During what has come to be known as the “Age of Discovery”, a title that significantly downplays the brutal nature of the period, European explorers travelled to the further afield sections of the world, imposing European culture and a rule of colonialism over those that they encountered. The Portuguese, French, Dutch and British Empires were at the forefront of this aggressive period of expansion, and the effects of those actions are still being felt today.
It was primarily the coasts of Africa that were the targets, with the port cities offering useful landing spots for the travellers and allowing them to forcibly transport those people they met to plantations across the globe. As the 19th century drew to its close, explorers began to debate the merits of venturing further into the continent and thus, the “scramble for Africa” began.
The age of explorers may be over, but, from a footballing perspective at least, a scramble for the resources Africa has to offer is very much still alive.
The resources that the Europeans chase from the continent nowadays are the next brightest star in African football, hoping to unearth a player that can be used to provide the clubs with either financial or competitive gains. It is an ever increasing trend, but the football relationship between Europe and Africa can be traced back decades.
Even back as early as the 1930s, Raoul Diagne, born in French Guinea but with Senegalese descent, was a member of the French national team. Some of the most gifted players to have graced the European game, both at club and international level. Eusébio, with 64 caps for Portugal and two European Cups with Benfica, was born in Mozambique and moved over to Portugal as a teenager.
Zinedine Zidane, star of Real Madrid’s Galacticos and World Cup winner, could have opted to play for Algeria, the country of his parents birth, rather than playing for France. The Dutch national team has a long and storied history of players starring for them having been either born in Suriname or from parents of Surinamese descent, including Ruud Gullit, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, and Patrick Kluivert.
Despite the fact that Suriname is in South America, its African heritage cannot be understated. It was the Dutch that first colonised the country, and they relied heavily upon African slaves being transported over to work the land. After gaining independence in 1975, many families decided to emigrate to the Netherlands to set up a new life for themselves. Even from those born in Suriname, or perhaps even any of the nations in that portion of the world, the African influence on European football cannot be overstated.
It was after the end of the Second World War that the European Empires began searching actively for footballing talent from their African colonies. France created transfer networks in West Africa during the 1950s and Portugal began nationalising players discovered across their colonies during the 1960s.
Football in Europe has always had African stars and influence, but the issue has become more prevalent and complex in recent years. The successes of African youth teams during the 1980s and ‘90s, where Nigeria and Ghana won two under-17 World Cups each, seemingly opened the eyes of many in Europe to the potential that seemingly lay untapped on the continent.
Prior to the 1980s, it was primarily former colonial powers that possessed a large African influence. The policy of many newly independent African nations of not selecting those players who were expatriates had the desired effect of forcing many of the rising talents to stay and develop within their nation.
This is, perhaps, a key factor in why African sides performed so strongly at youth tournaments during the period. These successes, however, simply served to highlight the potential that was being produced across the region, inciting European clubs to take a greater interest in developments within Africa.
As African nations began selecting those players who plied their trade outside of the country, the incentive to stay was diminished. Increasingly, clubs from all across Europe have begun trying to poach the footballers coming through. Smaller European nations, such as Austria and Switzerland, are becoming a testing ground for talented African footballers, a league in which they can get their foot in the door on the European continent, before showcasing their talents to the bigger clubs.
Take the story of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah. Having spent two years contributing to one of the most dangerous front-lines in world football, Salah has become an Egyptian national symbol as well as one of the best players on the planet, but his journey was made in Switzerland. Having heard tales of the talent a young Salah was showing, Basel, one of Switzerland’s premier sides, arranged a friendly against the Egyptian Under-23s so that they could get a look at him live.
He may have just played the second-half, but Salah immediately impressed the watching staff and a deal was soon arranged to take him to the Swiss town. His time in the country was an undoubted success, including two starring performances in the Champions League against Chelsea, and the Londoners soon came knocking at the door. Although it took leaving England and coming back with Liverpool for Salah to truly impress the watching public in the country, his story is a tale of success and one of hope for those playing the game in Africa.
The African connection to Austria is perhaps a bit more manufactured and commercialised, but it is one that is reaping rewards for the clubs in the nation, most notably Red Bull Salzburg. Even with the failed Red Bull Ghana experiment, African players are becoming frequently key players in the Austrian outfit, often being sold on to RB Leipzig after a successful period. Naby Keïta, Amadou Haidara, and Dayot Upamecano have all made their names in Austria before making the switch across the border into Germany, with Keïta since moving to Liverpool.
The successes of the premier African stars offer hope to those attempting to follow in their footsteps, but predictably and regrettably, there are those waiting to take advantage. As the European game has grown into a vast commercial enterprise, it has increasingly become seen as a way for many to escape the poverty that they grew up in, a chance to provide a better lifestyle for their families.
It is a common sight across all school playgrounds and parks across the globe, children trying to emulate their heroes on make-shift football pitches. For many, it will always remain a dream, a fun way to pass the time and a hobby for Sunday mornings. For some, however, especially those attempting to escape a life of perpetual poverty, the dream of following in the footsteps of professional footballers offers an escape. A chance to provide a better life for their families.
The problem facing those in that situation is the economic disparity that has developed between the game in Western Europe and the rest of the world. The sheer scale of the financial benefits on offer in Europe has acted as a pull factor for many to attempt to find themselves a career on the old continent.
The issue, however, arises from those that seek to exploit those with dreams of making it in the top leagues. It is often people posing as football agents, claiming to be able to offer a trial with a club in Europe, that are taking advantage of the system.
These children and their families are told by the agents that they could be the next greatest African star, that there is a great chance that they will be playing for a leading team in a few years and they can provide a stable financial future for their families. For the select few, that may actually be the case. For the majority, the reality is a much darker tale.
After the families have scrambled together the money demanded by the agents in order to secure the deal, the children are flown across to Europe waiting for their trial with a club to begin. Unfortunately, many are never going to have their trial with the bigger clubs, often being abandoned and left isolated in a foreign country. Some find hope in the lower leagues of whatever country they were transported to, others are forced to turn to a darker side of life, engaging in whatever cash in hand job they can find to simply survive.
The life that they end up with is a far cry from the one that they were sold the dream of, a tragically negative side-effect of the vast wealth on offer in the European game. The exact number of youngsters who are left to fend for themselves in an unknown environment will never be fully known, but charity Foot Solidaire estimates the number to be around 15,000, and that’s just coming out of West Africa.
The rise of European clubs setting up academies or essentially feeder teams in Africa, such as Ajax Cape Town, has perhaps created the circumstances in which these false agents can operate. Plenty of illegal academies are in operation across all regions of Africa, ran by those shady agents who are simply trying to make money out of the situation. Children are brought to those academies, on the promise of being watched by scouts of elite clubs, only to find themselves abandoned.
Football in Africa and Europe has a complicated relationship, an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship. The influence of African stars cannot be understated. They have helped to shape the modern European game into the goliath it is today, with players like Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and Mo Salah all household names.
There has always been a seedier side to the link between the two continents. Calling the problems facing young Africans within football the “new slave trade” is perhaps a step too far, limiting the true horror that was the slave trade, but the horrors facing those youngsters are very real.
Agents are taking as many liberties as they can with the futures of those impressionable hopefuls, making quick cash before disappearing. Although the impact of African football on the European game is widely seen as being primarily a positive factor, there needs to be a wider acknowledgment of what is happening to the majority of those attempting to make a career out of football.
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