When the dream of big-time European club football does not materialise, an increasing number of young African footballers and players with African roots have opted for the continent's most professional leagues, where they are then able to gain experience before embarking on another attempt in Europe.
Ghislain N’Guessan is a case in point. The Franco-Ivorian, who was born in Paris, went through the junior ranks at Nantes and Padova in Italy before stalling in the second team at Tours. Now 23, the forward tells FIFA.com that he was not ready for the challenge at a younger age without the promise of first team football. “When I started out, I was not serious enough. As I scored quite often, I began to take liberties with my schedule. I had a few clubs from Italy and France interested, but they all wanted me to trial and play for the reserves.”
After a difficult first season, the regular playing time started to pay off and he scored goals regularly in his second. A physical talent, he is now eyeing a move back to Europe. “I think if a player manages to succeed [in Algeria], he can succeed everywhere. It is a tough league. It is very physical and the pressure to do well is huge. Obviously my goal is to go back and play in Europe, and I also hope to be called up by [Côte d'Ivoire]."
A growing trend
At the top levels of African football, N’Guessan's story is part of a larger trend. Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi has been watching the talent move to the continent's most competitive leagues. “We have seen an influx of players with African roots," Mezahi said. "As they often hold dual nationality, they do not need work permits and salaries are competitive."
Mezahi brings up the example of Amir Karaoui. Born in France, and a midfield talent in amateur football but unable to make the leap in his birth country, Karaoui was bought by Algerian club MC El Eulma. He impressed and won transfers to bigger clubs in Algeria, ES Setif and MC Alger, and has now been called up for the Algerian national team. He was invited back to France by Bastia, but his current terms were better in Algeria, so he decided to stay in North Africa and wait for another opening in Europe.
Mezahi says club bosses with deep pockets are often willing to lure European-born players to Africa. “A club like Club Africain have signed Tijani Belaid, Yassin Mikari, Stephane Nater and Yoann Touzghar, all of whom have played in Europe where they were born. Some have returned for the money, some are embarking on a playing adventure, while others return to get regular top-level playing time to try to make a name for themselves in CAF competitions to be offered a chance in Europe or for their national teams.”
Beyond North Africa
Although club football in North Africa has been traditionally more advanced than the rest of the continent, this trend has spread throughout Africa. Bafana Bafana captain Dean Furman moved to England at an early age and went through the Chelsea youth ranks before joining Glasgow Rangers. A number of clubs followed and the midfielder made a name for himself with Oldham Athletic and Doncaster Rovers. However, he received a lucrative offer by South African club SuperSport United last year. He opted to return home, hoping guaranteed play would see him keep his place in the national side and ensure a more high-level return to European football.
Like Furman, Angolan international Fredy has already had a lengthy stint in European football. The striker played youth football for Portuguese club Belenenses and progressed to the first team, playing regularly in the first and second division. When he found that he was not featuring as often as he wanted to, he accepted an offer from Angolan club Libolo last year and returned to the country of his birth, where the 25-year-old is currently playing.
Zimbabwe international Knowledge Musona is a perfect example that a return to Africa does not have to signal the end of a European career. The striker struggled to make an impact after first joining Bundesliga club Hoffenheim from South African club Kaizer Chiefs in 2011. A loan period with Augsburg failed to improve his fortunes and Musona returned to Chiefs on loan. In familiar surroundings the striker not only found his confidence again, he also found his scoring boots and having failed to find the net in 30 matches in Germany, he was a regular scorer for Chiefs. He has since moved back to Europe, and after 26 games his ten goals for Oostende in Belgium's Jupiler League sees him just one goal behind the league's leading scorer.