Afcon: Wars push, but money pulls

Jurgen Brauer, Manuel Ennes Ferreira and Sandro Mendonça

Even before the first kick-off, this month’s Africa Cup of Nations started with a nasty foul on Togo’s team. It should not detract from the joy of football. As was said following the terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics: the games must go on.

But analysing player data, the Cabinda shooting that led to Togo’s early exit from the competition illustrates two larger lessons: (Africa’s) wars push talented players out, and (European) club money pulls players in. For example, no Cameroon or Nigeria national players play for club teams in their home countries. Both countries have player export rates of 100%. Of Cameroon’s 23-player squad, seven earn their pay cheques in France while England, Germany and Spain each employs three.

The others are distributed all over Europe, from Scotland to Turkey. In contrast, Nigerians prefer England, where seven of their players kick the ball professionally. Of the other Super Eagles, France, Israel and Russia have three each. Germany, Spain and Switzerland pay two apiece, while one plays in the Ukraine league. Other countries with very high player exports include Côte d’Ivoire (22 players), Burkina Faso (21), Mali (21) and Togo (21).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the highest player retention rates are those of Egypt (19 out of 23 players, for a rate of 82,6%) and Tunisia (16 players, or 69,6%).

This hardly seems random. Whether correlating player export percentages with the rankings of the human development index, the global peace index, the failed state index or GDP, in each case an inverse relationship between the rankings and the number of players pursuing their careers abroad emerges: the worse the country’s standing, the more players leave. Wars push.

Interestingly, among the Afcon teams, Egypt also shows the highest number of club imports from other nations, namely one each from Angola and Ghana, and two each from Burkina Faso and Mozambique. The only other nations that import players for their club teams are Angola (one player from Malawi), Mozambique (one player, also from Malawi), Nigeria (one each from Benin and Togo) and Tunisia (one each from Ghana and Togo).

In other words, only 12 — or about 3% — of all players at the Afcon play professionally elsewhere in Africa. In contrast, 237 — or nearly 70% — play for club teams in some 38 countries that are not in Angola for the African football showpiece. They stretch from Armenia to China, Moldova and the United Arab Emirates. Money pulls.

Instead of counting the number of players exported, one can compute two export-related percentage rates: the player export dispersal rate (countries per player) and the player export concentration rate (players per country). Angola, for instance, exports 12 players to eight countries, for a dispersal rate of 66,7%. In contrast, Nigeria exports nearly twice as many players to about the same number of countries, so that its export concentration rate is 23/7 = 328,6%, the highest among the Cup nations. Malawi’s player exports are fairly concentrated as well. Of its 23 players, 14 play in five other countries, an export concentration ratio of 280%. But unique among these nations is that Malawi’s exports are highly regionalised: 10 of its 14 exported players play for South African clubs alone.

In contrast, Angola’s player exports are far more globalised (one in Egypt, one in England, two in France and four in Portugal, whereas Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Spain have one each), illustrating the difference between the breadth of globalisation (exporting to how many countries?) and the depth of globalisation (how far away are the recipient countries?).

The North African Cup nations—Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia—show the highest degree of player retention, 63,8%, followed by the two former Portuguese colonies (Angola and Mozambique, 50%). The other 11 countries retain players only to the degree of 9,7%. Looking at player exports or retention from the point of view of the last colonial power that occupied each of the 16 countries from which the Afcon teams hail, we note that the nine former French colonies keep only 17,9% of their players at home and export the remaining 82,1%. The two former Portuguese colonies (Angola and Mozambique) keep 50% and export 50%, and the five former British colonies keep 31,3% and export 68,7% of their national team players.

French teams show by far the largest number of club imports. They employ an astonishing 59 of the 345 players for whom we have club data (the data for Gabon’s players were not available to us). Of those 59 players, 12 are from Mali; nine each from Benin and Togo; seven from Cameroon; five from Côte d’Ivoire; three each from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and Tunisia; and two from Angola (now fired from their French third-division teams and unemployed). Put differently, of the 59 players, 48 carry passports of the nine former French colonies.

Measuring France’s colonial draw in a different way, nearly a quarter of all the national players from its former colonies have been absorbed by France’s football market. In contrast, players from the former British and Portuguese colonies are dispersed well beyond their former colonists’ home. English clubs employ 25 players (but only 7,8% from former British colonies), South African clubs are the paymasters of 23 players (primarily from Malawi and Zambia), and 21 players kick the ball for German clubs.

France also supplies coaches to five of the competing national teams (Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Togo and Zambia). Indeed, only five of the teams employ a home-country coach — Algeria, Egypt, Malawi, Nigeria and Tunisia — and three of those are the three North African teams in the tournament. All the others import their coaches.

Who will win this year’s Africa Cup? We say: either England or France. In terms of Fifa’s December 2009 ranks, the top three nations are Cameroon (ranked 11), Côte d’Ivoire (16) and Nigeria (22). Of their 69 players, nearly half play in England (16) and France (15).

The authors are professors and economics researchers in the US, Portugal and England, respectively. They may be reached at

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