Ghana was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from Britain in 1957, and with that has come the liberalisation and excellence of their academics and notably sportsmen. The national football team, known as The Black Stars has been one of the biggest sides on the continent, winning the Africa Cup of Nations four times (1963, 1965,1978, 1982) whilst hosting the event a record four times, the last being the 2008 tournament where they fell in the semi finals.
Ghana has only been to the Fifa World Cup once, in 2006 reaching the second round losing to champions Brazil, but they have secured safe passage to the 2010 edition in South Africa, and crowning them as one of the elite on the continent, they became the first African country to win the prestigious 2009 Fifa U-20 World Cup, defeating Brazil in the final. This rise and dominance has seen them produce players who are a ‘who’s who’ of African players, from Karim Abdul-Razak, Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, Tony Yeboah, Samuel Kuffour, Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien. There is no surprise seeing players from Ghana commanding high transfer fees and playing for teams in the lucrative European Champions League, Chelsea had no problem spending £24 million for Essien in 2005, a then African record that stood for 4 years (now held by Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor who moved to Manchester City for £25 million).
A bright and welcome outcome of having so many talented players, is the increased investment in sport in the country, especially one that is the most popular in the country. Football as is the case throughout Africa and South America, is the vehicle that transcends sports, it is a national identity, and where a country can be united even in times of dictatorship and conflict. The success of Ghanian players in Europe has led to more teams scouting and investing in training facilities to identify the next big talent. Ghana has performed better in economic terms for the last decade and is one of the emerging countries in Africa for the next decade, but with all the growth, unemployment is still very high. In 2000, it stood at 11%, in 2009, it is close to 20%. The people in the bracket of 15-35 years of age, termed as Young People, around 30% of the population are the most unemployed in the country, as most are the last to be hired, and the first to be fired, in addition to not having the skills for formal employment and many shunning agricultural employment.
High unemployment in development parlance is a underutilization of human capital, one that Ghana has in abundance, and instead of being productive, they become a burden on the nations resources. There have been initiatives set up by the government, such as National Youth Employment Programme that has absorbed over 110 000 young people, but this is still insufficient. Football may hold the keys to giving employment to many of the youth. In Ghana, there are over 5000 registered football players in the country, all thus have some form of employment and income. Increased domestic and foreign investment by sports institutions, mainly from Europe has provided education to the young players, whilst harnessing their talents. If they do not succeed in gaining a transfer to Europe, they will have an education to fall on. The players are often housed and fed, thus ensuring their families can spend their income elsewhere for the family.
There has also been academies set up by current and former players, many with big names behind them that can bring in other big sponsors. The biggest is former France captain born in Ghana, Marcel Desailly who has won everything there is to win in football, including the 1998 Fifa World Cup. He has not set up an academy, and doesn’t want to for reasons to be given later, he has provided facilities that are for the mass community for sports like basketball and football such as in Ayeniah. With his name, more people will be encouraged to do the same and provide facilities that can be used by the community. Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew has his own team, FC Nania that he has been able to bring from the lower leagues and elevate them to the top division, and he has set out a grand plan to invest in the facilities for the club like new pitches, a hotel that will bring employment, and a stadium. The biggest name graduate from his club and academy is his son Andre Ayew who is on the books of French giants Olympique Marseille, and captained the U-20 team to winning the Fifa Youth Championships last month.
There has been some controversy however with the academies and investment in Ghana for football. It has been termed by some in the extreme, as ‘modern day slavery‘ and ‘the new people trafficking‘. Players are trained up, many have to pay for this privilege, with agents and directors of the academies, many of them unlicensed, promising players and their families that they will earn a lucrative contract in Europe, that will cover the expenses incurred within a month once they move abroad. For families in poverty, this is a gamble worth taking, and there is pressure on the players to earn the contracts and feed their immediate and extended families.
With the examples of Essien and Appiah, many aspire to reach such heights, the reality is that many may not, and agents take advantage of them. As in South America, many of the players contracts and registrations may be held by more than one party, such as an agent, a sports management firm, an investment group, the club etc. once the players reach 15, many are taken to Europe with promises of trials at elite clubs, if the trial is successful, they stay on, but many are left stranded in Europe as the agents ‘go missing’, leaving them to fend for themselves on the streets of Milan and Paris. Many street traders in Italy are from Ghana and say they have been forced into that employment as their football dreams were left shattered by such incidents. The Ghanian government with the help of Fifa has moved to stop these occurrences and has clamped down on bogus agents and unlicensed academies, but with each player that becomes a star, more will spring up as demand to become a football is inelastic.
Two articles that show the Ghanian dream, the first on former child prodigy, Nii Lamptey who shone in the Fifa U-17 World Cup in 1991, being named the best player ahead of the likes of Argentinas Juan Sebastien Veron and Italys Alessandro Del-Piero, only to see his career spiral downwards from bad agents and influences.
The second is a very interesting podcast by Paul Darby, author of Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance, speaks on these issues on the Africapod, touching on the migration of Ghana players to Europe and the industry behind it.