By Christian Ungruhe, James Esson & Paul Darby
When Sadio Mané scored the decisive penalty to secure Senegal’s triumph over Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, Isaak, a professional Ghanaian footballer in his late 20s, could not have been further away from the action.
Watching the final online in his room in eastern Thailand, Isaak’s thoughts most likely turned to what might have been had he managed to better navigate some critical forks in the road of his football career.
Isaak is one of several dozen African players we interviewed for our new book African Football Migration. Their experiences and trajectories reflect the reality of life for the majority of African footballers who aspire to successful careers overseas – but frequently labour far beyond the bright lights of the elite game enjoyed by icons like Mané.
Migration has long been an important livelihood strategy in many African countries. Migrating through football has more recently come to be viewed by increasing numbers of young people as a viable route to significantly improving their life chances.
This trend is a consequence of multiple intersecting factors, ranging from economic precarity, a declining faith in education and a weak local football industry. The commercialisation of football economies in Europe and some Asian countries over the last 30 years has made them prized destinations for aspiring African migrant footballers.
Thousands of African talents have tried to follow in the footsteps of iconic footballers such as Michael Essien, Samuel Eto’o, Mané and Mohamed Salah. However, for most the chance of succeeding is minimal.
Our ethnographic fieldwork in Africa, Europe and South-East Asia alongside numerous conversations with young footballers, parents, coaches, club owners and intermediaries reveals the precarious structures and career trajectories that characterise African football migration. How these young players navigate uncertainty and failure as they try to make it big overseas is reflected in Isaak’s story.
Isaak’s prospects looked hopeful at first.
In 2012, he was a talented midfielder playing for Ghana’s national U-17 team, the Black Starlets. This enhanced his visibility and the chance of a contract with a club abroad. Through the Black Starlets he encountered a Ghanaian footballer and player agent based in Thailand, who promised him trials with professional clubs in the South-East Asian country.
Isaak believed this would be a stepping stone to a prestigious league in Europe, despite having no prior knowledge of Thailand or its football industry. He was reassured by his agent that necessary arrangements and logistics had been taken care of. All that was required was for him to reimburse the agent for his initial financial outlay and services once he signed for a Thai club.
Isaak’s parents and elder brother were supportive, seeing an opportunity to secure the family’s livelihood.
Shortly after the Thai authorities issued a three-month tourist visa, Isaak boarded a plane to Bangkok with six other Ghanaian players promised similar deals. The agent picked them up from the airport and brought them to their rented accommodation. It soon became clear the promised trials had not been organised.
As Isaak saw it: “Everything was a lie … Seven players in a small room. No windows, no air condition(ing), nothing. I was the youngest, so I had to sleep on the floor … There was nowhere to go, so we stayed in the room all day. At times, no food for me for the whole day … I was really suffering.”
This sort of experience is not uncommon among migrating African footballers. Many encounter fraud, disillusionment, racism and economic hardship as they pursue a professional contract in South-East Asia, Europe or elsewhere. A litany of media reports detailing instances of trafficking and exploitation attests to this.
However, despite their struggles, African migrant players, including Isaak, rarely give up on their dream. Rather, they retain a belief that hard work, talent, luck, persistence and for some, divine intervention, will secure their and their family’s futures.
Ten years after his move to Thailand, Isaak remained in the game. He had established himself in the lower reaches of the Thai game, playing for various clubs in third- and fourth-tier divisions. His career continued to be highly precarious and uncertain. Contracts were always short-term and his salary just enough to get by and occasionally send some money home.
In 2020/21 COVID-19 resulted in the termination of his contract.
Nonetheless, Isaak continued to view his career as a launching pad for Europe. A route to social mobility was restored with a new contract after the recommencement of Thailand’s third division. Like so many other African migrant footballers, Isaak will likely continue to labour and invest his physical capital in pursuit of a dream that’s unlikely to be realised.
A persistent dream
It is these intersecting aspirations, experiences and trajectories in the life courses of young African males that we unpack in African Football Migration. The book illustrates that the ability to navigate an unpredictable, highly competitive and commercialised industry is a key asset for African players.
An embodied belief in their abilities to succeed and the need to make their migration project valuable for themselves and others frequently mitigates the disillusionment and setbacks faced abroad. Staying in the game and keeping the hope of “making it” alive gives meaning to their struggle, regardless of how precarious it may be.
In the context of global inequality and restrictive migration regimes, it is likely that young African footballers will continue to see a career in the professional game overseas as a viable future path.
Our book reveals they are well aware of the pitfalls, barriers and imponderables that characterise this path. However, they press on regardless, exhibiting remarkable creativity and resilience as they cultivate a dream to follow in the footsteps of Sadio Mané and others who “made it” against all odds. – The Conversation