World Cup selections reveal division between haves and have-nots – TSTIME – 25/11/2022

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If you’ve ever seen your World Cup heroes play for a club on home soil, you’re in luck. This means you are probably English, maybe Brazilian, but almost certainly not Senegalese.

If you take a look at the 2022 World Cup squads, you’ll find that the average England player has spent 95% of their career in domestic competitions, according to data published by Transfermarkt.com and analysed by TSTIME. Comparably high numbers can be seen in the national teams of European countries with strong league systems, such as Germany and Spain.

The opposite is usually the case with less wealthy clubs and leagues. Among the South American teams at the World Cup – Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay – the average player has spent almost half of his career with a foreign team. This is more than 80% for the African selections, Senegal, Ghana, Morocco and Cameroon.

According to the national soccer league researchers interviewed by TSTIME for this story, these numbers are indicative of an uneven dynamic in international soccer; major European leagues have the financial clout to retain their own young talents while importing up-and-coming stars from emerging markets.

Meanwhile, countries with less prosperous national structures are often trapped in a vicious circle that not only allows them to retain their best players, but also develop their infrastructure in a way that makes it less attractive to young players.

Infrastructure is lacking in African football

Senegal, the current AFCON title holders, may be the continent’s best hope of impressing in Qatar. However, Senegal is also the World Cup team whose players have spent (on average) the least amount of time playing in their home country’s leagues.

Almost half of the players in the selection of Senegal have never played for a national team from the age of 16. Those who have played for a local side did not last long, with most moving abroad before the age of 20.

Senegal is perhaps the most extreme example, but a similar trend can be seen when looking at the other four African selections at the World Cup.

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Gerad Akindes, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who specializes in sports management, says this is due to a combination of factors that emerged in the 1980s. Then African countries started to do better in international tournaments, their young starts started to attract more attention abroad.

“This was around the time African football was struggling with cuts to social adjustment programmes. Clubs were losing the ability to support themselves,” he says.

“And what came on the scene was football academies. Academies would pop up everywhere, trying to recruit kids and send them to Europe. And the result is the quality of local football loss.”

Even Sadio Mane, the Senegalese star and current African Footballer of the Year, has had such an education and spent his early years at Generation Foot from Dakar, a subsidiary of the French second division club FC Metz. When he was 19 he left the country to sign for the Metz before moving to Liverpool and later Bayern Munich. An injury ruled him out of this World Cup, but two of his Senegalese teammates followed a similar path; Pape Matar Sarr and Ismaïla Sarr currently practice their profession at English Premier League clubs Tottenham and Watford respectively.

Having large numbers of African players at some of the world’s most successful clubs is appealing to home television viewers. They’d rather watch the best footballers their country can produce in Europe’s biggest leagues than come face-to-face in their weaker national leagues. This leaves local stadiums virtually empty.

“In the long run, this means that African football is no longer developing. It is like a raw material,” says Akindes. “You export it, you make some money, and it comes back with added value that you can consume. It’s like exporting oil and then buying rubber.”

In monetary terms, it is TV rights holders in Africa who can benefit from this “added value”.

This has also led to African national teams relying on more and more of their nationals playing abroad. This phenomenon was exacerbated by a 2004 revision of FIFA’s eligibility rules, which allowed footballers to switch teams even if they had represented another country at youth level.

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The Ghanaian team is a good example of this; their final 26-man roster includes four late additions from players who had never previously worn the Black Stars jersey. For England-born Tariq Lamptey, Spain-born Inaki Williams, French-born Elisha Owusu and Belgium-born Denis Odoi, the prospect of playing at a World Cup was reason enough to switch allegiances.

Most Cameroonian stars move abroad early in their careers Image: Sebastian Frej/IMAGO

“What does that say about the players who made it through the qualifying rounds and can’t go to Qatar now?” asks Wycliffe Njororai, a professor and sports researcher at the University of Texas at Tyler.

“This signals to the local talents that you may have to leave the country to get a chance. It may be easier for you to get selected if you are abroad.”

Njororai also points out that such late additions of foreign-raised talent come at a cost, including a lack of chemistry both on and off the pitch.

“How can you create a cohesive unity to include these players?” he asks. “If they perform well, fans will embrace them. But if they don’t, the consequences will be huge and the focus will be on the fact that many of these players have no connection with the team.”

Impending identity crisis in South America

Compared to the Africans, most South American World Cup players stayed longer with local clubs. Only three players from the region did not play for a local team after turning 16.

Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentacur began his career with Argentine side Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, just 120 kilometers (75 miles) from his hometown. Ecuador’s Jeremy Sarmiento joined the senior national team after representing England in his youth. And of course there’s Lionel Messi, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner who left Argentina for Barcelona at the age of 13.

But even if it is still not subject to such intense, early predatory scouting, South American football is subject to similar economic pressures as African football. The continent’s leagues may be stronger and retain young talent a bit longer, but it’s not much; the average South American player at this World Cup moved abroad for the first time at the age of 21.

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As in Africa, this dynamic also affects the relationship between fans and local clubs – even in Brazil, the only country to have won five World Cups and is home to clubs that only a decade ago prided themselves on being able to compete with some of the best in Europe. sides.

According to Rodrigo Koch, a professor at Rio Grande do Sul State University who studies the relationship between soccer and youth culture in Brazil, young Brazilians no longer have the same connection to local clubs as their parents and older relatives. This is especially important in a country where club loyalty tends to pass from father to son and is a staple of regional identity.

“I wouldn’t call those young people club supporters. They became football fans and followers of celebrities,” says Koch, explaining that they are no longer loyal to one specific club, but choose to follow the teams with their favorite players – Neymar’s Paris Saint Germain is currently one of the most popular.

“It may not be as fast as in Africa, but we are in the middle of this transformation,” he adds.

“We still have hardcore supporters from local clubs, we still have grassroots fans, we still have those who follow a family tradition… But we have more and more fans of this kind who are embracing a more cosmopolitan identity, so to speak .”

Traditionally, while playing soccer at school or on the street, Brazilian children would divide into teams made up of supporters of local clubs, mimicking the Brazilian championship games they watched on TV and in the stadium. It could very well be that in 10 years they will split between supporters of Vinicius Junior’s Real Madrid and Neymar’s PSG – or whichever team the stars of the day play for.

Edited by Chuck Penfold.

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