite limited investment in youth academies in comparison with other countries.

In many places, a sport’s popularity dictates how much financial investment it receives, and these factors combine to facilitate easier progression for budding athletes under the right conditions, or hinder those without.

Make it through these challenges to the upper stratosphere of athletes and you are still at the mercy of injuries or poor form that can limit performance levels and success.

There are obstacles at every turn, meaning only a tiny fraction of amateur sportsmen and women ever turn professional. Here are the probabilities of becoming a professional in a range of globally popular sports around the world.

It is the world’s most popular sport, the most watched sport, and the sport that connects people across cultures even if they have nothing else in common. Over 250 million people play football globally, attracted by its simplicity and unpredictability, while 3.5 billion people call themselves football fans. Its popularity arguably makes it harder to become a professional, with stiff competition for places restricting opportunities for progression for youngsters with talent. 

Ahead of the 2015/16 English Premier League season, Leicester City were given odds of 5000/1 to become champions, something they succeeded in doing in one of the greatest sporting shocks of all time.

The current men’s number one ranked national team is Belgium yet they have never won a major international trophy. In international women’s football, the USA are the number one ranked team and the most successful in history, having won four World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals, and eight CONCACAF Gold Cups.

See below for the odds of becoming a professional footballer in different countries around the world.

Methodology

The Professional Athlete Index analyses globally popular team and individual sports. For each sport, a list of top tier male and female competitors from the latest completed season or ranking was gathered.

For team sports, player data was taken from every team playing in the top domestic league of the world’s highest ranked nations. For individual sports, the players that feature in each sport’s international association ranking were included.

The athletes were assigned to countries based on their nationality. In cases of multiple nationalities, the athletes were assigned to their country of birth.

To calculate the odds of being a top tier athlete, we compared the number of top tier athletes from each country with that country’s number of births over a 12-year period – representing a typical length of a sporting career at the top level. The odds represent the chances of someone born during that period making it to the elite level of each sport.

Scoring
Percentage of top tier male athletes

This percentage was calculated using the following equation:

Total number of top tier male athletes from each country / Total number of top tier male athletes in each sport

Odds of being a top tier male athlete (1:X)

The odds were calculated for each country in the study using the following equation:

1 / (number of top tier athletes from each country / total number of people born in each country over 12-year period) / (number of people born over 12-year period in each country that are not currently top tier athletes / total number of people born in each country over 12-year period)

Source: Male births, years 1991 to 2003, UN Demographic Yearbook.

Percentage of top tier female athletes

This percentage was calculated using the following equation:

Total number of top tier female athletes from each country / Total number of top tier female athletes in each sport

Percentage of top tier female athletes

The odds were calculated for each country in the study using the following equation:

1 / (number of top tier athletes from each country / total number of people born in each country over 12-year period) / (number of people born over 12-year period in each country that are not currently top tier athletes / total number of people born in each country over 12-year period)

Source: Female births, years 1991 to 2003, UN Demographic Yearbook.

Sport-Specific Methodology Notes
Football

Men’s:

Player data was sourced from the top domestic league of the 35 highest ranked countries in the FIFA men’s world rankings, as at 27/05/2021. These leagues include athletes from all around the world, meaning players from more than 35 countries are featured in the dataset.

 

Women’s:

Player data was sourced from the top professional women’s leagues as at 26/10/2021. These include the best domestic league in the following countries:

  • Australia
  • China
  • England
  • France
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • United States
Tennis

All male tennis players with a singles or doubles ATP ranking as at 28/06/2021 were included.

All female tennis players with a singles or doubles WTA ranking as at 26/10/2021 were included.

Golf

All male golfers with an Official World Golf Ranking ranking as at 04/07/2021 were included.

All female golfers with an Official Rolex World Golf Ranking ranking as at 26/10/2021 were included.