It’s taken a while, but African players are finally beginning to thrive in England. Alan Duncan charts the changes in both English and African football that have made this possible
A popular African adage says that “pushing stops at the wall”. For the best part of the last decade, African players have seen the inexorable push of their compatriots across Europe tending to break down at the formidable wall presented by English football.
They knew that England had become the new land of milk and honey. Their agent would have already spelt this out before racking his brains over whether his client had played in 75 per cent of his country’s internationals in the preceding two years, then somehow checking the aggregate FIFA ranking of the player’s national side over the same period, before finally picking up the telephone to allay any fears a purchasing club might have about their potential acquisition.
Few could argue that the investment in African players by English clubs over the years has remained an act of speculative gambling rather than one of assured long-term returns. For every stunning Geremi Njitap free-kick at Middlesbrough, there has been a non-playing Titi Camara at West Ham, the enigma of a Nwankwo Kanu at Arsenal and a mercurial El-Hadji Diouf at Anfield.
Notwithstanding the stringent criteria for non-EU footballers to qualify for a British work permit, most African football pundits have long attributed this particular stand-off to a lack of confidence and familiarity between seemingly diametrically opposed footballing cultures. Or at least, this was the case until the 2002-03 season, which is now destined to be remembered as the year African players finally broke into western European football’s final frontier.
To put things in perspective, in the 1997-98 season there were only five Africans in the English top division; by the end of this season, there will be almost 30. Most astonishingly, more than half this number has been made up since last year’s World Cup – a tournament in which four of the five participating African nations crashed out in the first round.
Most African football pundits have interpreted these record numbers as evidence not only of the changing face of the African game but as further proof of the evolution in English football. Paradoxically, one of the virtues of playing in the Premiership today for an African player is that it is no longer as foreign as it used to be. The emergence of English football from its relative insularity has been a gradual one. In the mid-Nineties, when English clubs were only just getting accustomed to the sudden influx of other European nationals, nouvelle cuisine in the canteen and enlightened training methods, Dutch, French and Belgian clubs, among others, could already boast of established scouting networks within Africa, and a strong internal club culture in successfully managing their imports.
While it is true that red tape issues have long provided a disincentive for Premiership clubs to pursue African talent, they were arguably unaware of the advances made by the continent’s football. “The problem was that English clubs were buying straight from the euphoria of the World Cup then realising that they just didn’t know how to handle them,” says former Nigeria coach Jo Bonfrere. “Take a player like Daniel Amokachi, who arrived at Everton [after the 1994 World Cup] injury-free and at his prime. When he played, he performed. They just did not know how to get the best out of him, and perhaps confused his personality with his playing ability. Just because a player has an outgoing personality or lifestyle does not mean that he is not hard-working or lacks seriousness about his career,” adds the Dutchman, now coach of Egyptian giants Al Ahly. “I am not surprised that Babayaro developed differently, because he was under Gullit and then Vialli.”
While many will have their own views as to why two Nigerian players had such contrasting experiences, there can be little doubt that Amokachi’s English coaches were not as well equipped as their European counterparts in extracting the best from him. The player himself simply says of his time at Everton: “They didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them.”
It should also be pointed out that until the 1999-2000 season in England, work permits for non-EU players were not, as they are now, granted for the duration of the entire contract. Instead, clubs were forced to sign players as one of their highest earners while their work permits were subject to an annual review by the Department of Employment – the renewal of which was subject to the player taking part in 75 per cent of the club’s matches.
With minimal time to settle, and having to keep up their international appearances to meet the criteria in the first place, it is hardly surprising that African players won little favour from club managers. While the relative relaxation of employment laws certainly did play their part, managers did not – with the exception of Arsène Wenger – make an instant stampede to snap up African players. So what suddenly changed?
For starters, 2002 saw unprecedented coverage of the African game after the BBC decided that broadcasting every match from the2002 African Cup of Nations from Mali was as worthy an ethical foreign policy as any that that were coming out of Westminster. The tournament turned out to be an epic bore but still served to make African footballers that bit more mainstream and, it must be said, prepare the ground for Senegal’s dawn raids on the world’s elite in the far east. Senegal’s defeat of a France team whose players had held Premiership managers in thrall in recent times was arguably the defining moment in Anglo-African football relations. The west African nation’s march to the last eight gave the clearest indication yet to coaches of the birth of a new breed of African player on the field – the player schooled in some of the best European football academies, and who could add a healthy dose of grit to the inherent flair. The sight of Birmingham’s Aliou Cissé berating team-mate Robbie Savage for a lack of industry in their first match together was one for the collectors.
Off the field, these players are less prone to the problems Tony Yeboah had at Leeds, where he felt his star status wasn’t properly recognised. Furthermore, they are less reliant on the club as a structure of social support. Equally, it does not take a genius to work out that buying African is not far short of buying French – after all, Arsenal fans had long worked out that Vieira was from Senegal. Others will come to the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United via the back door of Belgian nursery clubs, but they will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.
It’s taken a while to reach this point, but no one wonders aloud any more about whether African players will “fancy it” on a cold evening in February.
From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month