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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


Homegrown Tilt Leaves African Players Out in Cold in South America

Andreas Ambarchian

When the African Cup of Nations kicks off later this month, some of the biggest leagues in Europe will see major disruption caused to proceedings as African players make their way en masse to South Africa for the start of the tournament. To a lesser extent, championships in the Middle East, Oceania and North America will feel the impact too. However, leagues across the famous footballing nations of South America will remain largely unaffected, owing to a scarcity of African talent playing in the region.

In general, the presence of African football across the world is substantial, with huge a number of players having travelled from their native countries to ply their trade in foreign leagues all over the globe.

The top divisions in Europe feature a particularly large African contingent, with the English Premier League home to some of the continent’s biggest stars, including QPR’s skillful Moroccan forward Adel Taarabt, Newcastle’s Senegalese marksman Papiss Cisse and Tottenham’s towering Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor. In all, African footballers make up 10.1% of the total number of imported players in the competition and 6.6% of the players in the entire league.

In Italy’s Serie A, there are 28 players from African nations, including nine from Ghana, three from Morocco and two from both Mali and Algeria. In Germany, the Bundesliga contains a total of 25 African players, 10% of the total number of foreign players in the league. Spain’s La Liga meanwhile is home to explosive Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins, who is reestablishing himself a major goalscoring threat at Valencia-based club Levante, as well as Barcelona’s classy Cameroonian midfielder Alex Song, Deportivo La Coruna’s veteran Equatoguinean forward Rodolfo Bodipo and 20 other African players. Over the border in France, Ligue 1 boasts 134 African footballers, equating to 56.2% of the total 219 imported players and 22.9% of those in the league as a whole.

Away from Europe, the influence of African players remains substantial. In the MLS, 10.8% of the 195 foreign players in the league are African. The Chinese Super League, one of the fastest growing leagues in Asia, currently features 77 foreign players, of whom 11 are African, including Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League hero, the talismanic Ivory Coast forward Didier Drogba, as well as one time Premier League goal machine Nigerian Yakubu Aiyegbeni. In the Middle East, the Saudi Professional League is home to 25 African footballers, equal to just 4.5% of the total league, but almost 32% of the foreign legion.

The highest league in Australasia (although actually part of the Asian Football Confederation), the Australian A-League, contains 66 overseas players, a number that includes former England striker Emile Heskey, who, having hit over 100 goals during his time in the Premier League, moved to the Newcastle Jets in the summer. This figure equates to 27.8% of the total number of players in the competition, 4.4% of whom are African.

Of course, not all of these players will be going to the upcoming tournament in South Africa, however, to put the figures in context, the entire Brazilian Serie A is made up of 707 players, of whom just one, the Brazilian-born Hamilton, a naturalised Togolese international who holds one cap for his adopted nation, is eligible to play in the African Cup of Nations. There are no African players currently competing in the Argentinian Primera Division, while in Chile, twice Under-20 capped DR Congo striker Occupe Bayenga, who also holds a Chilean passport, is the sole African representative in the west coast country’s top division. Nigerians Joseph Nwafor, of Union Comercio, and Tunde Enahoro, at Universitario, make up the African contingent in Peru, equal to just 0.4% of the 593 players who play in the league.

The reason for the relatively small number of African players in South America has a lot to do with the huge homegrown bias in the region. While the Premier League is comprised of well over half imported players at 65.3%, and Serie A and the Bundesliga at 51.6% and 48.3%, respectively, the combined total of foreign players in the two biggest leagues in South America, the Argentinian Primera Division and the Brazilian Serie A, is just 16.8%. Even the talent pool in La Liga, a competition with a famously strong homegrown base, is still made up of 37.1% non-native players.

This indicates a highly fecund system of academies in South America, able to produce enough players to fill the leagues based in the continent, while the very best talent is sold off to the highest bidders, namely to the clubs in Europe and, to a point, the Middle East and China. With this system in place, South American clubs tend to be self-sufficient and if any trade does occur, it is often intercontinental, as seen in the top divisions in Peru and Chile, where the vast majority of foreign players are from other South American countries.

However, assuming South American clubs did want to snap up African talent, they would find a breed of player that had already been moulded to the specifications of the faster, pressure based leagues of Europe. While there are anomalies, such as the famed ASEC Mimosas academy in the Ivory Coast, which has produced the likes of the Manchester City’s Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya, as well as former Arsenal utility man Emmanuel Eboue, instances such as these are rare, with a trend developing for European clubs to buy a stake in an African team and assume control of the youth academy, taking advantage of the lack of an existing infrastructure.

As well as giving an investing club the ability to produce the type of player they desire, this system offers the other advantage that young African players are available to the associated European team for relatively little money.

There is also a growing number of privately run football schools in Africa, such as the Pepsi Football Academy. First launched in 1992 as a single centre in Lagos, Nigeria, the scheme now has four sites across the country and over 3,000 students. Notable former trainees of the Pepsi Academy include languid Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, fleet footed West Brom forward Peter Odemwingie and former Hertha Berlin striker Solomon Okoronkwo, who now plays for Pecsi MFC in Hungary; all three have played for the Nigerian national side. The effect of the academy is to make a business out of producing footballers, cutting out the club run youth systems altogether and offering European nations of all sizes a readily available supply of inexpensive and willing players. This all helps to keeps the supply of African players coming to Europe with teams in South America neither needing nor having the opportunity to break the chain.

There may be other factors contributing towards the status quo, where African players are so rarely seen in South America. The traditional lines of trade between Africa and Europe mean that exchange between the two continents already exists, a process that has brought rise to the issue of neocolonialism. Racial acceptance may also play a part in the lack of African players featuring in the leagues of South America. In Brazil, for instance, the white population earns an average income almost twice that of the black population and of the country’s top 1% of highest earners, only 12% are black. The black population makes up 73% of the poorest 10% in the country too, which certainly hints, at the least, at a lack of racial equality. However, these statistics are not in any particular contrast with the UK, where around half of the black population live in low income households.

Moreover, football tends to be able to overcome such barriers as race when there is money to be made. However, few sides in South America hold enough financial sway over the major European powers to be able to add the requisite value to young African players in order to make an investment in African football viable.

If any influx of African players to South America were to take place, it would probably need to start in Brazil, where the country’s biggest teams are currently enjoying the benefits of a restructured TV deal, which includes more money, increasingly lucrative contracts for the top players and, therefore, a stronger position when dealing with European clubs. This has enabled Brazilian Serie A side Santos to offer sufficient enough funds to keep 20-year-old star Neymar on their books until after his 18th birthday, the age at which players in Brazil become eligible to sign for a club outside the country. Moreover, the Sao Paulo-based team should get a very sizable transfer fee when the talented forward finally makes the move to Europe.

However, with Brazil’s infrastructure tilted as it is towards producing homegrown talent, any sustained importation of African players to South America seems remote. Ultimately, even if clubs in South America were to start procuring footballers from African nations, the process would only be a stepping stone for the most talented players, with the final destination still likely to be Europe.

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