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Why East Africans Struggle to Find a Breakthrough into European Football Leagues?

The issue is historical, structural, and psychological.

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Despite plenty of talent in East Africa, the region still lags behind its North and West African counterparts when it comes to finding a breakthrough into major European Football Leagues. It’s the major outlier in the game of football. So many factors account for this outlier ranging from historical, technical, social, economic to individual players themselves. Most of the Africans soccer players, particularly East Africans, come from a poverty-stricken background, ghettos, malnutrition, sharing a bedroom and mattress with siblings to playing barefoot football. The continent lacks sufficient and well-equipped football academies which are effective channels for players development and advancement. Despite being talented and with an urge to excel, their career path to professional football has been marred by social, economic and technical challenges. Even those who excelled, their careers along the way, were erratic and fortuitous, due to plights out of their control.

For instance, twelve of twenty-three players in France’s 2018 World Cup squad originate from Africa particularly Cameroon, Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Angolan, Mali, Algeria, and Senegal. None of the East African countries has ever qualified for neither the Olympics nor World Cup tournament. (The East African region, however, made a great leap forward in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations – Afcon that was held in Cairo, Egypt. The region was, for the first time in history, represented by four member states Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi. Their qualifications made fans crazy, rumbling all over. It was a moment of glory everywhere in the region.)

The success of the West African and North African regions is partly thanks to colonial ties that created networks and social rapport between them and their former colonizers. Football clubs in France, Portugal and Belgium started to recruit players from Africa, who were regarded as cheaper and energetic, and launch transfer networks, as early as the 1940s. Nevertheless, the situation is contrary to German and British colonies namely Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zanzibar and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Specifically, the British deployed a protectionist approach which discouraged the entry of talents from their colonies. (Nigeria and Ghana, two of the former British colonies, were exceptions in this case).

Colonial legacy

In 1995, the European Court of Justice decreed the free movement of payers, alias Bosman Ruling, within the European Union. Kudos to Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman for a historic and well-fought battle that changed the face of football! The ruling facilitated big moves for one of the biggest professionals in football in Edgar Davids (Ajax to AC Milan, 1996), Patrick Kluivert (Ajax to AC Milan,1997), Brian Laudrup (Rangers to Chelsea, 1998) and Steve McManaman (Liverpool to Real Madrid, 1999) among many others.

Specifically, for Africa, the ruling was attributed to increased players with African origin into Europe. However, due to existing networks and language proficiency all emanating from colonial legacy, players from West African countries, predominantly French, Portugal, and Belgium, enjoyed this competitive advantage compared to their counterparts, particularly East African countries.

The points-based system, which favours professional players from countries ranking in the top ten in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Rankings, also hurts players from the East African region who are forced to earn their points through other set criteria which are very stringent. These include a number of appearances in international club competitions, transfer fees paid, earning a ‘qualifying wage,’ a higher-than-average wage that shows the player is of significant value. Mbwana Samatta, Tanzania skipper now playing for Fenerbahçe S.K, endured all these encounters on his way to Aston Villa in January 2020.

If the point-based system fails, FA exceptions panel can review and grant a working permit to players from the so-called low ranked countries in FIFA world rankings, through Governing Body Endorsement (GBE). However, in the year 2010, the Kenya international midfielder, McDonald Mariga, failed to seal his move from Parma to Manchester City through Governing Body Endorsement. By that time, Mariga had 24 caps for Kenya and played in at least 75 percent of his games over the past two years. His country’s lowly FIFA world ranking of 98 failed him.

Twisting the knife in the wound, BREXIT will negatively impact English clubs, especially ones which operate with a youth transfer policy, like Manchester United and City. The major changes in the United Kingdom football laws and regulations from the first day of January 2021 onwards include prevention of clubs from signing overseas players under the age of 18 and clubs being restricted to three overseas signings under the age of 21 in the January transfer window and only six per season. Further, the laws show that any foreign signing even those above 21 years will be obliged to pass the threshold, on a point-based system decided by a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) panel. These regulations will adversely impact every non-UK football player, however, pondering the status quo, the East African players will be severely hit.

Mentality issues

Another factor has to do with what the West Africans are famously known for, their “Billy-No-Mates” mentality. They have a unique fighting, aggressive and never-say-die approach in all walks of life. They always dare to do, come short, again and again, striving valiantly with great devotions until they make it. Those are stunts instilled in their minds. The path to success in Europe has never been easy with the prevalence of racial abuse often by fans, other players and coaching staff and violent attacks on the pitch or outside. Once Jose Mourinho praised West African players saying: “They want to win all the time. You can see that in their tenaciousness and fighting spirit. These breed of players (Essien, Drogba and Eto’o etc.) could give you the extra touch, you can rely on them to win each time.”

These very same mentalities expounded earlier coupled with effective structures and investment in football academies made Nigeria and Ghana, despite being the former British colonies, shine. Unfortunately, these mentalities, which are bedrocks to embarking on promising careers in European football, do not abound to most of the East African players. Their upbringing and minds are engulfed by the fear of failure, lack of courage and timidness. Most of the East African players fail to cope up with loneliness and social isolation in Europe. Worse enough, a big chunky of them fails prematurely during the trial. For many, alternatively, the dream is to play for their local clubs commonly; Simba Sports Club (Tanzania), Young African (Tanzania) A.F.C. Leopards (Kenya), Azam FC (Tanzania), Gor Mahia (Kenya) and SC Villa (Uganda) and URA FC (Uganda) to mention a few.

While there are diverse whys and wherefores for West African players to triumph in major European leagues compared to East Africans, however, aggressiveness, perseverance and resilience assume control. As William Camden says: “If wishes were horses even beggars would ride.” That glitz and glamour in Samuel Eto’o, Sadio Mané, Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Nwankwo Kanu and Yaya Touré were in the first place marred by poverty, dust, sweat, disappointments and hate. No wonder Samuel Eto’o loves Diamond Platnumz; his poverty-stricken background never deterred his future. For instance, in Tanzania, there are promising prospects in the likes of Ally Hamis Ng’anzi (Loudon United, USA) and Yohana Mkomola (Inhulets Petrove, Ukraine).

One of the greatest managers in the game, Sir Alex Ferguson, once said: “Origins should never be a barrier to success. A modest start in life can be a help more than a hindrance.” Our greatest grandeur is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.  Those few who have made it (Mbwana Samatta, Victor Wanyama, McDonald Mariga) should, in partnership with government authorities, create synergies to establish well-equipped football academies for nurturing the upcoming talents from the East African region. Samatta, Wanyama and Mariga did it, why not others?

Let’s keep daring greatly, the future is very promising.

Kochecha S. Kochecha is an evaluation specialist with interest in economics, business, policy, sports and entertainment analysis. He can be reached on Twitter at @VanKheir. These are the writer’s own opinions and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editor at for more inquiries.

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4 Responses

  1. Hello Kochecha congrats kwa kuchambua footballers wa East Africa,you have talked about the challenges ..Napendekeza uongelee pia way forward ,what can be done inorder to improve this situation in that industry.
    Sidhani kama it’s too late to rectify the situation.
    Give suggestions kwa wawekezaji wa hizo clubs za Simba,Yanga,Azam na FC leopards and others.
    Challenges wanazoface players wa East Africa hata hao wa West and North Africa walizipitia but they have made it .
    Hayo ni mawazo yangu machache Kama yatakuwa na mashiko.

  2. Congratulations Kochecha for spending your time to talk about East African football players.
    If I have read well your article I have read the challenges they are facing and you have traced them from colonial error.
    What can be done to rectify the situation because I think mentioned challenges have solutions,try to outline them
    Another thing I think you would have talk also about mentality of fans of these clubs,most of them are satisfied with the trophies and the League which are being played in the country.sidhani kama they want to make a step further.
    Nadhani Kuna vitu vingi vya kuangalia tujenge kwanza misingi mizuri kuanzia level ya chini kabisa ya wachezaji na makocha tusitegemee makocha wa nje.
    Sijui Kama maoni haya Yana mashiko

  3. Congratulations Vankheir for taking your time to analyse East African footballers
    You have talked about challenges they are facing and that have been there since colonial error.
    Vankheir I suggest you give solutions as way forward for these challenges,we have observed that there are no good foundations for football academy I think our foundation should begin from here,
    Another issue to work on is changing mentality of football club fans like Simba,Yanga,Azam FC,Most of Fans are satisfied with these internal tournaments/trophies that are just recognized within the country,
    Pia hatujajua Kama mpira ni ajira na ni kipato nadhani ukiongelea hiki kwa mapana watu wataelewa,cos the famous football clubs in the country employ unprofessional persons in the clubs as a result mpira una pangiliwa badala ya kuchezwa
    Hao wawekezaji wawekeze kuanzia grassroots levels
    Nchi pia iweke malengo makubwa kwenye mpira isiwe tu kushinda VPL .
    Pia watu wenye uwezo wapewe nafasi ya kuwekeza kwenye mpira.
    These are my comments.

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