Nonsensical immigration rules and poor administration are holding back football across east Africa. Steve Bloomfield reports

McDonald Mariga should have been the first Kenyan to play in the Premier League. The fact he now finds himself playing for Internazionale means no one should feel too sorry for him. However, the failure of Manchester City to sign him on transfer deadline day highlights the problem with Britain’s immigration rules for football – rules which are holding back the development of the game in east Africa.

To qualify for a work permit in the UK a footballer must have played 75 per cent of his country’s matches in the last two years. Mariga, Kenya’s best player by far, easily passes that test. But the Home Office also insists that over the same period of time a player’s national team must have been in the top 70 of the FIFA world rankings. This is where Mariga failed – and where the test makes no sense.

The reason the rules were brought in was to ensure that only the best international players came to the UK. Insisting that a player has turned out regularly for his national team sounds reasonable. But why should it make any difference how good the national team is?

Kenya actually broke into the top 70 at the start of 2009. Under the guidance of a young, local coach, Francis Kimanzi, the Harambee Stars had reached the final round of the World Cup/Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. The team’s ranking rose from 137 in July 2007 to 68 just 17 months later. But the leaders of Kenyan football’s governing body appeared to be more interested in pimping out the national side to the highest bidder than qualifying for a major tournament.

Kimanzi was sacked for refusing to take a second-string side to Egypt for a meaningless friendly arranged at short notice. Kimanzi argued, quite rightly, that Kenya risked losing vital ranking points. Over the next 12 months the Harambee Stars played a further five friendlies in the Gulf and Asia, losing four and drawing one. The matches may have brought in much needed revenue but they also cost Kenya 45 places in the rankings. In the 15 months following Kimanzi’s dismissal Kenya have dropped back down to 113th.

In the wake of Mariga’s aborted move to Eastlands, Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, boasted that he had done what he could to get a work permit for the midfielder, spending “a minimum of three hours on the phone talking to Gordon Brown’s office, the Africa Office, office of Culture and Sports, the Home Office, the FA president Lord Triesman and to Mariga himself.”

Let’s leave aside the issue of whether the prime minister of a country should have more important things to do than help a footballer. Odinga himself was actually a key figure in Kenya’s recent downfall. He publicly called for a foreign coach to replace Kimanzi and personally unveiled the new man, a German, Antoine Hey, who had previously coached three other African national teams (Lesotho, Liberia and Gambia) without winning a single match.

Political interference and infighting between senior football association officials has blighted countries across Africa, but east Africa suffers more than most. Kenya has been banned by FIFA twice in the past six years while Ethiopia was banned during the most recent World Cup qualifiers. Broader political problems have also held football back. Eritrea’s entire national team, in Kenya last year for a regional tournament, sought asylum rather than go back to a repressive dictatorship. Somalia’s footballers have to avoid gun battles and armed roadblocks just to get to the training ground. Of the 13 teams in the region only Uganda is in the top 100.

Mariga is a talented midfielder – tall, fast, strong, creative and sharp in front of goal. He will do well at Inter. The Home Office rules are more of a problem for Mariga’s team-mates. There are several players in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania who could do well in the English Championship. With a bit of luck and a good coach, there are a handful who could one day make the grade in the Premier League. But they won’t get the chance and east African football, already held back by terrible administrators and government interference, will continue to suffer as a result.

In francophone west Africa any young footballer who shows some promise soon finds himself playing in the lower leagues of Belgium or France, where work permit rules are much more relaxed. Most don’t get any further, but some do. Didier Drogba and Kolo Touré both ended up in the Premier League via this route.

East African footballers, who (Rwandans and Burundians aside) don’t speak French, are far less likely to go to France or Belgium. Their most comfortable route would be England. But as long as the top-70 rule stays in place east Africa will likely remain a football backwater.

From WSC 278 April 2010

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