In the past 20 years the footballing talent of Africans has been fully exploited by clubs all over Europe. Kalusha Bwalya, whose spectacular performances in Belgium and the Netherlands, helped pave the way for those many more to follow, talks about the pleasure and sacrifice of competing in the world's richest leagues.
Kalusha was 23 when scouts from Belgium club Cercle Bruges instructed their bosses they had discovered a player whose left foot could prove just as magical on the green fields of Europe as the dirt fields of Zambia. By the mid-80s, transfer fees were rocketing and the best from South America had already been snapped up by the top clubs in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and to a lesser extent England. Napoli had broken the world transfer record when they signed Diego Armando Maradona from Barcelona for $7.5m in 1984, but even less than extraordinary performers from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and the rest were commanding high fees and salaries.
The African alternative
As an alternative supply source, Africa became an option. Without setting the finals' alight, their nations had performed reasonably at the FIFA World Cup and there was general acknowledgement in the game that the Mother Continent possessed the raw talent to compete with the very best. And so in order to compete with bigger clubs that were already utilising marketing methods to increase the wealth gap even further, Europe's not-so-rich teams gambled. In 1986, the management of Cercle Bruges came to a decision to risk $25,000 on a Zambian midfielder called Kalusha Bwalya.
They did not regret it.
"It was more difficult to get into Europe in those days," understates Kalusha. "Then you had to be the best of the best - there was Abedi Pele, George Weah and Roger Milla. Many more great players never had the chance to play in Europe so it was a wonderful opportunity."
Kalusha was already into his early 20s and, coming from a footballing environment, pretty savvy too. Nevertheless the move to European wonderland was not an easy one.
"It's tough going from nowhere to somewhere. Everyone wants to be your friend so you have to make good judgements and that varies from person to person," he admits. "A lot depends on what a player does off the pitch as much as on it. Once you get in good or bad company, it will influence your performance on the pitch."
The Zambian's introduction was relatively painless and things went right at the right times for him to prosper. However balancing club and country commitments tested even the considerable debating powers of King Kalu.
Agents and salaries
"You cannot be in the middle, sometimes either you defy your club or betray your country," he adds. "In Africa where flight connections are not fully developed, a player could miss several days on international duty. So if you are a first team starter, it can be very difficult for the club to support you. There was always this divided loyalty that placed the African player in difficulty."
The emergence of football agents and the increase in salaries in the modern game has only served to intensify the dilemma. While many players continue to fly and play on the same day, as the Great Kalu did himself on numerous occasions, others, used to more lavish, executive-style conditions at their clubs, are reluctant to muck in when their association calls, except for the "big" competitions. It is a tendency that has posed selection problems for many coaches in Africa.
There could be a ray of sunshine though in this bleak predicament. Kalusha believes FIFA's more unified international calendar will help, something necessary for a developing continent where footballing success is becoming increasingly identified with nationhood.
"This year has been the first when African (Cup of Nations) and world cup qualifiers are combined in one match and it has helped clubs a lot in justifying a player's release," he ventures. "But as Africans, who are generally more relaxed, we also have a responsibility not to dilly dally and to maintain a professional approach. That means returning to clubs immediately after games."
As a national team coach, Kalusha himself wants the bread and butter of his side to come from Zambia's local league with the dessert of overseas based players saved for crucial matches.
"We are getting close to where we want to be," he goes on. "In the last nine months you can see there is more sacrifice. Players are listening more, the public's support is helping too and that is a big plus. More than anything it is good to see people coming back to the game."
Such is the status of Kalusha in Zambian football, his call rarely goes unanswered but there are increasing signs throughout the continent that there is enough room for Africans to perform for club and country. As ever, the continent's success in the next FIFA World Cup™ will bear this out.