Football is undoubtedly the most followed sport in the world. It is also perhaps, at the top level, one of the most lucrative occupations under the sun.
Despite being well-paid, most professional footballers tend to struggle financially after retirement, mostly due to a lack of wealth management skills. Such cases are prevalent in Sub Sahara Africa, especially Ghana, where footballers who used to be exposed to millions in their prime undergo unbelievable transitions into paupers after they hang their boots. The financial difficulty that these retirees go through due to their lack of investment in their hay days makes them a burden on their families and communities.
One may ask: what at all has influenced a young Ghanaian sports writer to write on such a strange subject? Well, in my few years following the most popular sport in the country, I have had private conversations with football administrators, fans, family members, some colleague scribes in the industry and indeed, footballers themselves – and I have also paid attention to the airwaves enough to notice that most stakeholders seem to believe that Ghanaian footballers are “ungrateful”.
Ungrateful? In what sense? As in, not showing appreciation to the people who help them? But how? And why?
Many notable stakeholders have alluded to this. “Most Ghanaian footballers are ungrateful!”
This quote is from former AshantiGold and current Somalia national coach Bashir Hayford. It was in a 2018 interview with Radio Silver in Sekondi, and it was within the context of how he had helped national team stars Samuel Inkoom and Harrison Afful who plays for MLS side Columbus Crew SC without ever receiving any appreciation in return.
Former Ghana international Joe Addo, in an appearance on GHOne TV’s “Football Legends Night” show, also claimed that a majority of Ghanaian footballers easily forget where they come from when they get to the top. The former Hearts of Oak defender also said he had been trying, over the years, to advise young footballers not to turn their backs on those who helped them on their way up.
I decided to do my own examination of this popular “Ghanaian footballers are ungrateful!” refrain in an attempt to understand it. My findings showed that this assessment is mostly made about Ghanaian footballers playing abroad, and there may indeed be some truth in there, albeit with explanations.
Many Ghanaian footballers who are considered ‘ungrateful’ at one point in time grow out of touch – and trust – with their intermediaries (agents), former football administrators and coaches, friends, sports journalists and to some extent, even family members, who they see as not protecting their interest as footballers.
I’ll attempt to use my experience fraternizing with many foreign-based Ghanaian footballers to break this down.
AGENTS Intermediaries or football agents are an integral part of the football ecosystem, especially the club football sector, which thrives on the complex business of transfers.
Before any player gets to sign for any professional club, the said player must work with or through an intermediary who serves as a bridge in negotiations between clubs. Agents’ jobs, however, have evolved to be broader: they now involve protecting the interest and ensuring the welfare of the player, both on and off the pitch.
But, most often than not, this role, especially in relation to Ghanaian footballers, turns sour and goes in the opposite direction. There are several instances of football intermediaries, mostly foreigners based in Europe, exploiting desperate young talents who want to play football professionally in Europe.
I have been involved in countless conversations with football intermediaries, both the good ones and the bad ones. I also happen to have acquainted myself with footballers who have been victims of greedy intermediaries. One of such incidents, which has always remained fresh in my mind, happened on the 31st of January 2017 in Gabon, where I was covering the AFCON 2017.
I was on a train from the capital Libreville to Franceville, where the Black Stars of Ghana was scheduled to play eventual winners of the tournament, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. At about 01:00 am CAT in the thick forests to the Western part of Gabon, I had a call on my Whatsapp messenger. It was from one young Ghanaian footballer, 20 at the time, playing in Scandinavia. I could sense confusion and uncertainty in his tone. I later found out he was indirectly left alone by his agent to decide on his future within four (4) hours. Later that morning, he was either going to be on a flight to Spain, or to the United States, or the Middle East, where he would join his club teammates on a preseason camp.
At about 2:58 am CAT in the woods of Gabon, we (myself and the Player) had made a decision for him to join his colleagues in Abu-Dhabi, UAE. I explained to him, reasonably, why it was better to stay put and not go to the MLS or a team in Andalusia, as his agent was advising. I told him that it was not always advisable moving to an ‘attractive’ country like Spain or the USA just because one believes he has the talent to succeed. Transfers are complex. There are many factors at play. I gave an example of a more-talented colleague of his from Ghana, also under the same agency as him, who was struggling to break into the team B of a particular club, not based on talent but on the language barrier. The player stayed on at the club and joined his colleagues in Abu Dhabi, sparking problems with his agent.
Two years later, in April 2019, the same player who had called me on Whatsapp, now playing for a different Scandinavian team, sent me loads of messages that included a tensed conversation between him and his agent, with the latter literally raining curses on him because the former had decided not to extend his contract with him. The agent called the player an “ungrateful” soul. The player, now 22, perhaps could have been playing regularly in one of the top six leagues in Europe, but he is still walloping in the snowy Scandinavian country without regular playing time, all because he has had issues with the agency that brought him to Europe.
There are several such cases occurring every day and as most of the agents know these young footballers are desperate to be on a plane to Europe. The agents fly into Ghana in droves to prey on the ignorance of young footballers and use them as money-making machines in Europe.
I once witnessed a contract between a young player and an agent, where the mandatory agent fee of 10 percent as stipulated by FIFA was breached. In the intermediary contract that I read, which I later advised the player not to sign, the agency – along with two other agencies – would be receiving 33 percent each of the signing-on fee if the player was able to make it in Europe and sign for a club, with the player receiving 1 percent. How on earth would someone with your interest at heart do such a thing? Was this agent really helping this young lad to realize his dream of playing professionally in Europe?
It is clear that a Ghanaian footballer who has experienced such potential exploitation would become paranoid – and even ruthless – in dealings with intermediaries, a demeanour which could make the player appear cold and ‘ungrateful’.
EUROPE Serious commercial football is to Europe as serious commercial basketball is to the United States of America, and just as a young talented basketball player wants to play in the NBA, the same way a young talented footballer wants to play in Europe – and hopefully, the UEFA Champions League. Young players work hard with dreams of ending up in Europe, where they can chart a path of money and fame, like the likes of George Weah, Abedi Pele, Tony Yeboah, Jay Jay Okocha, Samuel Eto’o, Michael Essien and many more. Yet, when a young player goes through the mill and finally reaches Europe, it often becomes a case of “be careful what you wish for”, as their talents and legacy drown in the deep seas of money and fame.
Some of these Ghanaian footballers, hitherto leaving for Europe, are mostly in the care of a manager of sorts who provides them with a wide range of support: buying equipment, giving upkeep money, taking them for trials, and sometimes even providing accommodation and care. Other players, before leaving for Europe, may have been involved in relationships or marriages, some perhaps with a child. The point is that before a player leaves for Europe, there are always people in his life who stand a risk of losing constant contact with them as a result of their departure.
For the first few months of the players’ stay in Europe, the players still will be in contact with such people back in Ghana. But at a certain point, the players begin to buy into the luxury and freedom of their new standard of living, a situation that weakens relationships with people back home. Some players, because of loneliness, begin to become vulnerable around European ladies – or African ladies born/living in Europe – who constantly hang around them and feed their ego, eventually luring them into relationships.
How do I know these details? I happen to be close to most of such players. I talk to them. I manage their social media accounts. I get to experience their lifestyle up close.
These ladies in Europe, mostly opportunists, begin to drain the footballer’s time and money, also weakening the footballer’s relationships with their managers and partners back home.
Conversations I had with ‘partners’ and ‘managers’ of Europe-based Ghanaian footballers, especially those based in Kumasi, gave me interesting insight. According to them, when the footballers move to Europe and become well-to-do, they begin to drift away, not only from partners and managers but away from where they come from too. So for instance, a player will drift away from Kumasi, where he once lived, after he makes it in Europe. He will buy apartments and houses in the capital, Accra, and cut ties with his people back in Kumasi, reconstructing his inner circle with new faces influenced by his new European girlfriend and other ‘rich’ acquaintances. Their partners and managers back in Kumasi inevitably start to feel betrayed and begin labelling such players as ungrateful.
There are other interesting cases, which see the footballers feeling overburdened – or perhaps, blackmailed – by people who have helped them in the past. A player based in Italy told me a man once bought him a pair of Nike boots when he started out in Kumasi. This man would later use the boots as a reference to extort money from the player when he saw him playing in Europe, obviously assuming that the player had made it and was in a position to repay his kindness. The player, at a point, felt exhausted with the man’s constant money-asking that he decided to cut him off – something he eventually did, but not without paying the price of having the man spread his name around as ‘ungrateful’. Many other footballers I spoke to had similar stories. Some even alluded to junior national team coaches giving them opportunities (call-ups) in exchange for monetary favors in the future.
A Denmark-based footballer once told me: “Stak, do you think we us footballers are ungrateful? No, we are not. Because of what we go through to get to Europe, including what some of our junior national team coaches do to us, we try to ignore certain people and allow different people into our lives when we reach this stage because we need to stay focused. The fact that we cut of people does not make us ungrateful…there is always a side to the story you may not know.”
CALL-GIRLS (‘SLAY QUEENS’) One may find this part of my feature to be amusing. In fact, I would also have found it amusing if I was not authoring this piece.
Call-girls? According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a call-girl is basically a female (prostitute) who arranges her meetings via telephone. With the dominance of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat dictating communication these days, many young ladies have specialized in the trading of sex for money. They operate secret accounts where they post sexually attractive photos and videos as bait to lure many males seeking sexual satisfaction. Unfortunately, from experience, the target market of most of such call-girls is Ghanaian footballers playing abroad.
While managing the social media accounts of most of these footballers, I see call-girls who virtually sit on social media platforms 24/7, some stalking players and others directly messaging to get their attention. The strategy they use is to conceal their identity as call-girls – they go in as wolves in sheeps’ clothing, as ‘good girls’ looking for relationships, which serve as an effective trap that most foreign-based Ghanaian footballers fall into, pushed by their loneliness. Some of the players end up getting married to these call-girls disguised as regular ladies, and by the time they find out they have been conned, it is usually too late. The call-girls infiltrate the lives of the footballers, milking them dry and influencing the severing of the player’s already existing relationships.
It gets more sinister. Apparently, some of these call-girls are planted in the players’ lives by people seeking to extract money from them indirectly. A Ghanaian footballer based in Southern Italy and playing in the Serie C told me about how a former teammate when he used to play at Ghanaian club Tema Youth FC, elaborately set up a call-girl for him to date. The footballer later found out that his former teammate had done so to get money from him through the disguised call-girl, as he had felt that the footballer – with whom he had lived under the same roof in Tema for half a decade before his departure to Europe – was not being helpful enough as a ‘brother’. This made the footballer paranoid about having former teammates and friends around him, something that earned him the tag of being ‘ungrateful’.
BOOTLICKERS Bootlickers, people who behave in servile or obsequious manners towards a person to gain favor or goodwill, are among the most dangerous people who operate around footballers. These ‘yes-men’ pose as angels who display unflinching yet toxic loyalty, constantly praising players, feeding their egos and giving dishonest, sugar-coated feedback, suggestions and advice.
In football’s vast world of widespread dishonesty, most players crave loyal people, but this craving is often taken advantage of by bootlickers, who use it to warm their way into the footballers’ lives in order to benefit from their wealth. Unfortunately, in my experience of working with many Ghanaian footballers abroad, I have discovered bootlickers in fans, friends and even sports journalists.
I will address the journalists bit since it is my field. A good sports journalist in general builds relationships with athletes, managers, administrators, and agents to aid him or her in acquiring exclusive stories and interviews. Any other benefit that comes from such relationships, in my opinion, is a bonus. But in our part of the world, some of these sports journalists try to associate themselves with players, especially those plying their trade in Europe, just to get favors – mostly in gift and money form. These journalists end up as profuse praise singers of the players, abnormally hyping them with stories and commentary, all in a bid to cash in.
A senior colleague once mentioned to me in a private conversation that most journalists write hype-stories on players and send an invoice to the player at the end of the month for payment. You wonder if they are practicing journalism or Public Relations. These journalists pump the egos of the players so much that they (players) begin to have an unusually high opinion of themselves and begin to look down on many other people, including their ‘day-one’ acquaintances and even family members.
Indeed, some journalists work their way so dishonestly into a player’s life that they end up bad-mouthing other people in the player’s life in order to monopolize all benefits. The journalists, like many other bootlickers, end up being so close to the player, becoming a ‘gate-keeper’ – the one through whom anybody, including the player’s family, friends, and managers – have to go through before interacting with the player.
Even more appalling, there are journalists who serve as ‘pimps’, arranging for young ladies – especially those in tertiary education institutions – to sleep with players.
It is common to see many other bootlickers – including fans – who follow players around, singing and shouting praise, displaying paraphernalia featuring the player, and forming fan clubs all in a bid to get into the player’s inner circle and freeze out other people who would eventually see the player as ‘ungrateful’.
FAMILY MEMBERS Most players who make it to Europe end up becoming burdened by the responsibility of lifting their entire family out of poverty, a responsibility that almost seems impossible and one that they fail at, attracting tags of being ‘ungrateful’.
A player who excels in Europe and makes money becomes his family’s saviour and redeemer. He becomes an ATM that every member of the family goes to, each determined to lock down their share of their kinsman’s wealth, which puts a strain on the player’s finances and well-being.
This causes the player to recoil into his shell, confused by the pressure. He begins to start refusing help to even deserving family members who have helped him in the past.
He becomes cautious. He becomes defensive. He becomes, as we love to label, ‘ungrateful’.
BY: STAK SOTTIE