Beyond the glamor and adulation of fans, African footballers in Europe are struggling to adapt to a new environment. Two of them share their experiences.
Growing up, many young Africans harbor ambitions of becoming professional footballers in Europe and superstars. The BBC reports that around 260 million people in Africa follow the English Premier League. For some, dreams come true and a few have made it to Europe. According Football Benchmark, African players – most of whom hail from West Africa – make up around 6% of all players in Europe's 11 top leagues.
But it is a difficult path, with ups and downs.
In my recent survey of two West African footballers, Paul and John, in the German professional football league, the Bundesliga, I explored their experiences after arriving from Africa. I conducted face-to-face interviews with players in October 2021, but used pseudonyms to maintain respondent anonymity, as required by research ethics.
Paul arrived in a central European country at the age of 18, after a trial at a youth training center in his home country, and moved to Germany five years later. John came to Germany aged 18 after graduating from a football school in his home country. Environment, culture and identity have shaped their careers and experiences, as well as the evolution of their personality. They faced many challenges and struggled to fit into their new surroundings, but their determination to succeed allowed them to claim their own space.
As African footballers play more and more in European leagues, more attention needs to be given to the difficulties they may face in adapting to a new country and how clubs and football institutions can help them in this process.
Challenges for foreign footballers
Paul and John mentioned several cultural, mental and athletic challenges.
The internet and cable television create the illusion of a common global social space. In reality, there is great social diversity between (and within) societies. Paul and John expected to encounter a different culture, but adjusting to life in Germany was not easy.
The first challenge was language, which limited their communication with teammates and staff. Although most of their colleagues and coaches spoke some English, the main language of communication during training was German. Paul recalls not understanding his coach's instructions and having to rely on his teammates to translate them.
Language posed a problem for John to connect with other people outside the club and make friends. To succeed in such a competitive space where immediate results are demanded, Paul and John had to learn quickly from their teammates and through formal instruction.
The climate was an even greater challenge than the culture. Both Paul and John complained that, away from the heat of the tropics, the cold kept them from performing at their best. Paul said it was also difficult for him mentally:
I can not move. Sometimes I go into the dressing room and start crying.
Paul and John will find that sporting and behavioral standards are very high. For Paul, the “German work ethic” demanded that he maintain a strong sense of purpose. The task at hand was the most important and everything else took second place. Indiscipline, he said, had no place in German football.
Having been educated at an elite academy in his home country, John was fully accustomed to the ethos of elite football. Still, the sporting demands were higher than he was used to. He remembers the difficulties he encountered at the beginning. Everything was much more physically demanding and everyone seemed faster than him:
Everything was aggressive… I had to work hard in the gym and on the field, run faster, do everything faster.
In most African countries, life is still relatively communal, with many opportunities for socialization and contact with others. In Germany it is very different. Most people tend to maintain some degree of social distancing and privacy. Paul found social life a bit cold and formal:
Everyone is so serious… when people don't know you, it's hard to make friends.
John lived alone and could not easily form new friendships:
At the academy, I was not alone. I was not the only one cooking for me… But here I have to come alone to an empty house.
The immigration experience
Off the field, African players also live the debates on immigrants and their place in European society. The ideal immigrant is the successful one, while the “native” may be mediocre.
Overcome these challenges
Paul and John faced and adapted to the challenges of their new environment through various strategies and practices. Cultural learning played a key role. Initially through teammates and later through formal lessons, both were able to learn German.
They also streamlined the challenges as part of a professional footballer's journey, which made them much more bearable. The possibility of being a breadwinner for family and friends was an important motivation.
To cope with the loneliness, the players kept in touch with family and friends in their home country.
Paul and John's stories shed light on the cultural and environmental contexts that shape the lives of African gamers in Europe, and what lies behind the brilliance of stardom.
These challenges have a profound effect on the quality of life and career progression of migrant footballers. It's important to recognize what lies beyond the glitz and fan adulation on game day.