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Aspirations, experiences and trajectories

Africans have long graced football fields around the world. The success of icons such as Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Mohamed Salah has fuelled the migratory projects of countless male youth across the African continent who dream of following in their footsteps. Using over a decade of ethnographic research, African Football Migration captures the historical, geographical and regulatory features of this migratory process. The book uncovers and traces the myriad actors, networks and institutions that impact the ability of children and youth across the continent to realise social mobility through football’s global production network. This sheds critical light on how young people are trying to negotiate contemporary barriers to social becoming erected by neoliberal capitalism. It also generates original interdisciplinary perspectives on the complex interplay between structural forces and human agency as young players navigate an industry rife with commercial speculation. A select few are fortunate enough to reach the elite levels of the game and build a successful career overseas. Significantly, the book vividly illustrates how for the vast majority, the outcome of ‘trying their luck’ through football is involuntary immobility in post-colonial Africa. These findings are complemented by rare empirical insights from transnational African migrants at the margins of the global football industry and those navigating precarious post-playing-career lives. In unpacking these issues, African Football Migration offers fresh perspectives on the transnational strategies deployed by youth and young men striving to improve their life chances, and the role that mobility – imagined and enacted – plays in these struggles.

Abstract only
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

In keeping with our commitment to foregrounding the aspirations, experiences and trajectories of male African football migrants and to challenging tropes that depict them as helpless, passive victims of wider macro-structural currents both within the football industry and beyond, we turn much of the introductory chapter over to a ‘thick’ description of the personal biography of former Ghanaian football migrant Nii Odartey Lamptey. In particular, we focus on how the game featured in his youthful future-making imaginaries before outlining how he was able to enact transnational mobility. We account for his experiences as a football migrant, the routes and nodes he traversed and the nature of his encounters along the way, including those on his post-playing-career return to Ghana. Treated in isolation, his eventful career constitutes a fascinating insight into how professional migrant athletes produce and reproduce transnational mobility. However, the purpose of our exposition here is to contextualise and animate the core questions at the centre of this book.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter situates the book within the wider academic literature on African football migration. It focuses on the schism between studies that have emphasised macro-level determinants and those that have foregrounded the experiences and subjectivities of migrating, or aspirant, African players. The purpose of unpacking this schism is to illustrate that a comprehensive explanation of transnational African football migration, in all its temporal phases and scalar complexity, requires an interdisciplinary analytical framework. The second half of the chapter outlines such a framework. It introduces how the book conceptualises the lived experiences and subjectivities of African youth and adults as they seek to produce and sustain transnational mobility through football. Crucially, the approach adopted accommodates a macro-level perspective of forces within and beyond the football industry that impact players’ migratory projects, while also offering critical insights on how these projects are shaped by the micro-level agency of players, and more localised social, economic and cultural dynamics.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter examines how Africa has become integrated into the global football marketplace for players. More specifically, in setting out how and why the continent, but particularly West Africa, has become a key exporter of football labour, the chapter unpacks the history, geography and changing regulatory features of this process. It examines the spatial dynamics of transnational African football migration using theoretical insights from the global production network literature, specifically the territorial distribution of products or commodities and the institutional and regulatory environment that shapes how production and export proceeds. The geographical dimensions of transnational African football migration are shown to reveal a historical clustering around a small number of core talent production centres in West Africa and key export markets in Europe. Long-standing transnational ties often, but not exclusively, rooted in colonial history are found to be key and have a significant influence on the geography of player mobilities. However, the early decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a dramatic increase in the volume of African players plying their trade abroad, alongside a more diffuse spatial distribution across the European football industry and to emerging professional leagues in South and South-East Asia and the Middle East. These more recent, diversified paths are argued to be influenced by players’ willingness to look beyond traditional markets to earn a living from their footballing talent.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter examines the key nodes of the African football export industry. It outlines the primary sites that young players typically access and navigate as they pursue a career as transnationally mobile, professional football players. Through doing so, the chapter presents a detailed overview of the complex assemblage of networks, nodes, actors and institutions through which transnationally mobile African footballers are fashioned and exported, and how this has changed through time. It also encompasses an account of the spatial dimensions of players’ mobilities and the frameworks and rules that regulate their cross-border movements. Given the centrality of football academies as the dominant production and export node in this industry, the chapter addresses the rise and diversity of academies and explains the divergent philosophies and business models that they adopt. By examining the key nodes through which a young African player might be shaped into a highly skilled labourer, the chapter provides fresh perspectives on how players attain significant monetary value, thereby becoming potentially attractive exports to football markets beyond the African continent.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

Using Ghana as a case study, this chapter demonstrates the importance of contextualising African football migration geographically and historically. This approach enables us to highlight a range of actors, networks, institutions and processes that influence opportunities to produce football-related mobility in and from the African continent. The chapter outlines they ways in which the shift from a socialist developmental philosophy to an era where the meta narrative for economic development is neoliberal marketisation, has transformed how the Ghanaian football industry and actors within it function. Football is now a business, driven primarily by the profit motive. Ghana’s success in the 1991 FIFA youth championships is considered a watershed moment in the positioning of player migration as a means to generate surplus value. This is shown to have resulted in the rapid growth of an export-oriented infrastructure for Ghanaian football and intense competition over playing talent involving a multitude of actors, ranging from the players themselves, to clubs, football associations, ‘card dealers’, managers and recruitment agents. Consequently, the movement and migration of players within Ghana and beyond is argued to be actively encouraged as part of speculative strategies.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter examines the rationale behind African youth entering into and transitioning between a series of nodes in the local football industry that they hope will lead to transnational football migration. It reveals how youth in contemporary Africa increasingly perceive and justify their entry into the local game as part of their biographical planning in an era of neoliberal governance. The chapter also introduces a range of interpretations and representations of football that shape this project of individual and social becoming, teasing out the ‘migration drivers’ that influence young people’s decision to embark on a career in football. More specifically, youth are argued to see football migration as a vehicle for social mobility, an alternative pathway to attain a sense of respectable adulthood and fulfil intergenerational obligations to family, alongside wider social expectations around migration in West African contexts. Significantly, the chapter illustrates that although operating within neoliberal contexts that encourage individuation, the migratory drivers informing aspirations to ‘become a somebody’ through football are part of a more collective endeavour. These drivers and attendant aspirations are constitutive of a ‘social negotiation of hope’.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter concentrates on how Ghanaian players experience youth football and academy life, and the strategies they deploy and resources they draw on as they work towards becoming a professional migrant footballer. It also examines how young players encounter, respond to and seek to overcome the inability to translate their considerable physical, emotional and financial investments into securing a playing contract abroad. The chapter illustrates how young people deploy unique forms of agency, like ‘trying your luck’, to realise their aspirations for and expectations of transnational migration. It also teases out the subjectivities that enable young people to remain resolute in the pursuit of their dreams, despite the empirical evidence around them pointing to the fact that for the vast majority of young players the likely outcome is involuntary immobility. One such form of evidence is being ‘sacked’ and or released from an academy before securing terms with a foreign club. This moment is argued to constitute a ‘vital conjuncture’ in the lives of players, one marked by ‘shame’ but also resourcefulness as players come to terms with and try to navigate their way through involuntary immobility’. The chapter therefore provides a critical reflection on an overlooked issue in scholarship on African football migration: namely, the emotional dimension of trying to migrate and ‘become a somebody’ through football.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter draws attention to the diverse pathways and players’ experiences as they negotiate initial transnational moves to Europe and South-East Asia. It also examines the implications that the pathways and experiences have for a player’s career trajectory. Whether following conventional pathways or less formalised routes, the ability to navigate an uncertain and unpredictable industry is shown to be a key asset for African players. The chapter also illustrates how power imbalances in the social infrastructure of football’s global production network often leaves players in a marginalised position. Many experience fraud or are left with few opportunities to achieve their aspiration to make it in professional football and ‘become a somebody’. This is a harsh reality of labouring in a highly competitive, speculative and commercialised industry. It also reflects the tension between the interests of powerful actors and those of the player. This tension is visible in both Europe and South-East Asia. In this way, players moving to these destinations share similar experiences of a challenging liminality. The chapter argues, however, that continuing to speculate on their physical capital and talent in this initial stage of a potential professional career abroad should not be seen as an act of naivety or despair. Instead, the belief in one’s abilities and a strategic pursuit of the futures they envisage is indicative of considerable resilience.

in African football migration
Paul Darby, James Esson, and Christian Ungruhe

This chapter focuses on the various challenges that African migrant players encounter and navigate as they seek to reproduce career mobility in Europe and South-East Asia. Some of these challenges contour the African migrant experience more generally, and include adjusting to a different climate, food, language and culture. Others, though, are found to be more specific to football and incorporate the particularities of the football environment, culture, expectations and playing styles of any given club or league. African players frequently lack resources and advantageous relations while competing with thousands of others for a very limited number of opportunities. This situation is compounded by racialisation and experiences of racism. They must also negotiate and meet multiple expectations from families, agents, clubs and coaches, as well as those that are self-imposed. Therefore, most African players’ careers are dominated by pressures and ongoing uncertainty that often leads to downward mobility in the industry. Yet is argued that players’ embodied belief in their abilities to succeed, and the need to make their migration project valuable for themselves, their family and wider community frequently mitigate the disillusionment and setbacks that they often face abroad. This is because staying in the game and keeping the hope of ‘making it’ alive gives meaning to the struggle, regardless of how precarious the present may be.

in African football migration