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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 January 2008, 10:12 GMT
No easy glory for African footballers
By Jolyon Jenkins
BBC Radio 4's Ball and Chains

Didier Drogba [file photo]
Young African players dream of the riches earned by top stars
Belgian football coach Francis Macors is proud of his team's record.

"We beat Charleroi 3-2, we beat the Australian national team 1-0, we drew 0-0 against Algeria, and beat Oman 4-1. We're pretty good."

And so they should be.

His team includes seven former international players, including Guinea's former goalkeeper, the former captain of Congo, and members of the top Ivory Coast and Algerian national teams.

But despite their past glories, life is not good for these players.

None has a current contract. The team that Macors runs is called "Footballeurs Sans Frontieres".

He set it up so that unemployed players could keep fit and stay in training. His players try to keep their spirits up.

"My family back home are counting on me. I can't just leave them in the lurch," says Ngoko, a Cameroonian player.

"In Africa people think football is easy, but it's not. I feel a bit... depressed. I know that's a strong word... it's stronger than me"

African dream

Every year hundreds of young African players come to Europe in the hope of striking it rich, following in the footsteps of stars such as Chelsea's Didier Drogba or Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o.

At the African Cup of Nations, starting in Ghana this month, many national teams will be made up almost entirely of players who are contracted to European sides.

But for the handful who make it, far more fail.

It's important to dream but the dreams about football now are not realistic
Jean-Claude Mbvoumin
Former Cameroon international

Raffaele Poli, a Swiss academic, has studied the career paths of African footballers in Europe.

He looked at 600 players who played in the top European leagues in 2002.

Four years later, only 13% had progressed upwards. A third had simply disappeared from professional football.

And yet they keep coming.

Cheap talent

Belgium is one of the main entry points for young Africans.

Belgium is generous with its citizenship laws, and the football federation there has few limits on who can play professionally.

Consequently, many clubs have made a business out of importing cheap African talent and then selling it on to wealthier European clubs.

In the global football business, though, the talent is at the mercy of unscrupulous agents and clubs.

Dirk de Vos of the Belgian football players' union showed us a contract between a club and an African player.

Or rather, two contracts. One, properly printed, gave the player the correct minimum wage and benefits, and was lodged with the football federation. The other, hand-written, showed the true salary - less than a quarter of the official figure.

"They have no choice but to sign the second contract," says de Vos.

Other players we met had simply been abandoned on the streets by their agents when they failed a trial, or had their contract terminated.


Scams and false paperwork are common. In Ghent we met a young Nigerian player who was recruited at the age of 15.

Too young to play officially, his agent had taken his passport to the Nigerian embassy in Brussels, where he had paid to have it "amended" to make him appear older.

Last summer a Cameroonian player for Bayern Munich turned out to be travelling on a passport that actually belonged to a French woman.

The club terminated his contract, but it is still far too easy for under-age players to be recruited from Africa.

"You can bribe anyone," says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin a former Cameroonian international player, who now runs a support group for abandoned footballers in Paris.

Emmanuel Eboue [file photo]
Arsenal recruited Ivory Coast's Emmanuel Eboue via Belgium

It is in nobody's interest to clean up the system. The clubs and agents want African talent, and the young footballers and their families want them to come.

"Many children here don't want to return," says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin.

"They say: if I go back my parents will kill me because I don't bring them money, or big cars. And that's the main objective."

The worst of it is that the few successful examples are skewing the perceptions of young Africans, and in many cases encouraging them to abandon their education.

"It's important to dream," says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, "but the dreams about football now are not realistic."

Ball and Chains can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 GMT on Tuesday 15 January 2008.

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