2022 World Cup reflects economic inequality in the world of football

Whilst England players have spent, on average, 95% of their careers playing at home, the picture is the opposite for national teams in African and South American countries. a home team, you can consider yourself lucky. That means you’re probably English, maybe Brazilian, but almost certainly not Senegalese.

One need only look at the 2022 World Cup squads to see that England players have spent, on average, 95% of their careers at home, according to data published by Transfermarkt.com and analyzed by DW. Equally high numbers are seen in the national teams of European countries with strong league systems, such as Germany and Spain.

The opposite is generally true for less well-off clubs and competitions. Among the South American teams at the World Cup – Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay – players spent, on average, almost half of their careers with a foreign team. In the case of the African teams — Senegal, Ghana, Morocco and Cameroon — the figure is over 80%.

According to researchers who study national football leagues interviewed by DW, the numbers indicate an uneven dynamics in international football. Europe’s top leagues have the financial power not only to retain their own young talent, but also to import emerging stars from developing markets.

Meanwhile, countries with less wealthy national teams are often trapped in a vicious circle, which not only prevents them from keeping their best players, but also from developing their infrastructure, to the point where leaving the club is less attractive for their youngsters. talents.

Lack of infrastructure in African football

Senegal, current holders of the African Cup of Nations title, are arguably the continent’s best chance of making an impact in Qatar. However, Senegal is also the World Cup team whose players spent, on average, the least time playing in their country’s leagues.

Nearly half of Senegal’s national team players have never played for a national team after turning 16. Those who did play for a local team didn’t do so for long, with most moving abroad before their 20s.

Senegal may be the most extreme example, but a similar trend can be observed when examining the other four African teams in the World Cup.

Gerad Akindes, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar, specializing in sports management, says that this reality is the result of a combination of factors that began to emerge in the 1980s. It was when African countries began to do better in international tournaments, and its young stars began to attract more and more attention abroad.

Around the same time, African clubs began to face underfunding, and football academies entered the picture. “Academies popped up everywhere, trying to recruit young people and send them to Europe. And the consequence of that is that the quality of local football dropped”, says Akindes.

Even Sadio Mané, Senegalese star and current African Footballer of the Year, attended one of these academies, spending his youth at Dakar-based Generation Foot, a subsidiary of second division club FC Metz. When he was 19, he left the country to play for Metz and then join Liverpool and, more recently, Bayern Munich. Injury ruled him out of the World Cup, but two of his Senegal teammates have followed a similar path: Pape Matar Sarr and Ismaïla Sarr, who currently play for English Premier League clubs Tottenham and Watford respectively.

The large number of African players at some of the world’s most prestigious clubs, in turn, is attractive to audiences who watch games on TV in their home countries. They prefer to watch the best footballers their country can produce in Europe’s biggest leagues rather than attend in person to see them in their comparatively weak home leagues, leaving local stadiums empty.

“In the long term, this means that African football no longer develops on its own. It’s like a raw material,” says Akindes. “You export, earn some money, and it comes back with added value for consumption. It’s like exporting oil and then buying rubber.”

In monetary terms, it is the television rights holders in Africa who benefit from this “added value”.

It also made African teams increasingly dependent on domestic players playing abroad. This phenomenon was exacerbated by a revision to FIFA’s eligibility rules in 2004, which allowed players to switch national teams even if they had represented another country at youth level.

The Ghana national team is a good example of this. Their final 26-name roster includes four late additions from players who have never worn a Black Stars jersey before. For England-born Tariq Lamptey, Spanish-born Inaki Williams, French-born Elisha Owusu and Belgian-born Denis Odoi, the prospect of playing in a World Cup was a huge incentive to switch sides.

“What does that say about players who suffered in the qualifiers and now can’t go to Qatar?” asks Wycliffe Njororai, professor and researcher of sports at the University of Texas at Tyler. “It signals to local talent that, in order to have an opportunity, you might have to leave the country. It might be easier to be selected when you’re abroad.”

Njororai also points out that these late additions of foreign talent come at a cost, including a lack of rapport both on and off the field.

“How to create a cohesive unit to incorporate these players?”, he asks. “If they perform well, the fans will applaud them. But if they don’t, the consequences will be huge and the focus will be on the fact that many of these players have no connection to the team.”

Impending identity crisis in South America

Compared to Africans, most South American World Cup players stayed longer with local clubs. Only three players from the region have not played for a domestic club after turning 16.

Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentacur, for example, started his career with Argentine team Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, just 120 kilometers from his hometown. Ecuadorian Jeremy Sarmiento joined the senior squad after representing England as a youth. And, of course, there’s Lionel Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner who left Argentina aged 13 to join Barcelona.

However, even if it is not yet subject to predatory scouts in such an intense and precocious way, South American football is exposed to economic pressures similar to those of African football. The mainland leagues may be stronger and hold young talent longer, but not by much. At this World Cup, on average, South American players moved abroad for the first time at age 21.

As in Africa, this dynamic also affects the relationship between fans and local clubs – even in Brazil, the only country to win five World Cups and home to clubs that just a decade ago prided themselves on being able to compete with some of the best teams in the world. Europe.

According to Rodrigo Koch, a professor at the State University of Rio Grande do Sul (Uergs) who studies the relationship between football and youth culture in Brazil, young Brazilians no longer have the same connection with local clubs as their parents and older relatives. This is especially significant in a country where club loyalty often passes from father to son and serves as a basic element of regional identity.

“I wouldn’t call these young people team fans. They have become football aficionados and celebrity followers,” says Koch, explaining that young people are no longer loyal to a specific club, but choose to follow teams that have their favorite players. . Neymar’s Paris Saint German, for example, has become fashionable recently.

“Perhaps it will not happen as quickly as in Africa, but we are in the midst of this transformation”, he says. “We still have hardcore fans from local clubs, we still have grassroots fans, we still have those who follow a family tradition. But more and more we have this type of fan who embraces a more cosmopolitan identity, so to speak.”

Traditionally, to play football at school or in the street, Brazilian children were divided into teams formed by supporters of local clubs, imitating the Brazilian Championship games they watched on TV and in the stadium. It may be that ten years from now they will be split between fans of Vinícius Júnior’s Real Madrid and Neymar’s PSG – or whatever team the stars of the moment are playing for.

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