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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 18:43 GMT



By David Ornstein and John Sinnott

Emmanuel Eboue
Eboue trained at Jean-Parc Guillou's Abidjan football academy

At the end of the 19th Century, European countries, in what became known as the scramble for Africa, sought to carve up the continent between them.

But in 2008 the scramble is of an altogether different nature - to secure the continent's finest footballing talent.

The regard in which African players are now held by Premier League clubs is plain for all to see.

When Mali hosted the Africa Cup of Nations in 2002, England's top flight was stripped of just eight players.

Fast forward to the 2008 edition in Ghana and that figure has risen to a staggering 35.

And, despite many a manager's criticism of the tournament's mid-season scheduling, it appears likely that the trend will only continue to grow.

BBC Sport understands that all bar five Premier League clubs have sent scouts to the Nations Cup, not only to spot potential recruits for the here and now but, more importantly, for the future.

Arsenal: Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Alexandre Song
Birmingham: Richard Kingson, Mehdi Nafti, Radhi Jaidi
Blackburn: Aaron Mokoena
Bolton: El-Hadji Diouf, Abdoulaye Meite
Chelsea: John Obi Mikel, Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou, Michael Essien
Everton: Joseph Yobo, Ayegbeni Yakubu, Steven Pienaar
Fulham: Diomansy Kamara
Liverpool: Momo Sissoko
Manchester United: Manucho
Middlesbrough: Mohamed Shawky
Newcastle: Obafemi Martins, Geremi, Abdoulaye Faye, Habib Beye
Portsmouth: Papa Bouba Diop, Nwankwo Kanu, John Utaka, Sulley Muntari
Reading: Andre Bikey, Emerse Fae, Ibrahima Sonko
Sunderland: Dickson Etuhu
Tottenham: Didier Zokora
West Ham: John Paintsil, Henri Camara

"We already know the players and I don't think any clubs of our calibre go there to sign a player - they should know who they want a long time before," said Chelsea's chief scout and head of youth development Frank Arnesen. "We are monitoring for the future."

Chelsea's four players competing at the Nations Cup - Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and Jon Mikel Obi - were purchased from other European clubs at a total cost of more than 50m.

Part of Arnesen's job is to ensure the club secure the best possible talent at the best possible price.

If a club can identify and buy talent before African players make their name in the major European leagues, there are huge savings to be made.

But even if they have made a name for themselves, BBC Sport found a widespread belief in the Premier League that African players offer excellent value for money.

"Look at Habib Beye, who we signed from Marseille for 2m," said Newcastle first-team coach Steve Round.

"For a full international of his pedigree and the amount of games he has played in Europe and the Champions League, to get an English player of the same pedigree could cost you in the region of 8m-10m."

Just as important as the financial advantages are the physical and technical perks.

"One of the most significant changes to the Premier League over the past five years is how much the high intensity output has improved - it has gone up about 2.5km in the last five years which is a colossal amount," added Round.

African boys playing football
When you have millions of kids playing street football all day long, players will come through, exactly like in Brazil

Tottenham sporting director Damien Comolli

"That is partly due to better training methods and better athletes being produced but also because of the influx of a lot of these African players who, physically, are very good."

Tord Grip, a member of the Manchester City coaching staff under Sven-Goran Eriksson, added: "They seem to be well-suited to the style of play in the Premier League.

"African players are strong, athletic and good technically. You also find that they are very motivated, because they have come from a difficult and poor background."

Arnesen insists individuals from any background can make it to the top, but the Dane concedes the amount of football played by Africans as they grow up is key to their development, a point echoed by Damien Comolli.

"When you go to any country in Africa, people, especially kids, play football from eight in the morning until late at night," said Tottenham's sporting director.

"When you have millions of kids playing street football all day long, players will come through, exactly like in Brazil."

Scouting is a time-consuming and expensive business and BBC Sport has learned that one major Premier League club's scouting wage bill runs close to 1m.

If monitoring players in Europe is a difficult logistical exercise it is even harder in Africa, given the sheer size of the continent - Nigeria's population alone is more than 130 million.

Arsenal, who have former player Gilles Grimandi scouting for them in Ghana, have had an advantage over many of their Premier League rivals because of manager Arsene Wenger's close relationship with compatriot Jean-Marc Guillou.

606: DEBATE

As well as giving Wenger his break in management - the two worked together at Cannes - Guillou helped set up an academy in the Ivory Coast, run in co-operation with the local team ASEC of Abidjan.

Graduates of that Academy include Arsenal's Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, Chelsea's Kalou, and half the Ivory Coast 2006 World Cup squad.

"They are now well-coached because some of them are coming through various coaching systems or development centres that are producing quality players now," said Wigan assistant manager Eric Black.

"The indiscipline that was there maybe 10 years ago is disappearing. They're being coached by European coaches who are in Africa, or when they are at clubs in Europe."

With players from just four Premier League clubs - Derby, Aston Villa and Manchester City and Wigan - not present in Ghana and the country awash with their scouts, England needs little convincing of Africa's worth.

Additional reporting by Simon Austin, Russell Barder, Chris Bevan and Phil McNulty.

SEE ALSO
2008 Cup of Nations qualifying
20 Oct 07 |  African
Grimandi expects Sagna to shine
13 Jul 07 |  Arsenal


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