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Friday, 14 January, 2000, 18:35 GMT
Africa's worrying soccer exodus
Unscrupulous football agents are plundering African countries of their most promising talent, claims one of the continent's most high-profile sports' spokesmen.
John Fashanu, the ex-Wimbledon player and current ambassador for sport to Nigeria, says young Africans are being lured away with promises of lucrative contracts with top European clubs only to find themselves on the breadline in third-rate football leagues.
The success of Nigerians Nwankwo Kanu and Celestine Babayaro at two of the English Premiership's most glamorous clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea, is prompting many less talented African footballers to try to follow them.
"Instead they can find themselves in Israel or Russia, cleaning cars or restaurants, with barely enough money to get back to their country of origin," says Fashanu.
"I have always said that the more players that leave Africa, the better. But now it is getting to the stage where the domestic leagues are being plundered of all the top players.
"What is happening now is that every time you get a good African player, he wants to leave for pastures greener. I can understand that. But what happens is the league loses all the best players, so domestically the level drops, and people do not want to watch."
Fashanu's comments come as Nigeria and co-hosts Ghana prepare to stage the continent's biggest football showpiece, the African Cup of Nations.
"This is a place to find rough diamonds. Not many - and the ones that come up need polishing", he says. "But the Italian or Dutch clubs know they can take them back and make them shining lights."
South African striker Shaun Bartlett, currently playing in Switzerland and valued at around £4m and being tracked by English club Tottenham Hotspur, is just one of the 350-odd players hoping to boost their careers at this year's event.
Half those players are already playing in Europe, Asia or South America and while their success is a testament to the growing quality of African football, the exodus is beginning to worry observers like Fashanu.
"Football is a wonderful way out but there are now many thousands of players being lured away through promises of fast cars and £40,000-a-week like Kanu or Daniel Amokachi", he says.
"Many of them are not really good enough so they find themselves as nothings still hoping to become professional footballers but never getting there."
The football federations of both Nigeria and South Africa - regarded in Europe as the most rich source of raw African talent - now require a bond of about $250,000 from clubs wishing to sign native players.
"A club has to be serious to pay that sort of money. So that way, if you are not prepared to pay that, then let the player stay in their local state and play domestic football and entertain the crowd until such time you really want to pay it."
Fashanu concedes the system is resented by some Nigerian hopefuls. A few have become so frustrated they have left the country and found themselves passports from countries which do not require a bond.
"If you try and tell footballers to wait in their country until someone pays $250,000 they will lynch you. It is a fantastic lifestyle and a way for them to earn respect and look after their families.
"But getting from Africa to play in, say, England in the greatest league in the world, is not easy."
The dilemma is becoming more keenly-felt as the African nations continue closing the gap on the more developed football world.
They have come a long way from the 1980s when Roger Milla was just about the only African footballer known outside the continent.
George Weah carried the flag into the 1990s, in 1995 becoming the first African to be voted Fifa's World Player of the Year.
Five of the 16 competing nations appeared at the last World Cup - South Africa, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and Cameroon, who famously made it to the quarter-finals in 1990.
Apart from Nigeria's Olympic gold medal - achieved through a memorable 4-3 win over Brazil - Cameroon's place in the last eight is still the greatest international success by an African nation.
But the vein of talent is widening.
Every one of the competing nations - including the lesser known like Burkina Faso - have at least three professionals playing overseas.
More and more, they are choosing to exercise Fifa's strict regulations which force clubs to bow to international demands.
This has led to some bitter conflicts, such as Arsenal's dispute with Nigeria over Kanu, but all 10 of the African players leaving Britain for the tournament have faced some difficulty over split loyalties.
But it is not the players who make it in Europe or Asia who trouble Fashanu, but the ones who don't.
"They end up in countries like Israel or Russia and find themselves staying with seven other people in a two-bedroom flat and basically being exploited," he says.
Until a way is found to balance the hopes of talented individuals with the needs of the aspiring nations, Pele's famous prediction of an African World Cup winner will come later rather than sooner.
Links to other Cup Features stories are at the foot of the page.
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