Gains versus Drains: Football Academies and the Export of Highly Skilled Football Labor

By Darby, Paul | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Gains versus Drains: Football Academies and the Export of Highly Skilled Football Labor


Darby, Paul, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


Over the last two decades, there has been a debate of increasingly acrimonious proportions on the consequences of what has come to be labeled as an "exodus" of Africa's finest football talent to Europe. This debate, played out in the game's corridors of power, in media circles, amongst academics, between politicians, and in both European and African courts, has often mirrored polemicizing around highly skilled African migration more generally. The emigration of the highly skilled from the Global South and its impact on development in source countries has, for many decades, vexed politicians, economists, policy makers, and academics alike. In the second half of the twentieth century, heavyweight intellectual paradigms rooted in neoclassical and neo-Marxist perspectives vied for primacy in the migration research and policy communities. Clearly demarcated battle lines were drawn and polemical debates ensued. Migration was painted as a zero-sum game involving either gains or drains, winners or losers, a cause for optimism or pessimism. Optimists argued that capital could be captured and gains accrued by donor nations through remittances, the (assumed) return of migrants and associated brain circulation, rising wages, and transnationally minded diasporas, all of which could function as potential engines and agents of development. Pessimists depicted skilled migration as an extractive process characterized by the hemorrhaging of valuable resources abroad, underdevelopment, a deepening of poverty and global inequality, and damaging sociocultural impacts in sending societies.1

Given sub-Saharan Africa's status as a primary exporter of skilled and tertiary- educated labor, it is hardly surprising that this region features prominently in debates around the costs and benefits of out-migration.2 Sustained African skilled migration began during the 1960s with the creation and expansion of access to education in newly independent nation-states. During the 1970s, the horizons of the newly educated shifted beyond national borders as a consequence of a range of social, economic, and political factors. By the 1980s, the promise of higher wages and an escape from political instability and conflict drew workers from around the continent to Europe, North America, and the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. Since then, out-migration rates amongst tertiaryeducated Africans to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, particularly those in the European Union, have increased dramatically.3 While the impact of this process on the continent was, and still is, often explained via the classical opposition between migration optimists and pessimists, a whole raftof microlevel studies has produced a wealth of empirical evidence that reveals the impact of out-migration on developing countries, including those in Africa, to be much more complex and heterogeneous than either of these broad macrolevel positions suggest.4

The debate on the emigration of highly skilled football labor to Europe reveals similar fault lines in the public, policy, and academic discourse on African migration more generally. On one side are optimists who argue that the migration of African footballers provides the sort of exposure to elite leagues and salaries that not only contributes to the development of football, but also allows individuals to escape poverty and potentially facilitate development at home. Others vehemently disagree, painting the loss of Africa's football resources to Europe as evidence of uneven global development and neocolonialism. This latter view was perhaps expressed most caustically by Sepp Blatter, the president of the world governing body for football, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). In an interview with the Financial Times in 2003, he described those European clubs involved in the recruitment of African labor as "neo-colonialists" who "engage in social and economic rape by robbing the developing world of its best players.

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