The English Premier League has attracted players from all over the world - except Africa, it seems. Mike Ticher looks at the reasons why
You might be forgiven for thinking after the last few seasons that no country in the world was safe from the all-seeing eyes of desperate English football clubs. With Brazilians at Bradford and Bulgarians at Reading, it seemed no club was too modest nor any nationality too exotic to be persuaded of each other’s merits.
Yet even in this frenzy of apparently random accumulation, the one yawning gap has been the lack of players arriving from what is perhaps the world’s largest reservoir of football talent – Africa. Last season the African federation (CAF) listed five players in the Premiership qualified to play for African countries. Of those, two, West Ham’s Manny Omoyimni and Leeds’ Tony Yeboah, barely figured in the first team. A third, Efan Ekoku, was born and brought up in England. (Peter Ndlovu and Lucas Radebe were the others.) The contrast with other European countries is extraordinary. In the same list the Bundesliga boasted 20 Africans, Belgium’s first division had 47, while France topped the count with no less than 50.
There are signs that the number of Africans arriving here may increase to at least a trickle, after Chelsea signed 19-year-old Nigerian wing-back Celestine Babayaro from Anderlecht and Barnsley tempted South Africa’s utility player Eric Tinkler from Cagliari. If these signings represent the beginnings of a greater interest in African football, the English game can only benefit – although predictably it is the two foreign coaches in the Premiership who appear to be leading the way.
However, the way the trade in young African players is conducted in other European countries raises serious doubts about whose best interests are being served. Perhaps now is the time to question whether British clubs should become complicit in its somewhat questionable practices.
There are two main reasons for the dearth of African talent in England. Historically, England never developed the same footballing links with its former colonies as countries such as France, Belgium and Portugal did. Only the tiniest handful of players have found their way to England from Anglophone countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Many more white South Africans have played at top level in England than players from the whole of the rest of the continent. By contrast, a steady flow came to France, for example, from Morocco and Algeria from the 1950s onwards and later from its former west and central African colonies.
Second, Britain currently has by far the toughest immigration requirements of any major European country for players coming from outside the European Union. The broad conditions for obtaining a work permit here are that a player must have played in 75 per cent of his country’s competitive internationals (not including friendlies) in the past two years. His status must also be reflected by the offer of a package near the top of a club’s wage scale.
No-one argues more fervently to keep the rules tight than the PFA. Their deputy chief executive Brendan Batson said: “We are most concerned about making sure that clubs’ recruitment is thorough. Clubs must look to recruit domestically and then in the EU. If they can’t find the players there, then they are allowed to go abroad. It’s about domestic talent being given a chance with clubs trying to recruit cheaper foreign labour.”
In Belgium and the Netherlands, by contrast, the main stipulation is simply that non-EU players should receive a professional contract at a reasonable wage level. In Germany, clubs merely have to guarantee that players earn enough to to support themselves and have health insurance.
The result is that clubs can often sign players at a very young age (and for very small fees), developing them in their youth systems until they are either ready for the first team or deemed surplus to requirements. Babayaro, for example, left Nigeria for Belgium at the age of 15, having been spotted by Anderlecht playing at the under-17 World Cup in Japan. The outstanding achievements of African sides at under-17, under-20 and Olympic level (Ghana have been champions at all three of the under-17 World Cups held so far) combined with the financial weakness of African clubs make players who shine in such tournaments obvious targets for clubs in many European countries – but not Britain.
Yet that still leaves hundreds of more experienced African players who would stand a good chance of obtaining work permits for Britain. Almost the entire Norwegian national squad now plays in England, as do dozens of Australians and healthy sprinklings from Romania, Croatia, Georgia and many other non-EU countries. What is stopping the Africans?
An instinctive answer might be that a combination of ignorance and ingrained prejudice on the part of English managers and agents is to blame, a lingering suspicion that black Africans are not mentally or physically equipped for the rigours of the ‘toughest league in the world’. One English agent told me: “The reason that more go to the continent and succeed there is that they play a different style of football. They are prepared to knock it about, whereas English football is much more aggressive and physical. If managers are going to put it on the line, they are going to do it for someone who speaks the language, who they are familiar with, and who they know will be disciplined.” While such assumptions no doubt still survive, it seems likely that the very rapid internationalization of the transfer market will soon put at a disadvantage any manager stupid enough to believe them.
Louis De Vries, a prominent Belgian agent, maintains that British clubs are waking up to the potential for bargains among African players. Some British clubs, he says, are even looking at sharing the costs of recruiting and training young African players with their continental counterparts, in exchange for a first option on their transfer. “We speak about it regularly with English club managers,” he says. “Most of them envy the continental clubs and regret that what is possible here is not possible in England, because it’s really from the age of 15 or 16 that it’s important to have these people in your club.”
Which is where potential problems lie. For all the success stories such as Babayaro, there are inevitably dozens if not hundreds of players who were brought to Europe at the age of 15 or even younger and whose dreams of stardom have stalled. Take the single example of Daniel Addo, who played in the Ghanaian teams that won the 1991 under-17 World Cup and finished second in the under-20 version in 1993. Taken from his home country to Germany by Bayer Leverkusen just after his 15th birthday, he has yet to play a first-team game six years later and faces a highly doubtful future in the Bundesliga.
Young African players in Addo’s situation may have literally few friends in their new country, but certainly they have no dependable allies within the game. The PFA calls it cheap foreign labour. Agents and managers talk about ‘talent’ as if they were teenagers on the pick-up at a local disco. If clubs are not prepared to invest in the long-term futures of such recruits on and off the field, they could fairly be accused of a pretty nasty form of exploitation, with doubly unfortunate colonial overtones.
It certainly hasn’t come to that yet in England, albeit mainly through lack of interest in African football and the efforts of the players’ union to protect their members as they see fit. But clubs seem only too eager to blame foreign players rather than their own management when things go wrong, as Tony Yeboah and half of last season’s West Ham squad would no doubt confirm. The consequences of that attitude would be even more regrettable if English clubs begin to collaborate with their European counterparts in raiding Africa in search of schoolboy geniuses.
From WSC 126 August 1997. What was happening this month