All over the world, millions of boys dream of becoming football stars as a road to fame and fortune and an escape from poverty and need. They pursue their dream in the dust, on bare feet, with footballs made out of rags. They hear stories about the millions earned by the superstars in Europe, which further adds to their determination. But only a lucky few will ever get a real shot at a professional career and a breakout from the economic realities they face in their countries. Falcao is one of them.
The issue of mobility and top sport has gained prominence over the past few years. It was recently the topic of scientific debate at the International Conference “Globalised Football: Nations and Migration, The City and the Dream”, in Lisbon in May 2006.
The global mobility of human talent is at its most visible in the world of football, but it can equally be seen in other highly competitive sports where a lot of money is at stake. Out of the 14 teams in cricket’s last World Cup, ten had foreign coaches and training staff, something that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.(2) Professional sports in North America – baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey – show a similar migration of talent.
But football is the biggest international market by far for elite players from developing countries. Most of the players from developing countries in the 2006 Football World Cup play abroad, the majority of them in Europe where the sport is most competitive and lucrative. Every player on the Cote d’Ivoire national team, for example plays for a club outside his country.(3) Conversely, some European teams, like London's Arsenal, may be composed entirely of foreigners.(4) Another London club, Chelsea, had 17 players on 10 different national teams in the 2006 World Cup.(5)
The major European teams have scouts who travel across Africa and Latin America in search of promising, exportable new talent. And since the competition is so fierce, they have to find them earlier and earlier, before the other teams do. If some years ago players emigrated when they were eighteen or twenty, now it is common for them to leave their countries soon after they turn twelve.
There have been cases in which agents offered boys contracts that contained confusing stipulations about agents’ percentages of salaries and transfer fees.(6) Many young players from developing countries, promised untold riches by unscrupulous agents, have been exploited by the very people who were supposed to be looking after them. The phrase “football slavery” was even coined to describe football players who ended up living in poor conditions and little money many miles from their homeland.(7)
For many African and Latin American clubs, the only way they can stay afloat is by producing players to export to the major football centres in Europe.
Some national leagues in Europe have imposed a quota on the number of non-EU players for each team. In an effort to get around such restrictions, clubs help their foreign stars to change their nationality.(8) Over the past few years, many players have been investigated for holding false passports that enable them to play as “Europeans” on football teams.(9)
Some believe that African football has benefited from the export of its skilled players, and that the recent success of African national teams is contingent on the migration of elite talent.(10) The drain is thought to enhance the skills of migrant players, the transfer of know-how and better playing techniques to their home-based compatriots, and the overall popularity of the game on the continent.(11) Others charge that the “expropriation” of Africa’s playing resources is actually undermining the regional development of the game. Nevertheless, some of the best players continue to give time and money to their national team and their country of origin even after moving overseas.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have tried to improve the situation: in 1997 the African Club Champions League was established to provide top-level club competition, and to create the structures and economic incentives needed to encourage players to remain with African clubs.(12) But in Latin America, where football is a well-established tradition, the migration is stronger than ever. European clubs pay their players so much more than any African or Latin American team, that such measures are unlikely to even slow down the “feet drain”.
Nevertheless, the success stories of young football stars that make it on the international football scene, will continue to inspire young people in developing countries for years to come. Serving as role-models for whole generations of youth, they can have a positive effect on local development. As young people play football, or other sports for that matter, they learn about teamwork and fair play. Sports enhances personal development and growth of both boys and girls, builds their self esteem and can open doors to new opportunities. This, in turn, can contribute to the well-being of communities and countries at large.