African footballers blanket the globe
© AFP

It is common conviction that the majority of African footballers seek to advance their careers with a lucrative transfer to Europe, preferably to one of the glamour clubs where they can find fame and fortune. Economic circumstance drives the dreams of young footballers in the dusty streets of Africa, and their desire is fuelled not only by the prospect of gold and glory but also the desire to provide for their family and friends through their ability and skills.

But while the leagues of England, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain may still be the destinations of choice - and full of Africans they are - footballers from the continent are increasingly plying their professional trade throughout the world of football, able to earn a living from Albania to Yemen. In the space of some 25 years, this sporting diaspora has gone from a small and elite trickle of talent to countries like France, Belgium and Portugal, all with strong colonial links, to a vast exodus destined for almost every corner of the globe.

Even in the early 1990s, African footballers were exotic oddities even in the major leagues, but they are commonplace today - across almost all divisions. As prejudicial barriers have been eclipsed by hero worship directed toward the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba, so economic fences have been cut elsewhere. The fall of the iron curtain opened new markets in Eastern Europe, and the idea that African footballers can make a living playing the game from Iceland across to Kazakhstan is now widely accepted and proven. But outside of Europe, there have been chances for Africans too, some relatively new but some a common destination for as long as the last 40 years.

From new world to old
The old North American Soccer League always had a quota of Africans, most famously a coterie from South Africa including the trio of Kaizer Motaung, Jomo Sono and Ace Ntsoelengoe. Several were also invited as marquee players when Major League Soccer was launched in 1996. Doctor Khumalo was there representing the new South Africa, although the midfielder was overshadowed by the prolific scoring of Vitalis ‘Digital’ Takawira from Zimbabwe.

This season, MLS clubs feature over 30 African-born players on their books, with Gambia and Ghana combining for almost a dozen themselves. The Nyassi twins - Sainey and Sanna - have represented the Gambian national team, as has Mamadou "Futty" Danso, who wears number 98 at new MLS club Portland. Others internationals based in MLS are goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul (Senegal), Steve Zakuani (Congo DR), Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone) and Nizar Khalfan of Tanzania, who is at new Canadian franchise Vancouver Whitecaps. Proving the point is Senegal-born Birahim Diop, who returned to the league in 2010 after eight years away playing in Colombia and Moldova.

The Middle East, with the allure of the footballing petro dollar, has always attracted Africans, many following ancient trading routes. Players from Kenya and Tanzania, for example, sail regularly for Oman, and Ethiopia and Somalia have steadily supplied clubs in Yemen. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have consistently scoured the African market, invariably with good results.

Algerian pair Rabah Madjer and Ali Benarbia proved pioneers in Qatar, while Senegal’s Moussa Ndao was the first foreigner to finish top scorer in the Saudi league in 1994, a proven goal getter being the ultimate find for any footballing proprietor in that part of the world. A look at the current AFC Champions League scoring charts reveals that Africans have been scoring goals when it matters. Côte d'Ivoire’s Abdul Kader Keita, Abdelmalek Ziaya of Algeria and Morocco’s Nabil Daoudi all in contention for the golden boot representing Al Sadd of Qatar, Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and Emirates of UAE respectively.

Goals around the globe
India has long imported Nigerian footballers to boost the standard of their league and the top six all-time goalscorers in the I-League hail from Africa: five Nigerians, headed by Odafe Onyeka Okolie, and a Ghanaian. This season is no different, with Okolie atop the scoring charts again, just ahead of his compatriot Ranty Martins Soleye, who is also the second all-time scorer in the league.

Ibrahima Toure of Senegal, who was a junior at Metz in France, has become a legend in Iran where his goals for Peykan, Persepolis and champions Sepahan make him a much-valued figure. On the other side of Asia, Indonesia has a large contingent of footballers from Liberia with former Olympique Lyon striker James Debbah still plying his trade aged 43 – albeit sweeping at the back of defence. Debbah’s former national team-mate Sunday Seah, who played in Indonesia as both a goalkeeper and striker, is now at Ayeyawady United in Myanmar.

Also in Asia, Ghana’s Derek Asamoah has signed for Pohang Steelers in the Korea Republic, and promising youngster Adama Traore is enjoying his time at Gold Coast United in Australia so much that he is considering changing his international affiliation from Côte d’Ivoire to his new home. Only a handful of Africans have played in the Copa Libertadores, the most successful being Prince Koranteng Amoako, who was in the Sporting Cristal team from Peru that lost the 1997 final to Cruzeiro of Brazil. At this point, South America is the last market without a sizable group of Africans, but for how much longer?