Diamonds, gold, oil, coffee and…football players

I actually wrote this before the World Cup, but I never got around to posting it. However, I read a couple of interesting news articles during my trip that were related.

At the conference I attended in Glasgow there was a lot of talk about how social enterprise could assist with sport for development programmes becoming more sustainable. A lot of the presentations were interesting, but I am not sure I agree with the overall idea. The founder of Magic Bus gave a presentation on what their organization has done. His presentation was great and I admire the work the organization has done in India, but he mentioned something at the end of his presentation that has stuck with me. Recently Magic Bus has established a professional football team and it sees the sale of players as a possible social enterprise. The Mathare Youth Sports Association, a very long running and effective programme operating in Kenya, has also sold some of the players it has produced. The presentation got me thinking more about the sale and movement of players.

I have always found the movement of players and the globalization of sport to be an interesting topic. I suppose African players moving to Europe is an inevitable aspect of globalization. The ability of players to move between countries fairly easily and the ability of clubs to search out and buy top talent create a fairly open market. Some argue that this ‘leg drain’ is not really an issue because there are systems in place to ensure that athletes remain connected to their country. Even if a player is bought by Manchester United that player will still return home to play with and represent the national team. This isn’t the same for doctors and nurses.

However, for some reason in my mind I see a lot of parallels between the migration of players to Europe and the extraction of many other commodities from Africa. A resource is taken out of a country with very little investment, value is added elsewhere, and then huge profits are made off of that resource. Sepp Blatter has mentioned the same thing, but with slightly stronger words – equating the process to ‘social and economic rape’. You could argue that there is some trickle down economic effect. Players who go on to make millions will return some of that money to their country’s economy. Also, Sepp Blatter made that statement a number of years ago and there are now FIFA rules which dictate that a small percentage of transfer fees must go to clubs who contributed to a player’s development. On the other hand a lot of European clubs are establishing their own development academies in Africa. This would in effect eliminate any compensation for African clubs.

Over the past couple of years this extraction of players has also become fairly market driven. There is a perception that European clubs are only really looking for a certain type of African player. If you look around the European leagues there seems to be a disproportionate number of African defensive-midfielders and African strikers. Some former players, coaches, and analysts point at this development as the death of African football. They argue that player development in Africa is now based on the needs of European clubs and what those clubs perceive to be African strengths. As a result, African nations are not producing the same types of players they did in the past and are not able to produce the same type of creative, spontaneous, attacking football that they have become known for - this logic seemed to act as a justification for the 'poor' performance of African teams at this World Cup.

If you are really stretching you could probably even draw parallels between this type of specialization and previous failed agricultural development efforts. African football is being ruined by the market demands placed on it from European football in much the same way that the agricultural sector in some countries was destroyed by structural adjustment policies that advocated production and export of specific crops. Like I said, that might be stretching a bit. I am sure that part of the process is also governed by African children wanting to emulate their heroes – in this way the system is self-perpetuating. It might be similar to how so many hockey goaltenders seem to come out of Quebec.

I have sort of departed from my original idea relating to sport for development organizations selling players as a social enterprise. Football is a business, so it is understandable that European clubs will look for talent in Africa and try to use that talent to their own advantage. However, having sport for development organizations capitalizing on this market comes across as incongruous. It is hard for me to comment because I have no direct experience with selling football players, but it seems like it could possibly create a number of contradictions within the field of sport for development.

July 8, 2010

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