When discussing the prospects for economic development in Africa, a topic that often comes up is “brain-drain” and its effect on the continent. According to the World Bank, migration from African countries doubled to 30.6m between 1980 and 2010, with half of these people leaving the continent altogether. Amongst these migration figures, the African Union estimates that approximately 70,000 per year are skilled professionals. Such figures evidently have a significant effect on the countries which these skilled workers have left behind. Examining the healthcare sector in particular, it is estimated that brain-drain costs the African continent £2bn a year.
One less-discussed area where this has also been playing out over many years has been international football. Many African-born players and European players of African descent with dual-eligibility have elected to represent more successful European nations at the international level. The latest case in the headlines involves the highly rated Wolverhampton Wanderers winger Adama Traoré. In recent months, the player has been contending with a tug-of-war between the country of his birth – Spain – and the country of his parents – Mali. Since a call-up to Spain’s senior squad in November 2019 was put on hold because of an injury, the Malian Football Federation has been attempting, so far unsuccessfully, to get Traoré to switch allegiances.
Traoré’s case is not the first of its kind and it certainly will not be the last. The history of Africa’s greatest footballing talents being lost to the continent is an ongoing struggle that African sports federations have been contending with for some time. Where club football is concerned, the footballing brain-drain is inevitable and potentially somewhat desirable. It would only hinder a world class player not to allow him the chance to showcase his abilities in Europe’s elite leagues. That said, there are some exceptions to the rule. Egyptian talisman Mohamed Aboutrika was a rare example of an African star who played almost the entire of his illustrious career in his native country.
For the most part, the true damage comes when players of dual eligibility decide to represent European countries at the international level. For a long time, European nations have had free reign over talented African players who were born in that country or who had eligibility through other means. Nowhere was this better expressed than in the opening game of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where France played Senegal. The vast majority of Senegal’s squad played their club football in France, while France’s squad consisted of a number of prominent players, who would have been eligible to play for African countries. This included some who were born in Africa, such as Patrick Vieira (Senegal), Claude Makélélé (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Marcel Desailly (Ghana), as well as French-born players of African parentage, such as Zinedine Zidane (Algeria) and Djibril Cissé (Côte d’Ivoire). The prevailing model was clear: France would take the elite players, whilst Senegal had to “make do” with the rest.
As it happened, Senegal’s determined side put in a memorable display to defeat the defending champions, who subsequently failed to get past the group stage. Senegal, meanwhile, reached the quarter finals, which still stands as a joint record for an African side at a World Cup finals. While this was certainly a noteworthy event in the footballing world, it did not represent a significant sea change. In 2018, France’s World Cup-winning squad included two African-born players – Samuel Umtiti (Cameroon) and Steve Mandanda (DRC) – and twelve players of African parentage, including several of the team’s stars, such as N’Golo Kanté (Mali), Paul Pogba (Guinea) and Kyliane Mbappé (Cameroon and Algeria). Accordingly, it could be argued that, rather than the trend reversing, the footballing brain-drain has actually increased since 2002.
It certainly seems that sport is reflective of the wider economic trend and, as in other sectors, Europe continues to get its pick of African talent. As far as Traoré is concerned, as always, the decision as to who to represent will be a strictly personal one. Given that he was born and raised in Spain and came up through the country’s junior set-up, it is likely that the player feels more Spanish than Malian. Indeed, Traoré turned down Mali’s approach in 2016 before his recent surge in form saw him become a contender for Spain.
Moving forward, African football federations are going to have to become more creative in reaching such players before their European counterparts come calling. That said, there are certainly grounds for optimism. The current international football scene is littered with African stars, including the Premier League’s 2019 joint-Golden Boot winners: Sadio Mané (Senegal), Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon). The latter of these is also an example of a French-born player, who decided to represent their parent’s nation, much like Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez and Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly. It is possible that such players could inspire the next generation of African footballers to represent African nations on the international stage and potentially lead to the continent’s first World Cup Winner.