Diamonds, Gold, Oil, Coffee and…Soccer Players

Another World Cup themed post…Yay!

I have a longer version posted on my blog. I was motivated to write the post after attending a sport for development conference in which the sale of soccer players was mentioned as a possible social enterprise. In addition, with the World Cup in Africa I read a number of articles relating to African players working in Europe, which got me thinking about the global soccer market.

There seems to be a lot of parallels between the movement of African soccer players to Europe and the extraction of any other commodity from Africa.  A resource is taken out of a country for very little investment, value is added elsewhere, and then huge profits are made, which don’t necessarily make it back to the original country. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, has mentioned the same thing, but with slightly stronger words – equating the process to ‘social and economic rape’.  Blatter said those words in 2003 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  profit for local clubs.

Over the past couple of years this extraction of players has also become fairly market driven. Some argue that European clubs are only really looking for a certain type of African player. If you look around the European leagues you will see what appears to be a disproportionate amount of African defensive-midfielders and African strikers relative to other positions. Some 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 did in the past. This argument has been used to justify the poor performance of some 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.

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Shawn graduated from UBC a number of years ago when he completed a Bachelor of Human Kinetics, followed by a Bachelor of Education. Not really interested in toiling away in a particular school district in B.C., he decided to go abroad and ended up teaching P.E. in China. His last year coincided with the Beijing Olympics and seemed like a fitting way to conclude his time in Asia. Through work and travel experiences he took an interest in international issues and development and completed a Certificate in International Development through UBC Continuing Studies. Shawn returned to Canada and worked for a year as a teacher-on-call before deciding it was time to explore his interest in international development a bit more. He is now working in Lesotho (a small country inside of South Africa) on an HIV/AIDS project run by the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (LENEPWHA). The project has a sport-for-development component that is using soccer to reach out to, and provide services for, orphaned and vulnerable children. At the same time Shawn had also applied to start graduate studies at UBC and will officially start his MA this year. His posts will reflect his personal and work experiences in Lesotho, and the concept of sport as a tool in development.

5 Responses to “Diamonds, Gold, Oil, Coffee and…Soccer Players”

  1. AndreCoronado

    I didn’t realize the extent of the Football Player Market’s effects on the developing/developed nations relations. It’s sad that the exploitation of agricultural development can carry over into sport, and again, that the institutions meant to protect countries from such exploitation do not seem to be doing enough.

  2. shawn forde

    I am not sure if there is any connection between the two – agriculture and sport. I thought it was just an interesting parallel of how market demands and recommendations have impacted both.

    With sport I think there are also a number of other factors at play. The production of players with similar positions could simply be a self-perpetuating system in which African children want to emulate their heroes. A child sees Michael Essian, or Didier Drogba, and want to play the same position. Similar to how many NHL goalies seem to come out of Quebec.

  3. ElysaHogg

    Interesting post Shawn. I can see the parallel that you’re trying to draw between the agricultural sector and sport. The first comparison that came to my mind was that the trading of African soccer players to European markets is a lot like the intellectual brain drain of skilled professionals in Africa to other areas of the world.

    Shawn, do you think that this is something that needs to be regulated by FIFA, African countries, clubs, or something else? Or is specialization for the European soccer market inevitable?

  4. Florin Gheorghe

    It seems soccer operates as a free-market entity. If there is demand, supply will come. I’m not sure that really restricting or heavily regulating this would be realistic, aside from just the small percentage of fees that you mentioned in the post.

    When I was in Ghana, people were obsessed with Michael Essien, a Ghanaian footballer playing for Chelsea. There is a strong pride resulting from this, and I’d say is a huge motivator and source of hope for some. Essien does, after all, still play for Ghana in world tournaments, despite his injury this time around.

  5. shawn forde

    I agree with Florin that I don’t think it is possible to regulate it, as it is a fairly free market. But at the same time, without any regulation the situation will only get worse where one or two leagues in Europe will siphon off the top talent and the remaining domestic leagues will weaken. I believe that FIFA has hinted at introducing regulations to protect domestic leagues, but I am not sure how successful they will be. A while ago many European leagues limited the number of foreign players each team could have in their line up, but through a player’s lawsuit (the Bowsman Ruling) these regulations were abolished and it became pretty much a free market.

    I also agree with Florin regarding players being linked to their countries – I wrote more about it on my blog, but didn’t want to take up too much space on Terry. I think people call it ‘leg drain’, but as Florin states, African players regardless of where they play will still have opportunities to return to represent their countries in national competitions. This creates a slightly different situation as opposed to ‘brain drain’ because there is no medical or engineering World Cups.

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