Soccer capitalism

Soccer academies in Africa sprang from European club interventions with varied success, but, as examples in Ghana prove, they can be sites of local, entrepreneurial spirit.

Photo by Enoch Appiah Jr. on Unsplash

Soccer academies are springing up across Africa with remarkable speed, evidence of the immense popularity of the sport and the many aspirations it arouses. These academies—institutions that at their core combine a sportive and an educational system—first arrived in Africa from Europe in the late 1990s, following three interrelated processes: (1) the mistreatment by unscrupulous agents of young African players who migrated to Europe; (2) the Bosman ruling of 1995 that further increased the migration of African players to Europe; and (3) the introduction of new transfer regulations by FIFA in 2001 that aimed at curbing the abuse of young migrant players by making it harder for clubs to sign players under the age of 18.

As a result of the new regulations, European clubs began to seek alternative ways of securing the services of young talented players from Africa. Soccer academies provided them with an effective solution. European clubs began establishing academies throughout the continent, nurturing young players with the expectation that, once they reached the age of 18, they would automatically be eligible for transfer to Europe. Gradually, not only European-funded academies but also African-owned ones began forming across the continent, hoping to benefit from the globalized and commercialized world of soccer.

Since the founding of the first of these academies, scholars and journalists have sought to uncover their impact primarily through the prism of migration. On the positive side, academies have been seen as a springboard to migration to Europe where players can earn improved salaries that contribute to their upward social mobility. Such migrations can also create ripple effects as the players send remittances to their home communities. On the negative side, academies have been identified as reproducing neocolonial relations in which the Global North profits from the underdevelopment of the Global South. By exporting Africa’s talents abroad, academies are seen to be contributing to Africa’s muscle drain. Many Africans who migrate with the hope of finding a club, sign exploitative contracts or fail to make the grade. They feel reluctant to return home and face the humiliation that they expect their failure might bring to their local communities.

The focus in academia and media on aspects of migration is illuminating, and contributes important insights on the potentials and pitfalls of the academy system in Africa. Nevertheless, such a focus also marginalizes academies that have fewer international links, namely, African-owned academies, thus limiting our understanding of the impact different types of academies have. Furthermore, the emphasis on the player’s transfer from a local setting (academies) to a global one (leagues and markets) overlooks the roles that academies play locally. If we are to understand the roles these institutions play in their communities, it is critical to look beyond the focal point of migration and observe the local entrepreneurs who establish academies, the young women and men who play there, their parents, and people surrounding the academies, such as teachers, spectators, and vendors. An examination of soccer academies established by Ghanaians, rather than by Europeans or through European-Ghanaian cooperation, reveals the diverse ways in which Ghanaians create new paths for improving their lives through soccer, as well as the lives of those in their adjacent communities. Whereas Ghanaian soccer academies at times promote nefarious practices or raise unattainable expectations, they can also be seen as engines for local development in various areas. Such academies can provide educational opportunities, empower youth, advance the participation of young women, promote public health, serve as a source of pride and identification for local fans, be a source for mutual help, and provide gathering and entertainment spaces free of charge.

For example, Unistar Soccer Academy provides sustainable development to its local community in the towns of Kasoa-Ofaakor. Ernest Kufuor, a chartered accountant by profession, formed the academy primarily as a way of exploiting the economic potential of soccer and to provide children with access to education to better their lives. Unistar has been successful in kick-starting the careers of dozens of professional players, employing local workers, inspiring a local fandom culture, and transforming an unused plot of land into an ample communal park. However, where Unistar falls short is on academic performance. Most children ignore the reality that most do not end up achieving a professional contract by neglecting their schooling obligations.

Shifting the focus from European-owned to African-owned academies can challenge not only the predominance of the former in scholarship and media, but also the notion that a successful academy should be judged only by the number of players it produces (that is, the players who migrate to Europe and earn a living there as soccer players). Success can be achieved in various ways, both on and off the pitch, and these benefits are not limited to the wealth and knowledge of Europeans. Europeans might have brought the academy system to Africa, but many of these institutions have also developed according to local circumstances, needs, and resources.

Further Reading