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Players of the famous Ghanaian club Asante Kotoko enter the pitch before a match. Nigeria and Ghana (with 125 & 103 players respectively) featured in the 2019 top 20 list of countries with the highest expatriate footballers in 31 top European leagues/Photo: Asante Kotoko Sporting Club

How COVID-19 will affect the chances of African footballers coming to Europe

The dream of every African footballer is often to reach Europe and play, particularly, in one of its major championships such as the Premier League (England), Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy) and Ligue 1 (France). Berlin-based Lolade Adewuyi* writes on the likely impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the prospects of African players securing contracts in Europe in view of the economic uncertainties that many of its clubs face after the global health crisis.

As European leagues start to reopen after the global Coronavirus pandemic, young African footballers with an eye on moving abroad will be one of the groups hardest hit. Many sub-Saharan African countries have built their football industries around the export of players. Nigeria and Ghana (with 125 & 103 players respectively) featured in the 2019 top 20 list of countries with the highest expatriate footballers in 31 top European leagues, according to the Swiss-based CIES Football Observatory.

The top five European leagues, England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have always been the dream destinations. However, countries like Norway, Turkey, Sweden and Finland are some of the first destinations for young talents from Africa. These are the places where they get their primary schooling in European football before making a move into the top-tier leagues.

With the economic uncertainties that many European clubs are having to face post-COVID-19, like reduced commercial revenue due to empty stadiums, lower sponsorship and broadcast earnings, there is going to be a reduced appetite for getting new African talents in the short term.

The German economy, Europe’s largest, entered recession in the first quarter of 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic, other smaller European countries will fare worse. The German Bundesliga was the first professional football league to return in May while the English Premier League, Spanish LaLiga and Italian Serie A have now set return dates in June.

Young African footballers who were hoping to join their heroes like Odion Ighalo, Mohammed Salah, and Sadio Mane in Europe will face the cold reality of Europe’s doors shut in their faces. European clubs are now turning to their homegrown talents for the immediate future to fill the slots that could have been taken by players from abroad.

The impact of reduced spending on the European continent will impact many of the small football clubs that are the first ports of call for Africans in the journey to Europe. Many clubs are trying to manage their books until things improve before looking outside again. Some agents of African footballers are being given the option of free transfers, which could be the only way to get in their players at this time. However, the global freeze means that many of these players cannot get visas because of closed embassies, and there are no airlines to ferry them to Europe for trials.

With young African talents being unable to find an entry into Europe, African countries must create sustainable football leagues back home. The fact that many African national teams are increasingly dependent on talent born in Europe is a disservice to the domestic leagues. With the financial problems that African FAs will face post-COVID-19, they need to become more creative in ensuring that young talents are not frustrated out of the sport by a lack of adequate opportunities.

The focus on Europe as a money-making opportunity for African clubs and academies will need to be re-thought. Africa needs to find a place for its talents to thrive on the continent. Home is where the footballing economy must start.

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Lolade Adewuyi is a sports management strategist and journalist. He has been to three FIFA World Cups and two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.

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