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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 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

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 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

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 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
Abstract only
Paul Darby
,
James Esson
, and
Christian Ungruhe

The concluding chapter opens with a concise summary of our key findings before setting out how the book extends knowledge and understanding of African football migration. We point to five key contributions and advancements. Firstly, our findings set out a comprehensive picture that incorporates the intersecting macro-, meso- and micro-level currents that contour and influence the migratory imaginaries and projects of African football players. Secondly, and informed by our long-term, ongoing relationships and engagement with African players and other actors, we have situated their perspectives, subjectivities and experiences at the centre of our analysis. Thirdly, the long-term, temporal perspective we offer through this book exposes the whole career course of African players from their initial engagement with football, through to their transnational careers and post-playing career lives. Fourthly, by showing ethnographically how the historical, political, economic and social dynamics of African contexts connect with and shape the experiences of players in destination settings, we uncover the multiple transnational dimensions in players’ imaginaries and professional and personal life courses. Finally, this book highlights the intellectual benefits of examining African football migration, and sport migration more generally, in an interdisciplinary manner. We finish this concluding chapter by pointing to new empirical, conceptual and methodological directions for research on African football migration.

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

This chapter explores how African migrant players plan for, manage and negotiate the conclusion of their football career. It shows how a neglect of formal education and the absence of other dual career possibilities frequently limits alternative occupational opportunities for migrant players, resulting in precarious livelihoods characterised by financial difficulties and a declining social status. These can generate significant and (often interconnected) obstacles for players’ post-playing-career trajectories, not least by creating a discrepancy between their social status abroad and at ‘home’. However, in keeping with the rest of the book, this chapter illustrates the resourcefulness of African football players as they seek out other ways of reproducing their social mobility and status when their professional playing career concludes, not least by investing in businesses and housing at home and making strategic decisions around remaining abroad or returning to Africa. This enables a conceptualisation of African migrant footballers’ quest for social mobility as an ongoing process that occurs throughout their life course, from the forming of their migratory aspiration to their transnational careers and finally into their post-playing-career lives.

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