The real reason why all the talent ends up in Europe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2003, 12:00am

The robber barons are back. All of the sudden it's the 1500s again and those pillaging, plundering European imperialists have their grubby mitts all over the glittering booty. Only this time it's not gold from the Americas or diamonds from Africa and silks from Asia.

This time the robber barons are sailing the seven seas to carelessly steal from the underdeveloped world and their bounty is soccer players. At least that's the opinion of Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, soccer's governing body.

'I find it unhealthy, if not despicable, for rich clubs in Europe to send scouts shopping in Africa, South America and Asia to 'buy' the most promising players there,' Blatter wrote in The Financial Times.

'This leaves those who trained them in their early years with nothing but cash for their trouble. Dignity and integrity tend to fall by the wayside in what has become a glorified body market.'

One day later, the general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Peter Velappan, wholeheartedly agreed with Blatter. 'The AFC is also very disturbed with the actions of these mega clubs who want to buy up all the superstars,' he said, 'and who are concerned more about the commercial benefits than the football.'

Of course it's about the money, but it's much more than that. Most of these players go because their local economies are in shambles and because their domestic leagues are an absolute joke. It's not Europe's fault that clueless and totally unqualified administrators run leagues and national associations in most parts of Africa and Asia.

Look at somebody like Nigerian star Nwankwo Kanu, who plays in England for Arsenal and earns more than US$40,000 weekly. What if he said a few years back: 'You know, I can make more money in a week playing soccer in England than I can in 50 years working in Nigeria. But I am willing to turn my back on all of that and stay in Africa because the head of FIFA wants us to maintain the dignity and integrity of Nigerian soccer.'

At the time, the titular head of Nigeria's football association was the dictator General Sani Abacha, who was busy executing any and all opponents of his regime. Dignity and integrity, indeed.

Blatter is embroiled in a bitter row with Europe's 18 richest clubs, who seek compensation for their stars being called away on international duty. His latest 'neo-colonial' bombast is merely a political ploy and an effort to show the poorer associations in Africa and Asia, whose votes he covets, that he cares about the little guy. Far more disturbing are Velappan's comments.

It's part of Mr Velappan's job to convince the world that kids in Asia are dreaming of playing in Asia. But if you believe that then I've got some swampland in Monrovia and some weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to sell you. The truth is that any kid in Asia over the age of eight who is even remotely competent and creative with a soccer ball is dreaming of a future playing in Europe, not for Geylang United in front of 2,000 people in Singapore.

If Velappan wants to change anything, how about changing the cultural priorities of Asia? That would make the local leagues more appealing. In places like Hong Kong, the local authorities don't give a rat's rear end about the development of youth soccer. The property cartel that runs this town would rather gargle with razor blades than allow a piece of land to become a soccer pitch.

And almost every one of the local parents wants their kids to study more so they can become an integral part of the property cartel, not soccer stars. That's why Hong Kong's national team are ranked 142 in the world, one spot behind the Maldives with a population of 320,000, or roughly half a block of row housing in Mongkok.

Lackeys of the team's owner, clueless sycophants, run the top soccer league here. It's the exact same story in Singapore. And Velappan is also upset that regional broadcasters show too much of England's Premier League and not enough Asian action. Well, I'm sure ESPN and Star Sports don't do it to lose money. You can't force viewers to watch garbage and domestic leagues in Asia, comparatively speaking, flat out stink.

China could, and should, be a soccer powerhouse. But, once again, inept administration and backward officials are largely to blame for the fact that China is ranked 86 in the world, 14 spots back of the Ivory Coast. Now how is any of that the fault of Europe?

If anything, the national teams should be delighted that the best teams in the world are interested in some of their players. These kids can go away and actually learn something. Rich teams, or rich corporations, hand-picking the best global talent is simply the way of the world. But if you clean up your own backyard, maybe your kids won't have to go down the road to play somewhere else.