Football: African stars lend inspiration

By Ponga Liwewe

Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 10:46

Having made their names in Europe, Africa’s leading footballers are helping to develop the game back home

The European Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United at the end of May showcased two of football’s great gladiatorial teams in a clash of giants, and the Spanish side prevailed in what gradually turned out to be a one-sided match. Despite the popularity of Manchester United across Africa, the neutrals rooted for Barcelona given the prominent roles played by its African trio – Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Côte d’Ivoire’s Yaya Touré and Mali’s Seydou Keita – who played pivotal roles in determining the outcome of the match.

Eto’o shot the decisive first goal that turned the course of the match, while Touré filled in on Barcelona’s depleted back line, playing an exemplary match in an unfamiliar role. When the game needed a stable hand in midfield, it was Keita who came on to give Barcelona more defensive cover.

The other European championship semi-finalists, Chelsea and Arsenal, also relied heavily on their African contingents. Chelsea featured Ghana’s Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, while Arsenal had the Ivorian duo of Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué alongside Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor.

As African players have become more established in the world game, it has become commonplace to see them look to give back to the game in their home countries and to seek to give opportunities to the youth to make a mark for themselves on the field. With the majority having come from humble backgrounds, overcoming enormous odds to get to where they are today, it is understandable why so many African players want to make a difference and look to help those in need.

Circle the elephants

One player whose status in world football marks him out as a superstar is the Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, whose willingness to speak his mind has landed him in hot water on and off the field. However, he was instrumental in using the power of football as a unifying factor in his divided country, when at the height of political tensions he visited the city of Bouaké. He later worked towards getting the Ivorian national team to play in the northern part of the country – delivering a strong message to the divided parties that they were still one country.

The rising fortunes of African players in Europe have much to do with the setting up of football academies which are growing in number across the African continent. Ghana’s Stephen Appiah, who captains the Black Stars national team, has set up just such an academy to give young players who, like himself, have come from deprived backgrounds the chance to escape the iron grip of perpetual poverty that restricts the progress of so many young Africans.

Such was Appiah’s influence and authority that he was included in Ghana’s 2008 Africa Cup of Nations squad despite the fact that he was injured and could play no part on the field. His mere presence was regarded as motivational for the rest of the team. Even when he was without a club, following his departure from the Turkish club Fenerbahçe, he continued to play for the Black Stars once he had recovered from injury.

Besides the academies established by Africa’s more-committed footballers, there are several that have been successful even before the tide of African players began to flow into the European game.

Most prominent of these is the set-up established in Abidjan by the leadership of ASEC Mimosas, one of Africa’s most successful clubs over the last decade. It provides the backbone of the Ivorian national football team.

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The academy, established by the club’s chairman, Roger Ouegnin, and the charismatic Frenchman Jean-Marc Gillou, is now Africa’s most successful academy, responsible for a whole generation of stars, including the Touré brothers (Kolo and Yaya), Emmanuel Eboué, the Kalou brothers (Bonaventure and Salomon), Aruna Dindane, Bakari Koné and many others.

Out of this generation, at least 25 out of 30 players are still playing football, many of them in the top Europeans clubs. With the backing of this generation, ASEC Mimosas has become a force to reckon with in the African game. The first clubs to benefit from the exceptional class of 1998 were the French clubs of Ligue 1 that quickly swooped in to pick up the best talent.

Over time, several of the best players moved on to England and Spain, where they have become household names in the international game, acquiring the status of demi-gods in their home countries. They have looked to give back to the game, country and continent without reservation.

Other countries have been quick to follow suit, though not yet with the same kind of success. In more recent times, the likes of Senegal-born Patrick Vieira have also launched a fairly successful academy called the Diambars in Dakar, which he hopes will create a new generation of stars for Senegalese football.

Another successful academy, and one that produced a new generation of talented players for Mali, is run by Malian legend and former Malian Football Association president, Salif Keita. The poor West African country has punched above its weight on African football fields with a generation of stars that largely owe their careers to Keita’s efforts in setting up facilities where talented players could launch their careers.

Two Burkinabé players playing in Germany, Jonathan Pitroipa and Wilfred Sanou, have also relaunched the academy that gave them their first chance as players, in the hope of achieving success for Burkina Faso.

It is part of the ups and downs of football that the ASEC academy in Abidjan has had its problems; after differences over policy and direction, Gilou and Ouegnin parted company, with the Frenchman leaving the club to go on and establish new ventures in Madagascar and Thailand.

As always, the biggest problem African academies face is finance, as the projects are funded out of individual players’ pockets. This is manageable when one is earning thousands of euros a week but less so when one’s playing days are over. While facilities like those at ASEC Mimosas are comparable to anywhere in the world, there are others that exist with only a handful of balls and no physical infrastructure. Some say these are little more than labour camps hoping to turn out the one player who could lead to unimaginable wealth. Thousands of young African boys desperate to break out of the cycle of poverty seek the opportunity to catch the eye of the handful of talent scouts that occasionally visit the continent.

The torch has been passed on from the likes of Salif Keita to Abedi Pele and now to a whole new generation of African stars who, having tasted adversity early in life, now seek to open the door for the future stars of African football. There can be no doubt that the African continent will carry on producing more and more of the world’s greatest players.

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