Sport on TV: Essien in dream land as African footballers do the business

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The Independent Online

"Is the prominence of African footballers part of a new scramble for Africa by the European powers, or is this a great African success story?" intoned the voiceover as the opening credits rolled on Black Star: an African Football Odyssey (More4, Tuesday). Certainly Sepp Blatter's arrival at Accra airport, sleek as a seal as he glad-handed the local dignitaries, had an air of noblesse oblige, but then the story grew more complex.

The Swiss president of Fifa, the game's governing body, was in Ghana for the 26th African Cup of Nations. Also in town were Jose Mourinho and more coaches and scouts from around the world than you could shake a teamsheet at, all eager to cast an eye over the abundant talent on display.

Of the exodus of African footballers, Ghanaian writer Nana Agyemang commented: "In a sense it's the epitome of slavery... they volunteer to be transported to Europe." Hmm... in the days of the slave trade I don't think there were too many who actually volunteered to be manacled in the holds of ships and transported they knew not where.

Anyway, the current generation seem happy enough with their choice. Michael Essien, the eponymous black star of Ghana's national team, the Black Stars, said: "My dream was to come to England," while his Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba, the captain of Ivory Coast, added: "I can't say we're exploited... we know why we're there."

But what of the younger generation? Any exploitation there? There was little sign of it, though the feeder system in Ghana seems idiosyncratic to say the least. One respected soccer academy was founded by a Serb who works as the maitre d' in a Greek taverna in Accra, while up-and-coming team Zaytuna United were formed from the finalists in a reality TV show, a sort of 'Fame Academy' with shinpads.

And the idea of players as commodities to be traded was never far away. "The beef on the field is fantastic," said Zaytuna's owner enthusiastically, and slightly disturbingly, while an agent from England, asked why African players were so popular in Europe, answered bluntly: "Because they're cheap."

Ghana finished third in the Cup, which was won by Egpyt. "They've pumped huge resources into the game," said Agyemang. "They recognise football for what it is – an industry." Beautiful game or not, business is business.

* Egypt was on the mind of another black star in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Olympic Gold Medallist Special (ITV, Monday). "Egypt's got kings and queens," announced Christine Ohuruogu confidently. Not for a little while, Christine. No wonder the 400m runner, plus sailor Sarah Webb, rowers Steve Williams and Zac Purchase, and Paralympians Liz Johnson and Darren Kenny, won only £21,000 between them for charity.

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