What comes to mind when I ask you to think of an African footballer? I would hazard to guess that you’re picturing a powerfully built, athletic midfield destroyer or central defender. Alternatively you might be thinking of a tall, quick, strong centre forward in the mould of say Didier Drogba.
Either way, the player’s strengths are clear. Their power, speed and athleticism more than make up for any lack of overt skill and produce a player perfectly suited to the rigours of the Premier League.
Many of the continent’s footballers (or those from the South and West at least) prominent in our league do appear to conform to the stereotype. The aforementioned Drogba is a Chelsea legend and three times a league champion. His team-mate Michael Essien fits the midfield model as does Mikel Jon Obi who plays alongside him.
Premier League clubs have been aggressive in tapping into the African market. Manchester United run soccer schools on the continent as do smaller clubs like their neighbours Bolton. 23 players from Premier League clubs played in the 2010 African Cup of Nations and the number would have been far higher but for injuries and withdrawals.
Elsewhere in Europe, clubs from poorer leagues have profited through developing African talent before selling the players on for large transfer fees. Clubs in Belgium and France have capitalised on old colonial ties to set up youth development schemes on the continent.
Two of the biggest clubs in Holland have gone down a similar route. Feyenoord have set up an academy in Accra, Ghana while Ajax own South African Premier League side Ajax Cape Town and use it as a feeder club.
Within these programmes, European clubs look to recruit players similar to those who have been successful in the past. They minimise the risk against their investment by following a model that has been proven to work.
Manchester United scout Tom Vernon famously called it “the Papa Bouba Diop template”. The Senegalese defensive midfielder has almost come to define the stereotype during spells with Fulham, Portsmouth and West Ham. At 6’5’’ tall and close to 15st, Diop is nicknamed ‘the wardrobe’.
On the face of it, this tactic has worked fantastically well. More African players ply their trade in Europe than ever before and are central figures in many successful club sides. When you look a little deeper however, it’s hard not to believe that the system is holding clubs and players back. In searching for one type of player, they ignore footballers with other skills. That’s bad for European teams and worse for the African game.
France coach Laurent Blanc shed some light on the methods used by French recruiters when making those now infamous comments on dual-nationality players (many of African origin) in the nation’s academies.
“You have the impression that they really train the same prototype of players: big, strong, powerful … What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. That’s the way it is. It’s a current fact. God knows that in the training centres and football schools there are loads of them,” he said.
Blanc’s use of the term “blacks” inevitably grabbed the headlines. Are black players looked upon in this way because outdated racial stereotypes still hold sway in European football? It’s possible and in some less enlightened nations perhaps probable that black players are still viewed as nothing more than monster athletes with little scope for flair or subtlety of thought.
The idea is an unwanted remnant of 19th Century pseudo-science skewed by colonial racism. Blanc’s words could indicate that it is still accepted to some degree, at least subconsciously by groups within football.
In terms of athletic performance, the truth is that skin pigmentation is almost entirely irrelevant. While localised populations may develop certain advantages over time, the use of race as a barometer for potential is a method which is easily condemned as hopelessly flawed as several studies have shown.
Racial stereotypes do not however explain why so many people specifically profile African players in such a way. After all, black Brazilians are expected to posses flair in abundance. Football stereotypes are equally if not more influential.
Indeed when African teams emerged onto the international scene in the 1980s and ‘90s, football aficionados bemoaned the lack of organisation undermining the flair they undoubtedly had. Despite the historical precedents, the perception of African football has changed.
At the end of the last Cup of Nations, many observers asked why there were so few creative talents on show. Where was the modern day Jay-Jay Okocha or 2010’s Abedi Pele?
The continent is clearly a huge reservoir of low cost football talent but European clubs are tapping into it, and encouraging African nations to develop players in an inefficient way. That in turn holds back the development of the national teams based in Africa.
Creative African talent is being ignored and left behind before it has the chance to develop. Some have broken through, players such as the South African Steven Pienaar and the Nigerian legend Kanu rely on skill rather than strength but these are becoming exceptions to the rule.
Generally, African football lacks money, so players from the continent move to Europe at an early age, sold as soon as they have any value. Vernon outlined the type of player plucked from African academies and the small, creative players are the ones left behind.
In Africa, they miss out on a higher standard of play and better organisation in youth development and struggle to develop at the same rate as their European counterparts. Premier League clubs ignore talented youngsters because they do not fit a model and coaches of national teams who primarily select squads from a pool of European based players see few creative types of the required standard for international football.
Blanc has shown that the model is also applied to boys of African origin already resident in Europe. Despite selecting from a group of young players many of whom were born and schooled in France, the 1998 World Cup winner indicates that academy coaches in France apply something akin to the Bouba Diop template to black kids of African descent. As a result the national coaches struggle even to find dual nationality playmakers trained in foreign academies.
The existence of creative talent on the continent is proven by the presence of North African playmakers in European leagues. It’s hard not to wonder whether a different model is applied to the recruitment of players from the north because they look different to their western and southern counterparts.
At the last Cup of Nations, Mohamed Aboutrika operated as an old fashioned number 10 for the winners Egypt while Algeria sought creativity from ex-Wolfsburg midfielder Karim Ziani.
In addition, Blanc’s France have benefited hugely from fielding players of North African origin in creative positions. Current international Samir Nasri’s parents are Algerian while the World Cup winning side of 1998 was built around Zinedine Zidane whose parents immigrated to Paris from the Berber region in the 1950s.
With so much money to make from developing the type of player wanted in Europe, African academies, even those which are nominally independent, have done little to produce creative players either. Ian Hawkey touches on the subject in his all encompassing book Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football.
“More and more the notion that Africa’s football exists in service to Europe’s professional game dictates the type of athlete clubs, schools and academies promote. ‘Sooner or later when you speak to a coach in Europe, who might be interested in a young player,’ says one scout employed to survey African talent for a leading British club, ‘they ask you “so what’s his aerial elevation like?” They want big, tall, strong players first of all.’
“There is a prevalent stereotype among recruiters that the best sort of footballer to look for in Africa is the quick striker or the muscular defensive midfielder…Europe’s acquisitive eye shapes the very shape of an aspiring African footballer,” he says.
European clubs will only benefit from the full potential of African talent if this approach is broadened and stereotypes ignored. In addition, many African national teams will only fulfil their immense potential when they begin to produce players of all sorts instead of acting as a conveyor belt for identikit players with the similar attributes, made to order for European clubs.
By Mark Elliott
This article originally appeared in In Bed with MaradonaSubscribe today to World Soccer Magazine - The unrivalled authority on the game of soccer