FOOTBALL, as we all know, is an international game that is also a global language, more effective than almost any other form of cross-cultural communication. The world, generally, has got smaller and as the most popular sport on the planet, football has become something of an emollient, making relationships easier and business more fluid.
The consequence of globalisation is that we are all inter-connected, all part of the same problem, all part of the same solutions. No longer can we ignore what’s happening on the other side of the world because today, if a major economic hub sneezes, we don’t just catch a cold in Europe, the backside literally drops out of the economy. And when there’s a pandemic in China, the mobility of people makes it near impossible to control. Around 50 years ago, such a problem could arguably have been more easily contained.
We have all benefitted from globalisation and our football has become more interesting as a result. Look at the Premier League and its multi-cultural teams. Furthermore, we can now take an interest in football around Europe and actually watch the games. Just as our food, lifestyles and entertainment have become more varied and cosmopolitan, so too has football and the way we consume it.
So it is somewhat mystifying when people started moaning about the inconvenience of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON). If there is a complaint to be made, it is of the frequency of the AFCON (every two years), but this is one of the factors to consider when a club signs leading African players. For professionals from Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana and the rest of the continent, the AFCON is every bit as important as the European Championship is to players from France, Germany and Belgium. Because the standard isn’t as high, that doesn’t devalue the competition in the eyes of those taking part, it belongs to them and is their second most valuable and prestigious event after the World Cup.
Around 50 players employed by English clubs took part in the AFCON, while little more than 150 were drawn from domestic football in their respective countries. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of high quality African players coming to the fore, such as Mo Salah and Sadio Mane at Liverpool, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Dortmund, Arsenal and Barcelona and Riyad Mahrez at Leicester and Manchester City. African talent is willing to travel – Nigeria, for instance, has almost 400 players plying their trade around the world, in 66 different countries.
If clubs buy African players, AFCON is something they will just have to live with. Clubs know well in advance about the competition, so they should provision for being without a star player or two for a month. It’s not just Africa, either, having squads drawn from all over the world of football means you also have to take on their external commitments. That could be African, Asian or South American.
Some managers felt a little hard done by because they lost players mid-season, but with the Premier League comprising almost 60% expatriate players, they may need to do some rebalancing of their squads. The situation is even more acute in Italy where 63% of players are expats and Portugal, where they are close to 60%.
As African players become more and more valuable and the top stars go on international duty for a month every couple of years, it may not pay to have too many Africans in your pool of players because of the disruption their absence will cause.
Multi-national teams make for more excitement, more diversity and higher levels of talent and good quality football. The globalisation of the game is not something we should be discouraging, far from it, but we have to acknowledge that international football is part of the deal – what makes players like Salah so appealing is the fact they offer something that so many other players cannot provide.
CIES Football Observatory’s best sides for the big five leagues for the first half of 2021-22 provide a very vivid picture – there were three Africans in their Premier League XI (versus two Englishmen), while Ligue 1 had four Africans and Serie A two. Today we have leagues that are essentially all-star competitions of varying degrees of competency and their quality is determined by how much money is available. Hence the Premier League has more than 40% of the world’s top players playing for its 20 clubs. Africans are very much part of that story and their presence and influence will continue to grow in the years ahead.