Since the early 1990s top flight European football has witnessed a huge influx of African players. There is little doubt that the African football diaspora has enriched professional leagues and thrilled football audiences throughout Europe. Along the way those Africans playing at the elite level have earned salaries and acquired the sort of fame that they could only have dreamt of had they remained in Africa. What is less clear though is the impact that this process has had on the development of African football at both domestic and international level. Some have claimed that the success of African national teams in the last 10-15 years has been largely contingent upon the migration of large numbers of African players to Europe and the acquisition of European technique, tactical awareness and discipline. Others, particularly those with a responsibility for safeguarding the interests of the African game, have argued that talent migration serves to underdevelop and de-skill African football. This, they argue, occurs on the
domestic front by reducing standards of play and hence attendances, gate receipts, media interest and opportunities for sponsorship. It is also claimed that rather than boost the fortunes of African national teams, player migration can mitigate against putting together a cohesive, well prepared and successful national squad. Angola’s shock qualification for the 2006 World Cup from Group Four of the African Zone at the expense of Nigeria exemplifies the divergent discourse on the impact of migration on the international African game. It is likely that Angola’s qualification was viewed in some quarters as being attributable to the presence in their squad of a number of players who play their club football overseas, predominantly in Portugal. However, surely the fact that the majority of the squad that took Angola to their first World Cup actually play their club football at home is equally significant, in that it ensured that their preparations for qualifying games were unencumbered by the difficulties in terms of squad cohesion and preparation that Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the World Cup so clearly exemplified.
Beyond subjective assessments of the impact of African player migration to Europe on the field of play, a growing lobby comprised of influential figures within world football, human rights activists and sections of the liberal European press, has emerged in recent years which has interpreted this process as a form of neo-colonial exploitation of the developing world by the developed world. For example, in December 2003, Sepp Blatter, President of football’s world governing body, FIFA, launched a scathing attack on those European clubs who benefited most from the trade in African players. He described their role in propagating the African player exodus as ‘unhealthy if not despicable’ and suggested that they were increasingly conducting themselves as ‘neocolonialists who don’t give a damn about heritage and culture, but engage in social and economic rape by robbing the developing world of its best players’.
Although the key academic studies of African player migration to Europe have relied much less on hyperbole in their critique, they have shared the broader thrust of Blatter’s sentiments that this process is one that has involved varying degrees of neocolonial exploitation and impoverishment of African football. This essay builds on this body of work by exploring the place of Portugal in broader migratory patterns between African and European football and on the extent to which Portugese clubs have used football talent from the former colonial ‘possessions’ as a colonial and neocolonial resource. Particular attention is paid to football labour migration from Mozambique and the analyses employed here are underpinned by a theoretical framework that draws on cultural imperialism, neo-imperialism and dependency. It should be noted that this article deals largely with the impact of player migration on the African game. It does not seek to portray individual migrant players as victims of a process over which they have little or no control. Indeed, it recognizes that those players who have ‘made it’ in Portuguese football have benefited hugely economically and in terms of access to improved training conditions. However, it is my contention that their migration to Portuguese football is part of a wider process that has under-developed African football. Before turning to these central concerns it is important to add some context through a brief overview of the history and geography of African football labour migration to Europe.