In 2004, a young boy who used to play football barefoot on the streets of Abidjan was transferred from Olympique Marseille to Chelsea FC for a record transfer fee of £24 million. An increasing number of African footballers have since followed in Didier Drogba’s steps: Michael Essien of Ghana moved to Chelsea for €38M and Yaya Touré and Wilfried Bony of Cote d’Ivoire each moved to Manchester City for over €30M.

The number of African* football players in the English Premier League (EPL) has increased by over 70 percent since 2005, following a steady drop after the 2008 financial crisis. However, Africans still only account for around 10 percent of the EPL, despite constituting almost a quarter of all players in top European clubs. The recent uptick in African players in the EPL may reflect the growing recognition of Africa as an underutilized source of quality foreign talent.

graph 1

Source: Dalberg analysis

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Source: Dalberg analysis

 For the Club: More choice and a higher return on investment

When clubs extend the search for quality players to African countries, they have far more options to choose from when acquiring and developing talent. Perhaps, more important for club management is the fact that Africans players are oftentimes much more profitable than their European and Latin American counterparts. The steady rise of transfer prices and salaries of reputable players from established clubs has made frontier markets more attractive. Premier League teams can buy quality players from African clubs at a fraction of the cost of players from other European clubs. When these African players are eventually transferred, the sums they attract are much higher than the cost of training, ensuring high margins for the club.

For example, 21-year-old Ghanaian defender, Baba Rahman, was purchased and transferred between German clubs Greuther Fürth and FC Augsburg for 2.5M € in 2014. One year later, he was bought by Chelsea for 20M €, an almost tenfold return on investment for Augsburg in one year. Kolo Touré of Liverpool was bought by Arsenal in 2002 for €185,000 and sold to Manchester City seven years later for almost €19M, more than 100 times the initial investments. Just as Premier League clubs are waking up to the inflated prices of big name foreign players and sourcing from lower-league English clubs, savvy club owners and managers should increasingly look to African players for value for money, whether in Europe or south of the Sahara.

For African Nations: Visibility and local business opportunities

The benefits don’t have to be one-way – greater investment in African football talent has the potential to yield big opportunities for African countries as well. With an estimated global TV audience of 4.7 billion and growing every year, superstar African players serve as de facto African ambassadors to western countries that would, otherwise, rarely know of, let alone visit a player’s home country.

Didier Drogba, for instance, could use his enduring star power to drive tourism to his economically emerging homeland of Côte d’Ivoire, rather than to Turkey, much like Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona does for Argentina. Research has also shown that while international migration of soccer players may cause developing country clubs to experience a “muscle drain”, their national teams experience a “muscle gain” at the same time, whereby international football performance increases in a player’s home country. This could also suggest positive effects on national unity and the overall international visibility of the country.

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Didier Drogba in an advertisement for Turkish Airlines. (Source: Turkish Airlines)

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The “Don’t Miss Buenos Aires” campaign, featuring Messi of Barcelona FC, has been launched in major cities across the globe (Source: LATCOM)

Football and Trafficking

That said, the well-known dangers of the international football recruitment process need addressing. Many hopeful young African footballers often fall victim to swindlers and traffickers in getting to Europe. Al Bangura, who played in the EPL for Watford, first came to Europe with a French man who promised to help him fulfill his dream. Instead, Bangura found himself in the sex trade and only after escaping did he have a chance to play professional soccer. Anti-trafficking enforcement remains difficult and since FIFA discontinued its system of accredited agents in April 2015, it is even harder to ascertain the legitimacy of an alleged agent. To ensure that clubs, African nations and individual players alike benefit from increased recruiting in Africa, a few key things need to happen:

  1. Both African and European football clubs and associations need to thoroughly vet agents. Agents should be made to register and be verified before being able to operate. For the safety of players and the sustainability of the sport itself, FIFA needs to reinstate the system of accredited agents to avoid instances of trafficking.
  2. To help players develop their athletic abilities at home while they are still young, African nations can, either independently or through partnerships with European clubs, build competitive training programs for players at home. Such a move would develop the talent pool for overseas recruiting, keep quality players at home longer until they find a legitimate opportunity abroad and bolster sports infrastructure and business opportunities in African countries. Five of the top fifteen major exporting countries in world football are African countries. If done right, training players more locally could be done at a fraction of the cost of training them abroad.
  3. Home country governments should uphold their players as ambassadors to strengthen select industries, like tourism. Tangol, a travel agency in Buenos Aires, took this concept one step further with a Messi Tour that takes fans through Rosario where Messi was born. Innovative ideas like this allow a player’s country of origin to benefit from the professional success of the player.

 In the long run, these efforts to nurture and source Africa’s best football players will provide growing and sustainable financial and commercial opportunities for leagues worldwide, while also providing players and African nations with opportunities to capitalize on player success. With more responsible sourcing systems in place, enthusiastic young African football players can help ensure that the Premier League remains the bastion of great football it is today.

By Diptesh Soni          

* Players are included in the database if they a) have played at least one Premier League game between the 2005-2006 season and the current season, as of 31 December 2015; b) come from sub-Saharan Africa (excludes W. Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt). More specifically, if a player has been capped on the international level, the national team is used; if he has been capped by more than one country, the highest level (or the most recent) team is used. If a player has not been capped on international level, his country of birth is used.

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