The Role of youth academies in the exportation of african footballers to Europe

Macdonald Mariga is the first ever Kenyan to play in the Champions League, and is just one in a long line of Africans to make the move to Europe

Stamford Bridge in March last year offered its regular exhibition of Champions’ League knockout football as Chelsea welcomed back Jose Mourinho, who slipped away at the end of an expertly masterminded Inter victory without celebrating, as promised, in view of the fans who once worshipped him and would undoubtedly love the chance to do so again. Despite the customary Mourinho sub-plot escalation, the global audience wasn’t salivating at the Portuguese coach’s wisdom in its entirety, as over 4,000 miles away in East Africa, Kenya’s burgeoning legion of football followers were patiently anticipating a far more poignant appearance.

With five minutes remaining, and a 3-1 Inter lead seemingly enough to send the Italians through to the quarter-finals, Mourinho removed Wesley Sneijder, and replaced the Dutch forward with Nairobi-born Macdonald Mariga, the first Kenyan representative in the history of the Champions’ League. Mariga’s story isn’t all together unfamiliar, although it has been revealed this year that the midfielder earns $1.3million a year, the most of any East African player by a distance. But what encouraged Mariga’s journey from his agricultural background in Nakuru, playing in front of a diminutive crowd for Kenya’s national military team, to securing the attention of hundreds of millions of spectators from all corners of the globe, not to mention sharing occupational residency with Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba?

The aforementioned experienced contrasting emotions that night not least due to the result, but also since Drogba was dismissed for an unnecessary assault on Thiago Motta following Eto’o’s match-winner. Nevertheless, both had already cemented their statuses in their home continent as both athletic and political icons long before Mariga confirmed his place amongst his country’s most admired sporting paladins. The strikers are hailed as much for their charitable endowments as for their celebrity, with Drogba immortalized in the Ivory Coast for effectively ending five years of civil war, but how did either achieve such influential prominence having emerged from the humblest of beginnings? Youth academies have naturally played a significant role in exporting the continent’s precocious talents for the opportunities of greater exposure playing in Europe’s wealthier leagues, but their structure and organization is far more complex than the development facilities Premier League fans are used to. On the surface, this process appears to assist young Africans in the pursuit of their footballing ambitions, but the reality is far more brutal, and the coordination of several academies is only serving to harm the future of football in Africa.

The cynical interpretation of the primary objectives of these facilities results from its four distinguishable classifications. One class is fully-African academies which are organised and run by African club sides or African national federations, which operate, on the surface at least, in a manner similar to those that exist in Europe. The second are private or corporate-sponsored academies, which enjoy financial support from private individuals, and in many cases, retired high-profile African players or national football federations. A growing number of academies, which fall in to the third category, are characterised by a partnership between an established academy and an overseas club or an arrangement whereby a foreign team acquires a percentage of an African club and then either assumes control of the club’s existing youth structures, or constructs new ones. The final type are the academies which are organized cheaply and often incorporate inadequately-qualified coaches and suffer from insufficient facilities. It is worth mentioning that many African academies have, at various stages of their existence, belonged to one or more of the above divisions, and that in every country on the continent, even in those nations that have exported significantly greater numbers of footballers to Europe than others, examples of each type of academy can be located.

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Since the turn of the millennium, European fans, and particularly those who follow Premier League clubs, have witnessed a sudden infiltration of Ivorian talent, principally attributed to the MimoSifcom Academy near the country’s largest city, Abidjan. MimoSifcom is the official development facility of ASEC Mimosas, perhaps the Ivory Coast’s most famous footballing institution, and represents one of the few academies which demonstrate an authentically-African philosophy. The academy was one of the first structures of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa when founded in 1994, and its extant values mirror those of its European counterparts in that MimoSifcom provide hopeful thirteen to 17 year-olds with an academic as well as footballing education. The idea, as with any academy of this nature, is to promote promising candidates in to the Mimosas first-team, but with the mid-term intention to export the most gifted individuals to Europe in order to recover the costs of training young players and to sustain a steady flow of replacements for the successful graduates.

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In 1999, an ASEC side containing not one player over the age of 18 faced much-fancied Esperance of Tunisia in the CAF (Confederation of African Football) Super Cup, and contested an unlikely 3-1 victory. A glance at the team-sheet that day reveals an impressive assortment of presently established quality, but the sales of Kolo Toure to Arsenal, Didier Zokora to St. Etienne and Aruna Dindane to Anderlecht soon after their involvement in the club’s only Super Cup triumph exposes the necessary procedure for the club, and other African academies, to maintain economic sustainability. The fact that Toure was sold for a meager £150,000 three years after the Super Cup Final, and has since generated transfer income to the sum of £16million, and that Zokora’s accumulated transfer fees disbursed by four different European clubs surpass this figure, highlights the financial disparity between European and African football, and a process which has in several cases emphasized the neo-colonial connections which have underpinned the increased flow of African players to Europe for many decades.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the football clubs of those countries that are known for having had a considerable imperial presence in Africa have been the foremost beneficiaries of African migrant talent. France and Portugal, whose international teams have integrated a significant number of African-born players for some time, have managed to continue and augment this practice despite the collapse of colonial rule in the continent. Both nations’ domestic leagues have assumed, and in fact accelerated, this trend to the point where 23% of the 658 registered professionals in the French Ligue 1 for the 2010/2011 campaign, hail from as many as 21 different African nations. A significant factor in the intensification of African migration to Europe has been the propagating of partnership academies, distinguished by their intimate financial associations with reputable European teams.

The first institution of this kind is the Aldo Gentina centre in Senegal, which was developed by Senegalese Football Federation President, El Hadj Malick Sy, and has been supported by regular donations from French club, AS Monaco. “The academy has changed my life,” explains former Monaco goalkeeper, Tony Sylva, a successful graduate of Aldo Gentina and French League championship winner with Monaco. “You cannot imagine how difficult life can be – going to train when you are hungry, walking home without a penny in your pocket. Being in the academy, you immediately felt you were privileged.” This integrity took Sylva all the way to Korea and Japan, where he and four other former Aldo Gentina scholars miraculously defeated the reigning champions, France, in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, with a starting XI who ironically all played for a French club at the time. This fixture possibly revealed more about the flourishing influence of African academy structures than it did the quality of French domestic football, but also confirmed the impact of European investment on the development of African footballers.

Aldo Gentina is an acknowledged and auspicious example of an African academy whose establishment was determined by foreign financial assistance, but in West Africa, privately-owned academies are perhaps even more significant. The corporately-sponsored Pepsi Football Academy was set-up in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1992 and is responsible for producing an extensive thread of talented players for the national youth and senior teams, with Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel arguably their most recognized recent alumna. Today, the academy comprises a national network of fourteen centres with 54 coaches training more than 4,000 students between the ages of six and 18. Typically, European coaches and agents have understood the academy in a context which allows them to recruit well-trained and educated youngsters cheaply. But placing a more positive spin on the contribution of the development facility shows that Nigeria not only qualified for their first ever FIFA World Cup two years after the academy’s conception, but that the country remained amongst the globe’s best 32 nations for three out of the following four tournaments.

Given the range of academies present in Africa, it is difficult to summarise the impact of these institutions on African football, or African society in general. It is clear that a number of these structures are organized in a manner that implies a form of neo-colonial exploitation of the poverty and aspirations of young African footballers, who are essentially athletic raw materials, exported for the consumption and generation of wealth by European countries. Although in many ways this encourages the impoverishment of domestic African football, the majority of academies that have emerged since the mid-1990s have greatly contributed to the development of local African economies, and it is possible to interpret the standard of training available to young African aspirants as one stage in a process that underwrites a broader development within African society.

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The sudden rise in the number of football academies established in Africa in the last ten to 15 years, and their role in the exodus of the continent’s most gifted footballers to Europe, is one of the biggest challenges that African football faces today. Although more academies offer support to youth development and provide relatively suitable training facilities than don’t, the fact that the majority have as their primary objective the refining of African talent for export could be hugely problematic. For the time being, this process will continue unrestricted, allowing foreign academy directors, managers, and scouts to persevere with the unrelenting recruitment of young African players.

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Article title: The Role of youth academies in the exportation of african footballers to Europe

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