Out of Africa: The exodus of elite African football talent to Europe
As a reflection of the acceleration of globalisation in the latter part of the twentieth and the opening years of the twenty-first centuries, transcontinental migration of playing talent has increasingly come to characterise football across the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dramatic expansion in the numbers of Africans who earn their living in the European football market (Poli, 2006b).2 The pace and pervasiveness of this process has recently heralded a debate, of increasingly acrimonious proportions, in both the media and football’s corridors of power. The normative view of African player migration, at least in European football circles, is that exposure to Europe’s elite leagues contributes to the development of the African game and its footballers and as such should be allowed to continue unfettered. Others though vehemently disagree and compare the loss of Africa’s football resources to Europe with broader colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the developing world by the developed. This view was expressed most explicitly by the president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Sepp Blatter, who described those European clubs involved in the trade of African playing talent as ‘neo-colonialists’ involved in ‘social and economic rape’ (Blatter, 2003). Analyses of the causes, consequences and possible legacies of this process have also begun to feature in the growing literature on sports labour migration. Although the key academic studies of African player migration to Europe have adopted a more considered position than football administrators, there has been general agreement that this practice is ultimately extractive and one that has involved varying degrees of neo-colonial impoverishment of African football and exploitation of African players (Darby, 2000, 2006, 2007a, 2009; Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001; Poli, 2002, 2005, 2006a, 2006b; Bale, 2004; Darby et al., 2007). The purpose of this chapter is not to retread this ground, although attention is paid in the conclusion to signposting ways in which theorising on African football labour migration might be advanced. Rather, this essay will concentrate on locating the transit of African footballers to Europe in its historical context, accounting for the changing patterns that have characterised these migrations and identifying those factors that have contributed to the development of this process from the colonial period through to the current day.