Football instead of school
The late afternoon sun is beginning to descend from its daytime peak and the atmosphere is quite relaxed and airy in Sacré-Coeur, a neighbourhood in the southwest of the Dakar metropolis, Senegal. Dozens of youths gather on a dusty ground across the street kitted in football jerseys of various European soccer clubs worn under sport bibs that divided them into two teams. A man in his thirties is in the middle with a whistle as the young athletes passionately compete for the ball. He occasionally blows to signal a foul play or to dish out a few words of caution or tactical instructions, and then, play resumes again.
After about an hour and a half, the session comes to an end and the footballers sat down to have some rest and change their kits. Abdu, Sarr and Camara argued among themselves about a pass that one of them did not make during the training session and discussed their teamwork for an upcoming match with another club. It is just a normal day’s training session at a local amateur youth football club, many of which dot the Dakar metropolis and region.
Across West Africa, similar amateur football clubs are found all over the growing urban centres and the adjoining suburbs. The aspiring footballers in these clubs are some of the most energetic and spirited youth anyone could come across anywhere in the world. Driven by their dreams of football stardom, they put many hours of their week into training and participating in football matches with the hope of being spotted by scouts or signed by football agents working assisting aspiring footballers seeking moves to European football clubs.
Football offers the much-needed hope of a better future
The narratives of the athletes show that limited opportunities for social mobility amidst a growing youthful population and the rise of African stars in Europe have contributed to a group of youth whose vision of the future is largely, if not solely, built around a career in professional football and migration to a European country. Abdu, 16, reveals the underlying class and economic issues that are at the heart of the youth’s quest. From a humble background, his mother does petty trading in the neighbourhood from which she supports the family. Abdu’s motivation for taking up football is quite clear and he minces no words in highlighting his family’s struggles to make ends meet and his hope that achieving football stardom would change their fortunes: “I’d like to be successful, have money… My family is poor and I want to succeed to be able to help my mum… She has really supported me and wants to see me succeed because she believes if I make it, life will be better for the family.”
Poverty and limited opportunities for social mobility within the local economy remain the driving force behind the desire to migrate to Europe through football. Africa’s population has been growing at about 2.5% per annum in the last couple of years with about sixty percent of its 1.2 billion people below the age of 25. However, the population growth has not been matched with a corresponding growth in the economy and meaningful employment opportunities. In this less than optimal economic climate, football offers the much-needed hope of a better future for the many talented youths across the rapidly urbanizing West African landscape. In the absence of alternative opportunities, it provides an anchor upon which their daily lives are organized and upon which to build the hope of escaping poverty and providing a better life for self and family.
Todays superstars also rose from humble backgrounds
While dwindling economic opportunities at home make it harder for many youths to have access to meaningful work, a few talented footballers who have moved abroad have achieved great wealth and fame. This has motivated many others to believe that they may achieve similar breakthrough. The influence of African stars in Europe comes alive through Camara, 15. Alluding to the success of his Senegalese compatriots in Europe, he expresses how they inspire his own dreams: “I would like to be a professional and be famous like the others abroad.”
African footballers in Europe such as Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, or Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o before them, inspire a belief in many talented West African youth of the possibility of achieving social mobility through football migration. Like the aspiring youth footballers, some of these superstars above rose from humble backgrounds where daily life was a struggle to overcome the odds stacked against them. Having seen these players breakthrough from backgrounds similar theirs to wealth and global stardom, they draw inspiration from their success more than they could from any other pathway to social mobility.
“Football is the only thing I’m doing”
Preparing for adulthood in many West African societies usually follows either of two paths. The first involves schooling which prepares one for a job in the government departments or the private sector, especially in the urban areas. The second involves a period of apprenticeship to learn a business such as carpentry or auto mechanic, which may also follow after some period of basic education. However, for many of the aspiring youth footballers, their hope of a secure life is planned on neither path as opportunities for the desired good life are few and far between. Even for the educated, suitable employment that pays a living wage is hard to come by and for youths from poor backgrounds, life changing education is either scarcely available or does not inspire much hope.
Lacking access to education or not convinced enough that education holds the promise to a better future, many of the youth footballers, with the support of their families, have chosen to wholly invest their time and hedge their future on the gamble of a professional career and the hope of migrating to a European soccer league. This has led many to more or less abandon all other alternative pathways to independent adult life in their communities. Ibrahim, 15, dropped out of school to focus on training at his club with the support of his father, an artisan, and mother, a house wife. He says he dropped out of school so that he could put more effort into his football training and focus on his ambition of becoming a professional athlete: “I couldn’t cope with school and my parents were not really keen about me continuing… I dropped out of school at the fourth grade, and football is the only thing I’m doing.”
The situation is similar for Sarr, 16, who has never attended a regular school but receives koranic education at a local madrasa. “I want to become a professional player and dedicate all my life to playing football,” he says. “That’s the only thing I’m doing right now, I don’t have another job… Football is all I have.”
Only few opportunities for a professional career
Despite the thousands of youth who invest their time in developing their talent and football skills, there are very few opportunities for a professional career in the local football league. Moreover, a contract with a local football club does not pay significant wages. Among the youths, there is the acknowledgement that the dreams of football stardom and economic emancipation which they hope for may lie beyond the shores of Dakar and somewhere in Europe. Salifou, 16, expressed his wish to move to Europe: “All my ambition is to move to France and reach my dreams. I want to go because Senegalese football is too challenging due to the large number of players.”
Failure is not even thought about or considered a possibility
The pitfalls of throwing all of one’s time and hope into the football project appear obvious but not much so to the aspiring youth footballers. Despite the fact that only few before them have achieved such lofty heights that they hope for, most are filled with optimism that their luck may be different. For some, failure is not even thought about or considered a possibility. Konate, 16, dropped out of school at the first grade because his parents were unable to pay for his education. He hangs on his dream that football would offer him the opportunity that he has lacked as he unflinchingly remarks: “Football is the only thing I’m doing. I rarely think about the possibility of failure in my career”.
Despite their optimism and hard work, the dream of a professional career in football or migration to Europe will never materialize for the majority of the athletes. The opportunities for a professional career in the domestic football league are limited, and rarely pay meaningful wages, while the likelihood of being spotted by a European club remain very remote. Moreover, a trip abroad may not result in an offer of a contract, especially when such trips are made to trial events on a short-stay visa that requires the athlete to return home at the end. Time spent honing football skills may not yield any opportunity for a livelihood but such effort could have been better invested in learning a business applicable in the local economy. The majority of the athletes will be left to face adult life in their home countries with neither formal education nor trade training that would be useful in finding alternative means of livelihood, even if not significantly rewarding. Such a situation places the youths in a precarious position that the effects may be felt across a lifetime.
As the sun dims into the skies to the west, Abdu, already exhausted for the day, ties the laces of his soccer boots together and hangs them over his neck. He exchanges pleasantries with Sarr and Camara while he makes his way home as darkness gradually takes over the streets. One thing for certain in Dakar is that the morning will break with the sun but he cannot say for sure what the future holds for his dreams of football stardom or if at all he will ever make it to the green fields of Europe one day.
Ikechukwu Ejekwumadu, a Nigerian, recently completed his doctoral thesis at the Institute of Sports Science, University of Tübingen (Germany).