Africa’s football crown to be won by mediocre players

The football champions of Africa will be crowned tomorrow as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s TP Mazembe take on Heartland of Nigeria in the final of the African Champions League. But what should be a showcase of the best football Africa has to offer will serve only as a reminder of the challenges the sport faces here. For the players on the pitch, the Champions League trophy is irrelevant. They will be playing for a much bigger prize – the possibility of a move to Europe.

As the continent prepares to welcome the world’s best footballers to next year’s World Cup in South Africa, the local game is suffering. The vast majority of Africa’s best footballers play their club football in Europe. So do a lot of the mediocre ones. The money is far better and the chances of eventually playing for the national team also far greater.

The exodus of African footballers to Europe has had a terrible effect on the local leagues. In Senegal, officials estimate that 80 Senegalese footballers now ply their trade in France and Belgium. Hundreds of Nigerians are believed to be playing in leagues across Europe and Asia. Those that remain are nowhere near as good.

As the standard of football in African leagues decreases, interest from fans has begun to dry up. Satellite coverage of European leagues, particularly the English premier league, has also had an effect on crowds. African leagues that schedule matches at the same time as an English premier league fixture can find just a few hundred people in the stands.

From my latest column in Monocle. The rest is here.

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