Amidst a cacophony of vuvuzelas, expectations for the African teams in this World Cup had never been higher. For the first time the tournament was held on African soil and many African teams had famous coaches - Sven Goran Erikson for Cote d’Iviore being one example. Most importantly, there have never been so many African players signed to the top European clubs in the world; perhaps none more famously so than Samuel Eto’o of Inter Milan or Didier Drogba of Chelsea. And yet, the African teams were knocked out of the competition in the group stages, one by one. That is, all except Ghana, the team on which all African hopes now rested.
Even without their talismanic midfielder Michael Essien, Ghana managed to come through a difficult qualifying group and then beat the United States in extra time in their next match, to create a quarterfinal line-up against Uruguay. In one of the most extraordinary moments in World Cup history however, Ghana was awarded a penalty when Luis Suarez deliberately handballed Dominic Adiyiah’s header in the dying seconds of the extra time; later proclaiming that he was the rightful holder of the title ‘la mano de Dios’. Jubilation soon turned to despair though, when Asamoah Gyan hit the crossbar from the spot. The game went to a penalty shoot-out, which Ghana subsequently lost to the great disappointment of 80 thousand fans in the stadium and millions more in front of their TVs. Africa now will have to wait at least another four years.
One can argue that the surge of African football goes back to the famous Bosman ruling of the European Court of Justice in 1995 which, in effect, removed most restrictions faced by foreign players. As a result, the European football market has ostensibly become the most liberal labor market in the world today. Almost without exception, any talented player from any country can play in one of the top European leagues – the path to professional fame as well as financial fortune. Even though Latin American players continue to grab the headlines in European football, it has been the Africans that made the biggest leap. Today, over 1,500 African born players earn their livings in the European leagues, a dramatic increase from less than 400 playing in the 1990-91 season. West Africa dominates the numbers with hundreds of players coming from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Cote d’Iviore.
The critical question is on the impact of mass migration of Africa’s top talent to England, France and other European leagues. Brain drain – the migration of highly skilled people from poor developing countries to wealthy countries – has been a frequently voiced concern among development economists. Shortage of human capital is clearly one of the most important impediments to economic growth and productivity. Yet, the experience from the global football market seems to defy the conventional wisdom.
The increased demand for African players in Europe and the resulting financial and professional incentives triggered a very rapid increase in both the quality and quantity of domestic talent in most African countries. In other words, improved migration prospects lead to “brain gain” rather than “brain drain” as young players train much harder and invest in their skills to become better players with the hope of following in the footsteps of Eto’o and Drogba. Increasingly, many parents view the game as an opportunity in life for their sons, as opposed to merely a pastime. Some back of the envelope calculations show that earnings of the migrant football players contribute more to GNP in sub-Saharan Africa than apparel exports.
Before getting too carried away though, we need to realize the lessons from the football market might not be easily generalized to other professions. For example, migration of physicians – the other profession which has seen its best and brightest lured to the West – resulted in severe declines in the quality and quantity of healthcare in many parts of Africa as the continent was struggling with some of the history’s most severe challenges. The main difference between football players and physicians is the ease with which supply could be expanded in the face of increased migration. Setting up a new medical school and replacing the departed physicians take quite a bit of time and financial resources when compared to starting a football academy – such as the twenty “Football for Hope Centers” that FIFA is planning to open in Africa.
Going back to football, Africans should remain optimistic. So long as financial and professional incentives stay rewarding– both at home and abroad – and sufficient number of young men continue to take up the game, there will be many more players like Essien to play at the highest level abroad. And one of them will lift the World Cup trophy soon.