Out of Africa

"OUT of Africa," wrote the Roman Pliny, "always something new." Not least, you might say, when it comes to footballers. Wonderfully talented players continue to flood out of sub-Saharan Africa, to the delight and profit of European clubs. So much so that years back, Yidnekatchew Tessema, founder in 1957 of the African Confederation, opined, with anxiety: "African football must take its choice. Either we keep footballers in Africa so that we can reach the highest peaks, or we let our best elements go, thereby remaining the eternal suppliers of raw material to the favoured countries. When the big countries take away our best by naturalising them, we cannot expect noble attempts at saving African football."

The recent staging of the two-yearly African Nations Cup in, of all places, impoverished little Mali threw such questions into relief. But if one goes back to the 1966 World Cup and the challenge of Portugal, you could see all too clearly the dangers to which Tessema referred. A gifted Portuguese team sailed through to the World Cup semi-finals in England, thanks largely to the panoply of goals scored by the dazzling Eusebio, who finished top goal-scorer and a salient star of the competition. It was his four goals which turned the tide in an astonishing quarter-final against the dazzling previously unregarded North Koreans, who raced, within 20 minutes, into a three-goal lead, only for Eusebio, with his pace, his skill and his fulminating right-footed shot, to peg them back, score four times and lead his team to a 5-3 win.

Almost as important, however, was the contribution in midfield of the elegantly left-footed Mario Coluna. He came from Angola, Eusebio from Mozambique. Each took on Portuguese nationality, each coming from what was then a Portuguese colony.

But let us be objective. Things have substantially changed since then. True, two stars of the French international team which has won the last two major titles - the '98 World Cup, Euro 2000 - were African born. Marcel Desailly, that accomplished defender, now at Chelsea, once with Milan, was born in Ghana, though he came to France as a small child. Patrick Vieira, as Arsenal fans like to chant in chorus, "comes from Senegal," but learned his football in France.

Broadly speaking, however, African soccer stars, of whom there are so many, though they may come in numbers to Europe, continue to play for their countries of origin. Which, in fact, is now a massive bone of contention; not least because the African Nations Cup, somewhat provocatively, is still played every two years, where the European Championship takes place once in four years. This, inevitably, leads to tense confrontations between leading European clubs and the African countries which want their players. It is a good reason, Ken Bates, the Chairman of Chelsea, once told me, why his club sign so few African players. Though one, the left-back Celestine Babayaro, has been taken away from them for the African Cup by his native Nigeria. As has the intricately elusive forward Nwankwo Kanu from Arsenal; though on this occasion, the Nigerians have at least proved somewhat more flexible than in the past when there was a bitter battle of wills over the release of the player. This time at least the Nigerians have given Kanu an extra four important days to stay with the Gunners, rather than insisting, as they previously did, on their rights. But South Africa have bulldozed Charlton Athletic into releasing striker Shaun Bartett against the wishes of coach Alan Curbishley.

In recent World Cups, and in the Olympic Games - last won in Sydney by Cameroon - African nations have distinguished themselves. Who can forget the performances of Cameroon, and the 39-year-old Roger Milla, in the World Cup finals of 1990? the cataclysmic shock of victory over the holders Argentina in the curtain raiser, though Cameroon - bruising in defence - ended with only nine men on the field? Followed by victory over Colombia in Naples, and the narrowest of defeats there by England in the quarter-finals?

But there was a bleak side to Cameroon's appearances in the finals of 1990 and 1994; confrontations between players and officials. Which in 1990 led to the dropping of the 'keeper and captain Joseph Antoine Bell who could not contain his exasperation.

And here we have it. The eternal dilemma of sub-Saharan African football. The glorious profusion of natural talent, the abysmal, inadequate even corrupt administration. That superb attacker, George Weah, once voted the world's best footballer, has told me how he, out of his own pocket, had to pay the expenses of his Liberian team when it travelled, because the administrators had made off with the money.

African footballers tend to benefit from the very fact that they're not living in highly technological countries. Just as donkey's years ago British boys perfected their skills in the streets and cobbled alleys, so African footballers will sometimes tell you how they would go out and entertain themselves by juggling with fruit. They didn't need coaches to show them how to play.

Indeed it was not so long ago that an African Nations tournament seemed to have been poisoned by the tactical obsessions of European coaches who with their cautious practices subdued their players' natural ebullience and sense of adventure.

The truth is, however, that when an African player wants to make a decent living, he must still come to Europe. But he needn't be naturalised.