Hope, Fear, and Youth Academies: African Players and the Changing Demographics of European Soccer

The BBC’s recent pre-season analysis of “Where the Premier League’s players come from” offered a striking picture of the dramatic demographic changes in European soccer over recent decades.  Comparing the EPL’s 2009-2010 rosters with the same clubs’ 1989-1990 rosters, I was particularly struck by the influx of African players.  The same clubs that today include 44 players born in Africa only included four African born players in 1989—and those four were all white players with family ties to England (Bruce Grobbelaar at Liverpool, Iain Hesford at Hull, Gavin Nebbeling at Fulham, and John Paskin with Wolves).  On the surface, this is a tremendous success story for African soccer—but stories of globalization and soccer are always more complicated than what’s on the surface.

Didier Drogba

A few weeks ago I wrote about Africa’s love affair with the English Premier League, focusing in that post on fans but mentioning that there are other stories to be told about players and labor flows.  Issues of player migration from Africa to Europe will be particularly relevant as South Africa 2010 approaches—before which Egypt will host a U-20 World Cup, Nigeria will (probably) host a U-17 World Cup, and Angola will host a January African Cup of Nations that will again extract star power from many top European sides mid-season.  Each of those four events will draw world-wide attention to the talent and potential of African soccer, raising both hopes and fears related to the globalization of soccer among diverse constituencies.

The hopeful include thousands of young players across Africa who dream of emulating stars such as Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Samuel Eto’o in achieving fame and fortune amidst the glitter of European super-clubs, along with many fans of African soccer who take pride in the growing success of the African game.  The fearful include FIFA president Sepp Blatter who (with his characteristic over-statement and over-simplification) has claimed European clubs with African players act as “neo-colonialists who don’t give a damn about heritage and culture, but engage in social and economic rape by robbing the developing world of its best players,” along with many scholars and journalists who harbor more subtle concerns about the potential for exploitation.

In my own experiences in Africa I’ve probably leaned more towards the side of the fearful; the desperation of many Africans to leave home for what they imagine to be the greener pastures of Europe or America has always struck me as a recipe for disappointment and as a problem for local communities.  But the more I’ve thought and read about some of the peculiarities of global soccer, the more hopeful I’ve become.  It may be that the national identities crafted by World Cup soccer and the youth academies designed to take advantage of soccer players as national resources actually offer some opportunities for African soccer to do globalization right.

Globalization and the changing demographics of European football

Colonial map of Africa

The African presence in English soccer, though growing dramatically, is actually numerically less significant than in many other European leagues.  In an analysis of 78 UEFA leagues during the 2002/2003 season, Swiss geographer Raffaele Poli counted 1156 players “recruited in Africa,” noting that the main destinations are the former colonial nations of France, Portugal, and Belgium.  England is an exception to the pattern of migrating to former colonial masters due to its strict work permit regulations requiring players to already be regulars for their national teams.

Poli has taken a particular interest in the broader demographics of European professional soccer, creating the Professional Football Players’ Observatory (PFPO) to track statistical trends across European league.  The PFPO is a treasure trove for statistical nerds (such as myself), offering an “Annual review of the European Football Players Labour Market.”  Random nuggets of information (that have nothing to do with Africa) include: the league with the older players on average is Italy (26.9 years) while the youngest is Croatia (24.1); “no league is made up of players that measure, on average, less than 180cm [tall]”; Arsenal has the highest proportion of expatriate players (91.6% of its players were from countries other than England) of all 456 clubs surveyed; and Brazil is by far the most frequent country of origin for expatriate players with European clubs (with 551).  More relevant here, however, is that also in the top 30 countries of origin for expatriate players are much smaller African countries including Nigeria (number 8 with 94 players), Cameroon (number 12 with 87 players), Ivory Coast (number 20 with 59 players), Senegal (number 24 with 45 players); and Ghana (number 26 with 44 players)—all significantly higher than the number of players in Europe from the US.

Though these numbers are still relatively small compared to the migration of players from other European countries such as France (number 2 with 233 players) or Portugal (number 5 with 121 players), they are significant enough to lead Poli to raise concerns about a “muscle drain” of African football players.  The term “muscle drain” (also sometimes referred to as a “brawn drain” or a “feet drain”) is used to make an analogy with concerns about the “brain drain” whereby the best minds from developing countries leave home (where they are more likely make significant local contributions) for more fertile developed countries (where they are more likely to have adequate resources and opportunities).

Among the most prominent examples of “brain drain” as a concern for Africa, and for other parts of the developing world, is from the medical profession.  The more doctors and nurses African countries train to improve local health care systems, the more medical professionals leave for higher salaries and better working conditions in places such as the US and the UK.  In fact, one of the few times soccer has ever been discussed in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine occurred in an article by Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan titled “Doctors and Soccer Players – African Professionals on the Move.”  Mullan notes that Ghana alone has lost 532 medical doctors to the US—which is 20% of the total number of doctors working in Ghana.  Needless to say, such migration patterns are deeply problematic for the prospects of international development.

Ghanna soccer

Ultimately Mullan is legitimately much more concerned about doctors than soccer players (he notes that “perhaps soccer players will always migrate to the elite leagues of the world, but if doctors and nurses stayed closer to home, lives would be saved”), but the analogy is interesting to consider.  What if players such as Michael Essien and compatriots Stephen Appiah or Suli Muntari had stayed home in the service of developing Ghanaian leagues?  Would Ghanain soccer be better off?

Frankly, in the globalized world of modern soccer the idea that Africa’s world stars would play at home in service of national development seems absurd.  The best players from all parts of the world, more and less developed, follow the money.  And while that does have some negative effects on local leagues, it also offers possibilities for improved national teams and for a trickle-down of financial resources.  One of the differences between soccer and medicine is that MDs do not get called back from the US or UK to represent Ghana in surgical knock-out tournaments, but soccer players do.  While expatriate Ghanaian doctors and soccer players alike often share national pride, through the unlikely auspices of FIFA it is soccer players who have the more obvious opportunity to give something back.

Beyond participating on national teams, however, the potential benefits of having African players move to European clubs are more subtle.  In concept the idea that resources and opportunities might trickle-down is appealing, but trickle-down theories are always messy in practice.  So rather than keeping players home, the real challenge for African soccer may be to ensure that the increased migration of players to Europe benefits the many in addition to the few.  One interesting way in which those benefits might possibly accrue is through the growing popularity of African youth academies.

African youth soccer academies

The early story of African soccer migrants to Europe was dominated by tales of “unscrupulous agents” taking mass numbers of players to European centers, hoping that a few might make it and discarding the rest to fend for themselves.  These dramatic examples are a legitimate and important concern that have been well-documented elsewhere (see, for example, this article from the Daily Mail or this audio documentary from the BBC).  UEFA along with European leagues and governments have, however, made some progress in limiting the transfer of very young players and in monitoring the worst offending agents.  Though less salacious, for me the more interesting phenomena are the local African responses to the recognition that soccer is a valuable national resource.

Feyenood Ghana

The most prominent African response is the huge growth of “youth academies” in African soccer hotbeds (which, for a variety of interesting reasons, tend to be mostly in West Africa).  Though some such academies are largely the creation of European clubs themselves (such as the Feyenoord Fetteh Academy in Ghana), most are hybrid creations and estimates suggest that some major West African capitals such as Accra, Lagos, and Dakar each host hundreds of distinct academy efforts—many of which are small-scale efforts run by local entrepreneurs with little chance of international success.

In recent years all types of African youth academies have garnered attention from scholars, with Paul Darby from the University of Ulster doing particularly excellent work.  Most recently Darby has been researching Ghanaian youth academies and, in collaboration with American sociologist Alan Klein, relating those academies to the Latin American baseball academies that have long fed Major League Baseball teams (find a written sample of Darby’s work here, and a podcast discussion here).  Darby’s most important general finding to this point is that while there are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about the neo-colonial possibilities of African youth academies and player migration, African soccer is a complicated and multi-faceted system that has as much potential for good as for harm.

Darby categorizes African youth academies into four types, one being those directly affiliated with European teams such as Feyenoord.  Other types range from small improvised local clubs where local “owners” provide some resources and training for teams in local youth leagues to large scale business efforts such as the “Pepsi Football Academy” in Nigeria that has had as many as 3000-4000 youth in its system at one time (including Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel).  A final type of interest to Darby includes academies designed as much for social service and education as for soccer.  Examples here include Senegal’s Diambars Football Academy (which partially originated through the high profile efforts of Patrick Vieira) and a Ghanaian academy called “Right to Dream” originated partially by Manchester United scout  Tom Vernon.

Darby seems particularly smitten with the “Right to Dream” model whereby academic success is as crucial as soccer success.  He notes that of the first class of 15 youth players, two signed professionally in Europe (with Fulham—though since loaned to Belgium) but six obtained academic scholarships to British and American prep schools while one obtained a scholarship to the University of California Santa Barbara.  In listening to and reading Darby one gets the sense that while he started his work with the standard critical assumption that the global system exploits African players, the more he studied the issue and documented actual player experiences the more he realized the system also has much potential for good.

Liberty Professionals

A second interesting example from Darby’s research is Michael Essien’s old Ghanaian club Liberty Professionals FC.  Founded in 1997 by Ghanaian businessman Sly Tetteh, the club name is another bizarre manifestation of globalization: the “Liberty” is a tribute to Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell, where Tetteh studied and played soccer on scholarship from Ghana.  Now Tetteh’s vision is to use Liberty Professionals as a local business endeavor which, with enough future Michael Essien’s and Asamoah Gyan’s (both alumni) transferring to European clubs, can generate capital for local endeavors.

Which brings us back to the question of how to think about the success of a player such as Michael Essien?  At the extremes he could be understood as an emblem of globalization’s meritocratic promise—talent and determination rise to the top no matter their nationality—or as an escapee from “soccer slavery”—systems of neo-colonial exploitation that continue the abuse of Africa’s natural wealth in new forms.  Of course, the reality is likely somewhere in between.  The money and power dynamics in the modern game guarantee the possibility of abuse, but the creativity and dynamism of many African soccer actors offers distinct models for ways that soccer can do good.

What to watch for

Because the explosion of African players moving to European leagues is a relatively new phenomenon there are several important questions yet to be answered.  For one, what happens to the masses of young African players that invest themselves in soccer but do not make it?  While the horror stories of young African’s abandoned in Europe offer one tragic example, it may well be that socially conscious youth academies such as Right to Dream can convince other young players to take advantage of the opportunities soccer provides for other routes to success.

George Weah

For a second question, it will be most interesting to see what happens as generations of African players who did experience success in Europe retire.  Though some early returns offer uncertain lessons (George Weah, for example, has been a controversial but important figure in recent Liberian politics, while Abédi Pelé has invested heavily in Ghanaian football while also courting some criticism), the genuine pride of nation that many of the current generation of African stars seem to demonstrate may parlay into more future investments in the African game.

This, ultimately, is the challenge of both the “brain drain” and the “muscle drain” in Africa—ensuring that increasing global flows of talent do not only privilege the already privileged.  In some ways the soccer system may actually be better designed for that purpose than other labor systems in that international football creates enduring connections to one’s home country, and in that necessary structures such as youth academies require some investment in the future.  As such, while it is worth watching this year of African soccer with an awareness of the potential for exploitation, as we watch the U-20s in Egypt, the U-17s in Nigeria, the elite of Africa in Angola, and the elite of the world in South Africa, it is also worth celebrating the potential of African soccer to offer something well-beyond numerical success.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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