A violent chapter in the rags-to-riches story

Physically imposing, vastly talented, sometimes irascible, often headstrong: Emmanuel Adebayor is no one’s idea of a sporting softie. So the television footage of an emotional Adebayor clinging tearfully to his team-mates was especially poignant. It followed a lethal gun attack in Angola on the bus of the Togo national team at the Cup of African Nations. More deaths in Africa; but this time they have captured our attention.

For Adebayor, one of the English Premier League’s most recognisable players, it should have been a triumphant return to his home continent. Instead, the Togo team has been ordered to return home, and Adebayor has found himself at the centre of an uncomfortable debate about the ability of Africa to host a safe World Cup later this year.

The cliché that elite sportsmen are spoilt brats cut off from the real world is looking seriously out of date. Last March gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka cricket team’s bus in Lahore, injuring several players. Now, the Togo team has come under fire. Sportsmen are now not only the victims of terrorism; they are the targets. The real world is suddenly proving all too vivid.

For a 25-year-old with sketchy literacy, Adebayor has already had an extraordinary life, the Cabinda shootings notwithstanding. He grew up in the capital of Togo, Lomé, where he mostly bunked off school to play street football. Spotted playing football with tennis balls at the age of 7, Adebayor was earmarked as a future superstar. He excelled in the top French league while still a teenager, before quickly becoming an iconic striker for Arsenal and now Manchester City.

Adebayor’s remarkable journey — from Lomé to Manchester, via Monaco and North London — is typical of the new global marketplace for footballing talent. Managers such as Arsène Wenger, who made Adebayor into a star, have long understood that finding a way to tap the African talent pool is a central managerial skill. Talent scouts, alongside agents of varying degrees of unscrupulousness, now scour Africa looking for the next Premier League discovery.

Rags to riches is one of sport’s oldest narratives. Boxing celebrates the pugilist who is so determined to escape the ghetto that he never lies down. Football delights in South American back-street skill and savvy. The phenomenon of postwar West Indian cricket relied on the twin pillars of beach cricket and the assertion of post-colonial self-expression.

The idea that games can be a way up — and out — is a familiar defence for organised sport. But it is now much more complicated, as careers such as Adebayor’s demonstrate. The globalised world of modern football doesn’t just catapult athletes up the social scale. It also airdrops them into a completely new country. They are twice displaced, both geographically and economically.

Two questions follow. What are the consequences of this talent drain for the sporting communities in Africa that produced the players in the first place? And how ready and psychologically equipped are the lucky few who do make it in the big league?

It was once fashionable to think that sporting glory would inevitably follow population size. Older, richer countries such as England — having once enjoyed the massive head start of a sophisticated sporting infrastructure — would gradually be overtaken by larger populations with a broader talent base. Demography would eventually trump privilege — or so the theory ran.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Sport has simply become more individualistic and less community- orientated. Sport has evolved away from the idea that brilliant individuals represent their original communities of town, club and country. Instead, the standout players now float in a global marketplace of talent.

The lucrative competitions increasingly happen within rich nations rather than between them. Cricket’s richest competition is not international Test cricket but the Indian Premier League. Playing in the Premier League pays infinitely more than appearing in the World Cup. Money has simply found new ways of asserting itself.

The reason why the English Premier League is the best league in the world is because English football followers are uniquely willing to spend money on satellite subscriptions and replica shirts. The rise of Premier League football was not founded on improved grassroots football. It was another example of the great English debt boom: individual credit card debt bought the latest shirt, and highly geared corporate debt financed the clubs. This double debt enabled the Premier League to pay players such as Adebayor enough money to persuade him to play in England rather than Spain or Italy.

But the success of African players in the Premier League has not sparked new interest among Africans in their own leagues. Quite the reverse. Sierra Leone’s football league has started scheduling matches in the evening so they do not clash with televised Premier League games. Football “show houses” have opened up all over Nigeria, but they screen English matches, not the Nigerian league — or even the Africa Cup of Nations. One reason why the tournament is so important is that is provides a rare opportunity for Africans to watch their star players playing on home soil.

The Africa Cup of Nations demonstrates two paradoxes of modern sport. First, the countries that produce star players don’t necessarily benefit from doing so. Second, sport has entered the political firing line at the worst possible moment. The combination of professionalism and globalisation means that today’s sportsmen often have little or no life-training for anything beyond the narrow activity of playing a game.

Sport is becoming ever more entangled in politics. Are sportsmen and sportswomen ready for it? Sport got rich largely in a state of happy innocence. Now, with sport as the new terrorist target for anyone with a grievance, that age of innocence is looking ever more remote.

Ed Smith, a leader writer at The Times and a former England cricketer.