Is African football talent finally coming back to Africa?

More and more European-born players of African descent are returning home, but Africa’s ‘muscle drain’ is far from over.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Reuters
Arsenal's French born striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates scoring a goal for Gabon against Guinea-Bissau at the African Cup of Nations [Reuters]

In 1998, when France won the World Cup, the slogan “black, blanc et beur” was popularly used to describe its team. It reflected the diverse ethnic background of its players – black, white, and beur, or European-born to North African parents.

Among France’s top players were Senegalese-born Patrick Vieira, Ghanian-born Marcel Desailly, and French-born (to Algerian parents) Zinedine Zidane, whose “Frenchness” came into question after he headbutted Marco Materazzi at the 2006 World Cup final.

Europe’s national and club teams have long benefitted from the talent of players of African background – whether African-born or born to immigrant parents in Europe. Africa has bled football talent to Europe for decades now, which has been detrimental to the development of its professional football. 

But, for a while now, a curious new trend has developed. More and more players of African descent have started coming back to the continent to play for their national teams. In this year’s World Cup, for example, 17 of Morocco’s 23 players are European born, mostly in the Netherlands, which has a large Moroccan immigrant community. Medhi Benatia, the team’s captain, is French-born.

In 2009, Arsenal’s French-born striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, announced his decision to play for Gabon, despite being offered a spot in Italy’s and France’s national youth teams. In 2012, Aubameyang, whose father is Gabonese, reached the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations with his team.

Just before the 2010 World Cup, German-born Kevin-Prince Boateng decided to play for Ghana, where his father is from. Before that, he was a key member of the German national youth team which lifted the European U21 Championship cup in 2009 – a team that included the likes of Mesut Ozil, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, and Manuel Neuer. His younger half-brother, Jerome Boateng, is a permanent fixture in Germany’s national team and plays for Bayern Munich at club level.

In 2016, Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha, who was born in the Ivory Coast but has been living in England since he was four, announced his decision to join the Ivorian national team. He previously played for England at both the under-19 and under-21 levels.

According to the world football governing body, FIFA, what Aubameyang, Boateng and Zaha did was perfectly legal. In January 2004, it allowed players to represent one country at the youth level and another at senior level, provided that the player applied before his 21st birthday.

Does all this mean that African talent is “coming back home” to Africa?

Unfortunately, not.  

Most of these players switch to African national teams because they are unable to make the cut in Europe. This has a lot to do with intense domestic competition but also with increasing racism.

Whether this trend of some European-born players of African descent signing up for African national teams continues or not, African football will continue to struggle to retain talent.

Today, poor governance, predatory and unregulated football agents and inadequate commercial incentives are continuing to push exceptional African players to leave the continent for Europe.

Few African football federations are managed professionally; corruption is rife with money meant for football development ending up in individual officials’ bank accounts.

Earlier this month, a film by Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas revealed that Kwesi Nyantakyi – Ghana Football Association (GFA) president and member of the FIFA Council – took a $65,000 bribe from an undercover reporter pretending to be a businessman seeking to sponsor Ghana’s football league.

Corruption in football is not exclusive to Ghana. It is also a major problem in Nigeria. Former FIFA Executive Committee member Amos Adamu, who had once served as director-general of the Nigerian National Sports Commission, received a three-year ban and 10,000 Swiss franc (about $10,100) fine from FIFA’s ethics committee in 2010 after being found guilty of breaching bribery rules. He received a further three-year ban in 2017.

Nigeria and Ghana are Africa’s football heavyweights – Nigeria will be participating in the World Cup for the sixth time this year. Ghana has won the Africa Cup of Nations four times in the past. Corruption scandals in these two countries should be seen as signs of a larger malaise undoubtedly affecting other, much smaller football federations across Africa.

African governments cannot do much to take this corruption epidemic under control, as FIFA’s rules against government interference in sports all but tie their hands. FIFA had suspended Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Chad’s memberships several times in the past because of alleged government interference in the affairs of independent football federations.

Corruption and poor management have stunted local leagues across Africa and discouraged fans from attending games. Predatory and exploitative “football agents”, who lure young boys with a promise to make them the next big thing in Africa’s football, have filled the gap left by the lack of adequate training schemes and academies.

A lack of regulation and inspection allows these con men to operate with impunity. They promise to sign young boys for famous clubs in Europe and take exorbitant fees from the boys’ families to secure these “deals”. Sometimes families sell everything they have to pay the agents because they believe their child will become the next Didier Drogba. In some cases, the agents disappear with the family’s savings before the boy even travels to Europe, in others the boy is taken to Europe and left there alone to fend for himself.

According to Charity Foot Solidaire, at least 15,000 young football players are moved out of West Africa each year under false pretences, but a lack of monitoring means the number of boys being trafficked abroad could be far higher.

As a result, international superstars like Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Egypt’s Mohammad Salah prefer to play for European football clubs, rather than staying in Africa

Across Africa, young boys will be watching Mane, Salah and other African superstars on TV and dreaming of being like them one day. For many, that dream will never be realised unless African football associations address corruption, poor governance and inadequate commercial sponsorship of the domestic leagues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.