Osasu Obayiuwana surveys some of the pitfalls that lie in wait for African players hoping to pursue careers in Europe
Top quality African players are appearing in Europe in increasing numbers but amongst all the success stories, like George Weah and Finidi George, are just as many tales of hardship, of players whose naïvete on financial issues has been taken advantage of by rapacious clubs or business managers.
Nigerian World Cup star Rashidi Yekini, now struggling to resurrect his career with Sporting Gijon in Spain after sustaining a knee injury, is a classic case. Signing a £250,000 contract drafted in French in which he is only semi-literate, and without a lawyer to advise him of the fine print of what he now calls “a slave’s contract”, Yekini moved from Africa Sports of Ivory Coast to his first European club, Vitoria Setubal of Portugal, without receiving his 40% share of the transfer fee, reputed to be $100,000.
When Yekini confronted the Setubal president, he was told his share had been paid to Africa Sports president, Simplice Zinsou, who as well as negotiating a fat fee – by African standards – for his club, personally represented Yekini during the transfer negotiations, an obvious conflict of interest. Zinsou denied being in possession of his share of the fee and sugg- ested Yekini sorted out the problem with Vitoria.
Frustrated with the musical chairs over who was to pay him the share to which he was entitled, Yekini returned to Nigeria, saying that he would never play for Setubal again. It took a threat from FIFA – at the prompting of Setubal – to impose a worldwide playing ban on Yekini “for failing to adhere to contractual provisions he willingly (?) signed” – that forced him to return to Portugal, where, ironically, he became a big success, scoring with ease for a club struggling near the foot of the table.
“When I was in Portugal my pay was very poor. Even some reserves were earning more. I thought this wasn’t fair and that is why I initially stayed away. If I had played for Sporting or Benfica, I wouldn’t have had any regrets,” Yekini said later.
If Yekini’s case was sad, the travails of another Nigerian striker, Tijani Babangida, of Holland’s Roda JC, could be described as horrific. Three years ago, the magazine Voetbal International revealed how the 22-year-old player, then on loan to a smaller club, VV Venlo, was conned into signing a carte-blanche agreement that virtually handed over all his earnings to his ‘business managers’.
When they discovered that Babangida was secretly seeking help from the Dutch players’ union, on how to extricate himself from their clutches, and had arranged a meeting with the union president to try to find a solution to the problem, his managers held him hostage in his own house for 24 hours to prevent him spilling the beans to the authorities. Loath to involve the police, Babangida settled for getting the players’ union to nullify his contract.
Babangida’s involvement with these conmen denied him an opportunity to play for PSV, as their general manager, Kees Ploegsma, who had earlier indicated an interest in buying the player, terminated talks on the issue as soon as ‘hostage-gate’ broke.
In England, there have been suspicions about the initial financial package under which Zimbabwean Peter Ndlovu was employed by Coventry City. Ndlovu, who was bought from Bulawayo Highlanders for the outrageous sum of £10,000 and is now rated Coventry’s best player with an estimated transfer value of £3.8 million, was reputedly unhappy with his first contract, having discovered through conversations with colleagues that he was among the worst-paid players at the club.
At least Ndlovu has had the opportunity to ply his trade at the highest level, unlike another English-based player, Nigerian centre forward Wole Odegbami. Odegbami played for top club sides in Nigeria including Leventis Utd, with whom he won a league and cup double, before moving to the Cypriot league in 1991. There he spent two seasons banging in goals for mid-table clubs, EPA Larnaca and Paralimni, both of which turned out to be much smaller set-ups than he had been led to believe by ‘advisers’. A colleague who accompanied him to Cyprus, Mike Obiku, got lucky after his initial season, and was spirited away to Feyenoord, but Odegbami found himself shunted on to an Austrian club St Polten, where the contract he had been promised did not materialize. So he came to London, where his wife currently works, and where he is now fighting a losing battle to resurrect his career with Dulwich Hamlet in the ICIS League.
Peter Law, co-author of The Secret Life of Football, believes that the undisguised eagerness of African players to get a foothold in European football at all costs has always been their undoing. “Most players are desperate to play in Europe and just allow their quest for superstardom to get the better of them. As European clubs are always looking for first-rate talent at bargain prices, particularly in this age of crazy transfer fees, they will continue to take advantage of the players’ financial naïvete until they develop a more business-like attitude.”
Emmanuel Maradas, editor of African Soccer magazine, disagrees, believing that players willingly accept these contracts as a means of getting out of their domestic league. “They know full well that they are getting less than they merit because they are unknown quantities. If their talent shines through, then, like Abedi Pelé or George Weah, they can get to a point where they can name their price.”
While exceptional players manage to outlast this brutal cycle of exploitation, their journeyman counterparts are not so lucky. Seduced by agents’ false promises of first division football in Europe or elsewhere, they sign up for third-rate teams in obscure places – the Lebanon, believe it or not, has become a popular destination recently. They then find that the agents have vanished into thin air, after getting their ‘brokers’ fee’, leaving lonely and bewildered players to sort out their careers in harsh foreign environments.
From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month