Migration of Nigerian Footballers “Oh Lord, you are the Lord who remembered John Obi Mikel, Christiano Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho – remember us as you remembered them”

Migration of Nigerian Footballers
“Oh Lord, you are the Lord who remembered John Obi Mikel, Christiano Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho – remember us as you remembered them”
Chuka Onwumechili
Howard University


While several scholars such as Darby (2000), Lanfranchi and Taylor (2001), and Bale (2004) have reported on migration of African footballers, Onwumechili (2010, 2002) has specifically identified migration of Nigerian footballers in three stages: (a) an earlier stage representing negligible migration of players for academic study, (b) second stage identifying a surge migration of players exclusively for academic advancement, and (3) a later stage identifying migration to further professional playing careers. Football player migration from Nigeria to foreign countries has been around from the 1950s; it shifted from a trickle to a surge at the turn into the 1970s and has increased ever since. Unfortunately, this conception of stages has not been empirically confirmed nor have effects of such migration been fully linked to increased global migration of international players from peripheral nations to global economic markets and subsequent effects on the national teams of peripheral nations. This paper tracks incidences of migration of Nigerian footballers for the first time, comparing decades of migration. In addition, it investigates the impact of those migratory periods on media coverage of the national team and stability of playing squads, among other important variables.



Studies of footballer migration have been associated with increased globalization of the game (Darby, 2008 & 2000; Darby, Akindes, & Kirwin, 2007; Bale, 2004 & 1994; Lanfranchi & Taylor, 2001; and Arbena, 1994).  These studies have taken varying perspectives with some investigating the phenomenon from an economic perspective (Onwumechili, 2010; Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001) and others from the process of de-skilling and exploitation (Bale, 2004; Darby, 2002; Kidd and Donnalley, 2000;  Henly, 1998; and Arbena, 1994). Many of these studies focus on migration of African football labor as would be expected because a significant aspect of modern migration of footballers has been from the poorer regions in South America and Africa to leagues in Europe and Asia.  Though Nigeria has been partly covered in those studies, few of them focus solely on Nigerian footballer migration. Onwumechili (2010) devoted a chapter on migration of Nigerian footballers identifying three stages of such migration, but provided few data, apart from anecdotes supporting the existence of stages.
Onwumechili categorizes migration stages in terms of chronological years. The first began in the 1940s and ended in the 1960s; the second occurred in the 1970s; and third stage began in the 1980s and continues today. His 2010 work argues that the first stage was the infant stage when very few footballers migrated; the second when most migrated for educational purposes; and the third when they migrated to play professional football. Unfortunately, there is no empirical data provided to support these stages. Therefore, this paper seks to confirm that claim by asking this question as it relates to migration of players from the national team:

RQ1: What differences mark decades of football player migration from Nigeria’s national team to foreign countries?

Furthermore, Onwumechili (2009) also suggested that television coverage “…of European leagues create a taste for European football among Nigerian fans. That taste creates the impetus for similar coverage of the European leagues in Nigerian newspapers and by Nigerian radio stations” (p. 453). In his study, he found that Nigerian newspapers, as well as television, dedicated a significant part of space and time to coverage of foreign football to the detriment of the local game.  Giulianotti (2004) made similar claims pointing to migration of top local players leading to fall of spectatorship in local stadia and affects media coverage in peripheral nations. This leads to our next research question:

RQ2: Is media coverage of the Nigerian national team affected by football player migration?

Lanfranchi and Taylor (2001) have proposed that increased migration of football labor has served to extinguish differences among national teams. They pointed to increasing similarity in styles of play. It is also likely, however, that there are more measurable effects of increased migration. For instance, naturalization of migrating players may also have improved some national teams (see also Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001) and affected its player composition, among other possible effects. Thus, the following question in this study is:

RQ2: Are there effects on playing squads of the national team over the period? If so, what types of effects?

This paper explores the above questions by first reviewing literature on football labor migration, then reviewing literature as it currently pertains to Nigeria, explaining methods used for collecting data for this study, reporting, and then discussing findings for the study.


The literature on football labor migration is extensive, covering the topic globally and with some narrowed to coverage of African player migration. For our purposes, we review football migration history from a global perspective before focusing on the discussion of the African footballer migration from the two most widely reported perspectives – de-skilling and economic necessity.

Brief Historical Review

There are numerous literatures on football labor migration from a global perspective. Among these is the work of Lanfranchi and Taylor (2001), who make several key points about early migration in football. First is the role of English and Swiss footballers in spreading football across Europe. Second, migration was not only about footballers, but also migration of football administrators who came from bankers and engineers traveling to foreign countries and founding football clubs. These travels led to founding of clubs like Barcelona in Spain and Sporting Club de Nimes in France. Third is migration of South Americans of dual-citizenship to countries like Italy and Spain. Among these were great names such as Argentina’s Julio Libanotti and Raimundo Orsi. These were replicated by Portugal, who years later recruited top players such as Mario Coluna and Eusebio da Silva Ferreira from its African colonies to play for Portugal (Armstrong, 2004). Fourth, Lanfranchi and Taylor point to Ghanaian Arthur Wharton as the first Black to play in Britain where he featured for several clubs including Preston North End and Sheffield United from 1880s until the 1890s and then “an Egyptian arts student. . .” (p.29) being among several foreign players playing in Naples, Italy as early as 1910.
Recent literature points to a remarkable increase in numbers of migrant footballers playing in Europe. Filippo Ricci (2000 and 2001) reports on a staggering number of Africans playing in Europe in the 1999 and 2000 years. According to Ricci’s data, there were as many as 894 of these footballers in Europe in 1999. This was over 100% increase over the 350 figure mentioned by Lafranchi and Taylor in the mid-1990s. There are an increasing number of such footballers playing in lesser known leagues in Asia such as Vietnam, Thailand, and India.


The departure of players Mario Coluna, Eusebio (Mozambique to Portugal), Larbi Ben Barek (Morocco to France), Mohammed Maouche, Rachid Mekhloufi, and Mustapha Zitouni (Algeria to France) and subsequent unavailability of the best of African footballers in their home country’s league serve as the foundation for those who theorize about de-skilling of the African continent. In essence, this phenomenon is linked to economic imperialism where wealthy Western countries develop their economies by simultaneously impoverishing poor developing countries as demonstrated in trade imbalances, exploitation of raw materials from the developing world by paying low prices, and selling goods manufactured from those materials at exorbitant prices to countries from which raw materials were initially expropriated. In soccer, the equivalence is the selection and transfer of players, at little or no costs, from local leagues of Africa. These players are then sold across Europe at exorbitant prices whereas their local African clubs continue to exist with very little funds and the African public is deprived of watching their heroes at the local stadium.
The idea of de-skilling has not changed much from early to mid-20th century. Darby (2002: 170) argues that:

 “The de-skilling of domestic African football by elite European leagues has continued          unabated in the post-colonial era and indeed continues to follow a pattern which has its       roots in colonialism. For example, during the 1999-2000 season, of 118 Africans           currently playing their club football in Portugal, almost 69 percent hail from the former           Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau.”

Similar colonial patterns are seen with Africans playing in France and coming from former French colonies in Africa, and in Belgium where a significant number of African players come from former colony of Democratic Republic of Congo. The situation led to a most cited quote from the President of the Confederation for African Football (CAF), Issa Hayatou, in 1998 which is reproduced below:

            After the flight of brains, Africa is confronted with the muscle exodus. The rich countries     import the raw material – talent – and they often send to the continent their less valuable     technicians. The inequality of the exchange terms is indisputable. It creates a situation of          dependence – The elite of African football is out of the continent, hence the pauperization      of some clubs and whose evil effect is the net decrease of the game quality and of the               level of most of the national championships. Prestigious clubs are regularly deprived of      their best elements and even the juniors cannot escape the voracity of the recruiting    agents, who profit from the venality of their leaders. (CAF News, p. 37)

Bale (2004), from this perspective, adds that mass migration of African players has additional adverse effects. He suggested: “the first is the establishment of ‘farm clubs’ by European mega-clubs in Africa; the second is the exploitation of young African recruits in Europe; and the third alludes to the role of ‘agents’ in the exploitation of African sports talent domiciled in Europe” (p. 237). Bale presents evidence to support his case by citing the establishment of the Ajax farm club in South Africa to siphon talents to Ajax Amsterdam of Holland. Ajax Cape Town of South Africa does not intend to become a major club in the world of football as the likes of Ajax Amsterdam, but to serve solely as a talent farm for its European equivalent. In essence, Ajax Cape Town resigns to losing its top players to the European club and eternally situates itself as producer of “raw material” for furtherance of Ajax Amsterdam’s wealth and assisting in perpetuating European dominance. Bale’s second effect focuses on exploitation of African players, several of them teenagers recruited to Europe. In many of these cases, agents exploit these players, housing them in squalid conditions and some of the players return home in impoverished conditions.  Additionally, Bale (2004) and Szymanski and Kuypers (2000) have cited discriminatory acts against African footballers in Europe. Szymanski and Kuypers, for instance, describe instances where African players are underpaid compared to European counterparts who may be less talented. In some cases, African players would be quickly discarded even though similarly talented European players are kept on.  Discouraged by their failure and without funds to compensate for their efforts, players who do not make the grade refuse to return home ashamed and instead remain in Europe on menial jobs. In a sense, they fail to play in Europe and then, African leagues fail to benefit from their talent because of their local absence.

Economic Imperative

There are other scholars who have analyzed football labor migration from a purely economic perspective. In this case, footballer migration from South America and Africa is seen as a necessity because of economic situations in their home land. Darby (2008) provides a statement that captures the central idea behind this perspective:

            There is little in the way of infrastructure, professionalism or the possibility of a good          salary to encourage them (the players) to remain in their home nations and eschew the          potential of earning the almost unimaginable riches, by African standards, at least, that        the European game offers. . . it would be wholly unreasonable to expect these players to          sacrifice the opportunity of a potentially lucrative career in the professional game. . . (p.            61)

Lanfranchi and Taylor’s work (2001) clearly provides support for the centrality of economics in footballer migration. In fact, they argue that the first traces of labor migration in football, both footballers and club founders, were closely associated with movement of capital. For instance, they cite the fact that the most important countries in the early days of football development and migration were Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland which also had the highest GNPs at the time. They also cite evidence demonstrating importance of economics in the early recruitment of Argentine players by Italian clubs in the early part of the 20th century. Financial improvement was motivation for those early migrations. For instance, gifted Argentine player Raimundo Orsi was
a former employee of an Argentinian railway company, Orsi was almost twenty-seven    years old at the time of his move (from Independiente to Juventus). . . . But Orsi’s status                   was to change quickly as he became wealthy, receiving a fabulous monthly salary of        8,000 lire (fifteen times the wage of a primary school teacher and eight times the average    earnings of a doctor or a lawyer) with bonuses such as a car (A FIAT 509 produced by    his employer) and an apartment. (Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001, p. 76)

These migration economics are applicable to African footballers who migrate to Europe and Asia in search of better wages. Footballers are often poorly paid in Africa, whether the league is professional or not. In some countries such as Gambia, footballers have full time jobs beyond football and hold amateur status and may not receive football wages beyond game bonuses. In other countries, football exists within quasi-professional league systems. In such systems, footballers are employed solely to play football and professional transfer rules exist, but clubs in these countries are still impoverished; many are dependent on government handouts; and they do not own real properties. These clubs do report financial profits and they are rarely independently audited. Ncube (2009) and Nyende (2007) have reported poor wages paid by clubs in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Such clubs are widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. Ncube reported plans by the Zimbabwean Professional Soccer League (PSL) to institute a wage cap for clubs paying players between $100 and $150 monthly whereas the poverty wage line in the country was $454. This meant Zimbabwean footballers would earn poverty wages. Thus, it is not surprising when Ncube reported that several of the country’s footballers were leaving for places such as Cyprus and Turkey or other African countries such as South Africa in order to earn a better living. For footballers, it is worse in Kenya. Nyende (2007) reported that Kenyan Premier League players barely make $30 monthly.

There are few financially stable leagues in Africa and they are found in North Africa as well as in South Africa. These leagues pay better than most leagues in the continent, but their wages are still a far cry from wages that footballers receive in the top leagues of Europe. Thus, a three-tier financial compensation system is available to talented footballers. The poorest tier is the compensation system in most of sub-Saharan leagues. The mid-tier system is represented by leagues in North Africa, such as Egypt and South Africa where players may receive tens of thousands of USD per month. Nhando (2009) reported that “Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa) are paying the likes of Sibusiso Zuma and Collins Mbesuma monthly wages in the region of R200,000 ($30,000).” The top tier is the major European leagues such as Italy, England, Spain, and Germany. The effect on migratory trends in Africa is apparent as players move either directly to the top tier or through the middle tiers to the top tier. There are several examples of players who have moved from the first, through the middle to the top tier such as Nigeria’s John Utaka (Nigeria to Egypt to France) and Julius Aghahowa (Nigeria to Tunisia/Ukraine to England).
Apart from the few financially stable leagues, there are pockets of clubs in the continent attracting and keeping good players because they are able to pay reasonable wages. These include Congo ‘s TP Mazembe that recently became the first African club to reach the final game of the FIFA World Club’s Cup in 2010. There are also Sudanese clubs – Al-Merreikh and Al Hilal. Montague (2010) wrote about Mazembe as follows: “The players’ salaries are rumored as high as $3,000 a week (i.e. $12,000 monthly) in a country where the average yearly wage is, according to Christian aid group World Vision, just $120. . . . TP Mazembe’s bonus pool for one match was bigger than the budget for the Zimbabwean champions for a whole season.”


Few studies of football labor migration focus on Nigerian players, even though these players constitute the largest number of African players migrating to foreign lands. Bale (2004) wrote that “Nigeria . . .the major single national provider, supplying about 15 per cent of all African players to the European soccer market” (p. 235). Nigeria’s present position as Africa’s top exporter of footballers has not always been the case. Below, we review a history of migration of these players as recorded in the literature.
Lanfranchi and Taylor (2001) argue that a large number of early football migrants to Europe, including Ghana’s Arthur Wharton, only considered football playing in Europe as secondary to their education. Thus, the lure was often educational opportunities existing in Europe at the time. This was also true for the first football migrants from Nigeria to Europe (Onwumechili, 2010 and 2001; and Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001). Lanfranchi and Taylor cited the cases of Teslimi Balogun, Francis Fayemi, and Elkanah Onyeali who arrived in the United Kingdom to study printing, carpentry, and engineering respectively. They cited Onyeali who informed the local United Kingdom press that “’study comes first’, and (he) was prepared to miss matches which clashed with his academic timetable” (p. 178). Though there were many examples of Nigerian footballers who travelled to the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s for academic purposes, there was only a few that sought to play football only. Onwumechili (2010) cited at least two cases in the 1950s. In one case, he wrote that “Swindon Town FC in the English third division invited a dangerous Nigerian winger Titus Okere, 21 years at the time, in 1952 to join the team. British clubs noticed Okere’s talents during Nigeria’s storied 1949 tour of Britain. . . .Okere joined Swindon Town FC in 1953 but he never reproduced the form the English saw during the 1949 tour” (p. 72).  Though these footballer migrants played professionally, albeit at the lower division levels in the United Kingdom, their careers were usually brief. Nigerian footballers, at the time, were not especially sought by foreign clubs nor were they particularly well known. In fact, Nigeria was not a footballing power in Africa at the time. Other countries including Ghana, Egypt, Algeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Congo were stronger than Nigeria. Furthermore, European clubs, particularly those in France and Portugal, preferred to recruit players from former African colonies.
Onwumechili (2010) has argued that footballer migration from Nigeria could be categorized into three stages which he defined as 1940s to 1960s; 1970s; and then 1980s and after. The first stage is defined by most footballers who left the country seeking academic advancement. These footballers were amateurs who held fulltime jobs while playing in Nigeria. In most cases, they played for organizations that had football clubs for recreational purposes. Such organizations included the Lagos Town Council (LTC), Lagos Railways, Public Works Department (PWD), and the United African Company (UAC). Professionalism was not a major consideration for several of these footballers. They chose to travel overseas because there were few opportunities for academic advancement in the country at the time because of competitive university admission process. Education was important for social advancement and, thus, footballers left to pursue academics with hope they would return to leadership positions or better paying jobs. Indeed, this goal was achieved by several of these footballers after academic achievements.
The second stage, which took place between 1970s and early 1980s, is also identified by Onwumechili (2001 and 2010). This stage is similar to the first stage, but with a few significant differences. Migration during the second stage was extensive compared to the trickle that occurred during the first stage. Nonetheless, the footballer’s goal of academic advancement remained a priority. Second, the target for migration changed from the United Kingdom to the United States. American universities began to recruit Nigerian footballers, offering academic scholarships. This led to mass migrations as initial recruits identified other players who were subsequently recruited by the same schools. Onwumechili describes the phenomenon by citing one of the early recruits who acknowledged, “I helped bring in Chris Ogu, Prince Afejukwu, Samuel Owoh, and Sam Okpodu to Raleigh” (p. 76). This search for academic degrees, both from foreign and local universities, improved the social status of footballers after retirement. For instance, a former national team defender, Patrick Ekeji, rose to position of Nigeria’s Sports Director and former forward Adokiye Amaesiemaka became Attorney General of one of the states in the country.  Additionally, another former international Segun Odegbami served as Director of the National Institute of Sports (NIS) and yet a fourth, Taiwo Ogunjobi, became Secretary General of the Nigerian Football Association (NFA). Without advanced academic training, it is doubtful that any of them could have assumed those positions after their playing careers.
The third stage began in the 1980s with Nigerian footballers shifting from migration to America for academic advancement to migration to several foreign countries to advance their football careers. The driver for this shift was mainly economic. It was dramatically different, however, from the first or second stages which also have economic explanations. In the previous two stages, academic degree was seen as providing access to social climbing and, thus, economic security. The question then is why was this not the case at third stage? There are various reasons.  The most central is the country’s economic environment, as described by Onwumechili (2010) during the early part of the third stage migration. This was a period when the Nigerian economy was depressed following declining oil output and prices, declining exports, increasing imports, negative economic growth, substantial international payment deficits, and rising unemployment (“Nigeria draws regional. . .,” 2010 and “Nigeria: The Economy,” undated). Skilled labor migrated to foreign countries as their real incomes declined along with increasing unemployment among those with academic degrees. Footballers became aware that academic degrees no longer guaranteed improved social status and they could make more money playing professionally outside the country or working menial jobs in those countries.
Professionalism was also encouraged through various fronts. First, Otto Gloria, who had coached Portugal to a quarter final place in the 1966 World Cup, arrived in Nigeria in 1980 and enlarged the pool from which national team players could be selected. This was what he had done with Portugal where he recruited key players from Portuguese colonies, including the likes of Eusebio, to join professional clubs in Portugal. In Nigeria, he recruited foreign-based professional players with dual citizenships like John Chiedozie and Tunji Banjo to play for Nigeria. Then, he assisted Nigerian players including Benjamin Nzeakor and Richard Owubokiri in securing professional contracts in Brazil. Years later, the Dutch coach Clemens Westerhoff promoted the same practice by assisting several players to secure professional contracts in Belgium and Holland. Influential players, such as Stephen Keshi, led mass migration of players first to the Ivory Coast and then to Europe. The same applies to Christian Nwokocha who migrated during the second stage to secure an academic degree at Clemson University in the United States before moving to Portugal where he played for Sporting Lisbon. In the third stage migration, he now mentored younger players such as Sylvanus Okpala and Okey Isima to migrate to Portugal to play professionally. The subsequent performances of these migrants, both for their clubs and for their country, encouraged foreign scouts to focus attention on Nigeria and recruit additional players. Foer (2005) reports on this domino effect when he noted that; “Around the time of Edward’s (Anyamkpegh) arrival, Nigerians had become a Ukrainian fad. Within a few months, nine Nigerians were signed to play in Ukraine’s premier league. They were the most prestigious purchases a club could make. A roster devoid of Nigerians wasn’t considered a serious roster; an owner who didn’t buy Nigerians wasn’t an ambitious owner” (p. 142). The Ukrainian example was replicated in several countries particularly in places like Ivory Coast, Belgium, and Holland.
Some players who moved to foreign nations at this time, however, were neither assisted by coaches nor were they recruited by scouts. One of Nigeria’s most memorable players, Augustine “JJ” Okocha ended up playing professionally in Germany while on a visit and was subsequently encouraged by a friend to try out for a lower division club. In many cases, players ended up in Europe by defecting during team tours. This group of players was more concerned about escaping dire economic conditions in Nigeria. Onwumechili (2010) cites a 1992 case when “several players of the 3Sc “Shooting Stars” defected in Italy as the team transited from a 0-2 first leg CAF Cup loss to FC Bizerte of Tunisia” (p. 80).
Today, in spite of improvements in the Nigerian economy, footballers continue to leave in order to improve financial conditions. The astronomical wages paid to the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Mikel Obi, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, and others in the top European leagues have become attractive. Onwumechili (2010) writes “Players are under the poverty level in Nigeria with few earning more than $250 per month. The British tabloids The News of the World recently quoted Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s monthly salary while he was at Julius Berger in Lagos as $100. More painful is that player wages are often unpaid or arbitrarily reduced by teams claiming that such reductions motivate better player performance” (p.80). Aiyegbeni’s current wages in England is in tens of thousands per week! It is not surprising then that young Nigerian footballers hope to one day become the next Nigerian football hero earning astronomical wages at a European club. Lovgren (2009) cited the following prayer he heard from young Nigerian footballers in Lagos; “Oh Lord, you are the Lord who remembered John Obi  Mikel, Christiano Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho – remember us as you remembered them. . .connect us to people who matter. Let them come and see us play so that they can take us to Europe.”


Previous studies on football labor migration rely on two primary research methods. The first is use of qualitative research methods such as critical analysis from dependency theory or postcolonial framework (see Bale, 2002). Others in this tradition also use a historical analysis (see aspects of Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001). Studies using quantitative research method often use secondary analysis of existing data (also utilized by Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001).
Secondary analysis of existing data has been widely used for analysis of football labor migration. This method utilizes easily accessible data from existing documents including data published in newspapers, available through databases of football administration offices, and other sources. This method has various advantages including easy access to data that may be difficult to obtain through primary data collection means, providing ability to link data that had not been previously associated, and reducing the cost of research.

We used a secondary analysis of existing data for this exploratory study for some of the reasons mentioned above. Primarily, it would have been difficult, inefficient, and time consuming to obtain primary data of football labor migration from Nigeria. Documents  from which such information could be easily generated were already in existence and provided us with access to data going back half a century; this afforded the  opportunity for trend analysis and/or easily identifying changes in migration patterns. It would have been difficult to access such data utilizing any other research method.
Our research procedure consisted of first analyzing the Nigerian national team line ups for games played since the team’s first international match in 1949 until now. These line ups are available through various published books including Onwumechili (2010), Solaja (2010), and Oke (2000). We use these published lineups to select additional data as follows: (1) identify players  reported by the Nigerian media to have emigrated, (2) identify media reported reasons for player’s emigration, and (3) identify players reported playing for foreign clubs when they received invitations to play for the Nigerian national team. Media reports on player migration and player data from Filippo Ricci’s African Football Yearbooks are then used in association with lineups of the national team in order to address the research questions for this study. These yearbooks list all African players, including Nigerians, playing for European clubs in each season.
Quantitative data generated from secondary analysis were then used to determine distribution of cases on measured variables such as decade of migration, and migration intent, among others. We also use tables and graphs to illustrate trends of football labor migration from Nigeria.
Because we are not able to locate existing data to address our second research question on media coverage of the Nigerian national team, we used a qualitative content analysis to investigate RQ2. We relied on Patton (2002) and Berg (2001) in designing qualitative procedure for content analysis in this study. Our primary aim is to interpret how the national team has been reported in major newspapers in terms of breadth and depth of reports. By breadth, we mean whether reports preceded a major game and how detailed (depth) in terms of variety of report topics presented on the team. Using entire texts as our unit of analysis, we focused attention on reports on the national team in the following national newspapers – Daily Times, The West African Pilot, The GuardianNational Concord, and ThisDay newspapers – during tournaments across decades. These tournaments include the All Africa Games, African Nations Cup, Olympics Men Football, and the World Cup finals. We would have preferred to analyze contents of the top two newspapers over the entire period but this was not possible as top national newspapers during the first tournament in 1963 (The Daily Times and The West African Pilot) were no longer in existence or have been overtaken by other newspapers by the 1980s. Therefore, we replaced both The Daily Times and The West African Pilot with The Guardian and National Concord from the 1980 tournament. Then National Concord was replaced by ThisDay after the 1992 tournaments for similar reasons.
Clearly, the focus of the study is on migratory activities involving the national team of Nigeria. We have not focused data collection on players migrating from youth national teams, clubs, academies, or other types of football teams. Our focus on collecting data from national team activity is guided by ease of access to such data.


Though football labor migration from Nigeria had not benefitted from quantitative research, results from descriptive studies are largely confirmed by this study. It is important to caution, however, that this study is limited to the national team and does not include all Nigerian footballer migration from other sources including clubs and academies, which is substantial.
Figure 1 provides findings addressing the first research question. It shows that migration of players from the national team was minor early (1949-59). The reasons for migration during this period was mixed; i.e., either for academic study or for professional football career. This is somewhat different from what we find in the first stage migration reported in current literature (see Onwumechili, 2010 and Lanfranchi & Taylor, 2001). The current literature noted that this early stage migration was by footballers who sought academic advancement and not professional football careers. The difference in finding could be explained by the sample used for this study. The present study was restricted to footballers who played for the national team whereas current literature on the subject focuses on a larger group of footballers including those who had not played for the national team. Thus, it is conceivable that this study’s narrow focus on the national team accounts for the difference.

Figure 1: Player Migration Reason

We also note that this study’s findings, even though it focuses on national team players, confirm the existence of a three stage migration process, earlier identified by Onwumechili (2010).  Apart from early or first stage migration discussed in the previous paragraph, Figure 1 shows the existence of a second stage (covering 1960-69, 1970-79, and part of 1980-89 decades) and then a third stage (part of 1980-89, 1990-99, and 2000-10). These later two stages are remarkably different from each other. The second stage clearly identifies academic study as reason for migration of national team footballers. In fact, we find no national team footballer that migrated for any other reason during the 1960-69 and 1970-79 decades. The third stage shows that migration reason changed to professional football. There is a slight difference between findings of this study and the migratory stages one described in Onwumechili (2010). Onwumechili (2010) argued that the third stage began from 1980, but findings from this study points to a later beginning date, somewhere in the 1980s but certainly not the year 1980. Unfortunately, because data collection periods are categorized in decades, and not years, the finding failed to identify a specific year when the third stage may have commenced. Thus, what we find is that the decade 1980-89 indicates a transition period.
Findings related to the second research question were somewhat surprising. With several Nigerian footballers migrating to foreign leagues, one expected a lack of media interest in coverage of Nigerian football. Onwumechili (2009) had found this lack of interest in media reports of Nigerian football using a frame analysis of print and broadcast media reports. This study failed to find this lack of interest in reporting the national team. Instead, our findings show that reports on the national team may well be more in depth than in earlier years. In fact, reports on the national team in both The West African Pilot and The Daily Times were sparse and negligible for the first All Africa Games in Senegal in 1963. Reports did not include pregame analysis and were reduced to a couple of sentences reporting results of the team’s games in Senegal. The reports improved later in the year when the team played in its first African Nations Cup final. We believe that the difference may be due to the newspapers infrequent sending of reporters to events outside the country in those days. Coverage of Nigerian national team in today’s newspapers has increased in depth and breath. Coverage include reports on when foreign clubs will permit Nigerian players to leave their clubs to join the Nigerian team, the arrival of players in camp, performances at training, numerous player interviews about the game, and then the game itself. This is much more depth than in the earlier years when the focus was analysis of the game in the match day newspaper and then a detailed report of the game’s result. A key question then is why is this finding different from that of Onwumechili in 2009? A plausible explanation is that the 2009 study focused on the local league in Nigeria while this study focuses on the national team. This is a significant point of difference because as Onwumechili (2009) argued, media coverage of European soccer familiarizes Nigerian media and fans with players in those leagues and creates media and fan interest in games involving such players. The national team, unlike local league clubs, is made up of players already familiar to the Nigerian media because of media focus on European leagues. Thus, reporting those same players when they meet as the Nigerian national team is an extension of media reports on familiar actors.
Other findings respond to the third research question investigating effects of migration on the national team. Effects include changes in pools from which players are invited to join national team squads, composition of the team at key tournaments, and length of preparation by the team. The first two effects are demonstrated in Figures 2 and 3 below. Figure 2 reports on when a player was first invited to join the national team; i.e., whether they were then playing locally or playing in a foreign league. What does this tell us? It tells us where the pool of invitees to the national team is located; i.e., are those players based locally or in foreign countries?  The expectation is that increased migration of top Nigerian players to foreign leagues would lead to the national team increasingly relying on players from foreign clubs. The result reflects this. The number of players invited to the Nigerian national team before migrating to a foreign league is the same identified in Figure 1 as migrating with intention to continue their football career. Interesting data in Figure 2 are the increasing number of players who receive their first call up to the national team after they had begun a professional football career in a foreign league. The number was the highest in the last decade (2000-2010) when over 60 players received such an invitation compared to less than 10 players in each of the previous two decades. This is a major effect as Nigeria had not called up a player from a foreign league until Coach Otto Gloria invited John Chiedozie and Tunji Banjo in the early 1980s (see Onwumechili, 2001). The data in Figure 2 demonstrates the trend towards this type of call up while the number of locally-based players invited to the team is on a decline.

Figure 2: Identifying when Player received first Invitation to National Team

NOTE: Pre-pro refers to a player who played for the national team before migrating to play professional soccer. Post-pro refers to player already playing for a foreign club before debuting for Nigeria.
Figure 3 focuses on tournament squads for the national team and player composition for those teams across decades. Note that there were no tournaments played by the team during the first stage migration (1949-1959). The first tournament played by Nigeria was in 1963 at the All Africa Games in Dakar, Senegal. In addition to the All Africa Games, other tournaments used for this data collection were the biennial African Nations Cup finals, Olympic Men Football, and the World Cup finals.   It is important to note that in several cases, players are counted multiple times if they played in more than a single tournament. Additionally, number of players at a particular tournament used for this data analysis was a function of lists available from existing documents. In any case, the line graph (Figure 3) demonstrates an interesting but expected trend. The national team’s use of players who migrated to advance their education was relatively non-existent at the height of such migrational intention in the 1970s. During the 1970s, we found few occasions when such players were recalled to play for the national team at tournaments; this occurred at the 1978 All Africa Games where students – Thompson Usiyan and Bennet Popoola — were recalled to play for the team. Two years later, Godwin Odiye was recalled to play at the 1980 Nations Cup finals in Nigeria. Also interesting is the decline in the use of locally-based players from a high in the 1980-89 decade and the sharp increase in the use of foreign-based players since that decade. We can also infer another effect not directly found in this study. The increasing invitation to the national team of players at foreign clubs (See Figure 3) means that the national team must depend on those clubs to first permit players to join the national team after issuance of invitations.  Though FIFA’s ruling in 1981 makes this permit relatively automatic in qualifying games and tournaments, there are consequences particularly in how many days players can be available to the national team. This means that the Nigerian team which could stay in preparation camps for months pre-1981 is now restricted to preparation camps ranging from three days for qualifiers and two weeks for tournaments.

Figure 3: Composition of Tournament Teams

NOTE: Players are counted multiple times dependent on number of times they participated in tournaments within identified decades.


In conclusion, this study confirms that there are three stages of Nigerian player migration from Nigeria’s national team. The earlier period was mixed with players either migrating for academic advancement or for furthering professional football careers with the number of such players negligible. The second stage, beginning in the 1960s and ending in mid-1980s, records a mass migration of players from the national team and migration intent was exclusively for academic advancement reasons. The third stage, from mid-1980s till present, also involves mass migration from the national team, but exclusively for professional football careers. Furthermore, the study shows that mass migration of players from the national team has increased media coverage of the team over the decades. Other effect include increased first-time invitation to the national team of players playing in foreign leagues and confirms increased composition of tournament squads with players who have migrated to foreign leagues.


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Nigeria also performed admirably in world youth tournaments further attracting player recruitment interest from European clubs.

The Nigerian national team represented the country at the Olympics up to 1988 after which FIFA barred full national teams from participating at the Olympics. This is similar to the All Africa Games where senior players have been barred during the same period.


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