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Fat cats of Europe let the rest of world football go hungry

Fat cats of Europe let the rest of world football go hungry
Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon is one of the players who went on to win the Uefa Champions League. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Africa may hope to retain its best players, but leagues with deep pockets are still luring rising stars to head north in search of glory.

Much as the Hollywood movie industry, backed by billions other countries’ film industries lacked, became the pinnacle for the world’s aspiring film stars, Europe is an ultimate goal for many footballers.

Not one player plying a trade outside the continent of Europe has ever won the most prestigious individual prize in world football, the Ballon d’Or.

The award was first handed out in 1956, when Blackpool’s Stanley Matthews lifted the prized golden orb.

The first non-European player to win the award, 39 years later, was Liberia’s current president and former AC Milan forward George Weah, in 1995. Coincidentally, that was the first year the award was open to players not of European descent.  

George Weah of Liberia lifted the Ballon d’Or in 1995, the first non-European and the only African to have won the award so far. Photo: Getty Images

Weah remains the sole African to have won the Ballon d’Or. Since then, Brazilians Luis Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká have been non-European recipients – all winning while based in Europe.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, with seven orbs, is the record winner. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has five.

Senegal’s Sadio Mané came the closest since Weah to clinching it for Africa – finishing second behind Frenchman Karim Benzema in 2022. The highest achievement of other famous African exports to Europe – such as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o – was finishing in the top five.

With the gap seemingly widening between Europe and other footballing continents, for the men’s game in particular, the wait for another African Ballon d’Or winner may be a long one.

Fifa intervention   

Europe is stacked with resources, financial and otherwise, that other continents do not possess. Even with the rise of wealthy football leagues in Asian countries such as China and Saudi Arabia in recent years, the stability and sustainability of the most high-profile of European leagues remains unrivalled.

Sadio Mané of Senegal. Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

This is why the continent remains the dream destination for many aspiring footballers around the world.

Just over a decade ago, world football governing body Fifa (because some European clubs used underhanded tactics to sign African minors, with the help of rogue agents) introduced a higher age limit for international transfers, raising it from 16 to 18. The following three exceptions to the rule apply:

a) The player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to football;

b) The transfer takes place within the territory of the EU or European Economic Area and the player is aged between 16 and 18;

c) The player lives no further than 50km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50km of that border. The distance between the player’s domicile and the club’s headquarters must be less than 100km. In such cases, the player must continue to live at home and the two associations concerned must give their explicit consent.

Since introducing these laws, Fifa has been stringent in enforcing them. In 2019, London club Chelsea were banned from making any signings across two transfer windows after being found guilty of breaching the rules.

Clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid have also received transfer bans in the past for the same reason.

Fifa’s stance has stagnated the development of African players, according to one of Africa’s best-known player agents Mike Makaab.

“The chasm is growing each and every single year, between the development of young European footballers and young African footballers,” Makaab said at the recent World Football Summit in Durban.

“There is no doubt that Fifa had to do something to stop the human trafficking as­­pect of taking young players into a foreign environment – which they have done, by restricting that age from 16 years to 18 years.  [But] from a footballing point of view, it’s had an incredibly detrimental impact on the development of African players.

“Since 2009, there has probably been about a 30% reduction in the number of African players playing [in] the top five European leagues.   

“While I believe the protection of minors is of paramount importance, I also believe that Fifa has to relook at this age restriction. They have to reduce it to be at least on par with the EU or African Union. So, 16 years old… It has to happen.”

Didier Drogba of Côte d’Ivoire is one of the African players who have found success in Europe. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

With the soon-to-start Africa Super League, the hope is that, in the long term, Africa can compete with Europe when it comes to retaining its best talent.

But, the Europeans have a decades-long head start in all aspects, so this will be easier said than done – the proof being that Africa is still pursuing its first Fifa World Cup victory.

Lindi Ngwenya, a player agent based in Britain, suggested another possible solution at the World Football Summit: “You must have a step-change that involves a five- or 10-year plan, where we’re going to try to uplift the overall level of technical ­development and, consequentially, player development.”

The SA connection

South Africa once produced quality players who made their mark in Europe. One of them is current Manchester United coach Benni McCarthy.

South African Benni McCarthy is another player who went on to win the Uefa Champions League. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

The Capetonian is the only South African Uefa Champions League winner, triumphing with Portugal’s Porto in 2004. The striker also finished as the English Premier League’s top goalscorer in the 2006/2007 season, when he netted 18 goals for Blackburn Rovers.

Midfielder Steven Pienaar made more than 200 appearances over four spells with English Premier League side Everton, after initially making his name with Dutch side Ajax Amsterdam.

Former Bafana Bafana skipper Lucas Radebe is a Leeds United legend after his time with the club in the 1990s.

According to Peter Petersen, head of development at Maritzburg United, which has a relationship with German side Arminia Bielefeld, the difference in levels between Africa and Europe is easy to see.

“If you look at the Bundesliga and compare it to the Premier Soccer League, it’s chalk and cheese,” said Petersen.

“We often moan about our national team not doing well. But if you look at the Bundesliga and you see some of the best players in the world competing on a weekly basis, and the standard they compete at, you’ll understand why we need to look at this market and make sure we get players into Europe.” DM

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