Newsletter of ISA (International sociological association) – Research Committee on sociology of migration, Spring 2013. 

Nobody outside Belgium knows the small Flemish city of Beveren. Nobody knows or cares that it has a professional football (soccer, for the North Americans) team in the Belgian Premier League. So what? What is the link with international migration? The answer lies in the composition of the team that played the Belgian Cup final in 2004 against the prestigious team of F.C. Bruges: none of the 11 players who started the game were Belgian or from the European Union. Ten players were from Ivory Coast and one from Latvia!

Let’s now go to the club of Standard Liège, the city in which I work.   Out of thirty players with a professional contract, 5 are Belgian with a Belgian background, 6 are part of the “second   generation”  and  19  are  foreigners coming from different non-EU and EU-  countries: Brazil, Israël, Venezuela,  Japan, Nigeria, Ivory Coast,  Romania, Sweden, France, Holland, etc. The players coming from the last three countries are all “second-generation”.

Professional football is no exception. Belgian, Beveren and Standard Liège, neither. Professional sport in many places of the world relies on and produces specific forms of highly-skilled sport workers mobility and migration patterns. These very particular forms and patterns of migration have drawn some academic attention, but probably not enough. Many questions remain unconvincingly answered: how to explain that youngsters from Brazil or Ghana play for more or less obscure sports teams in the Russian Federation or Belgium? How do they get there? What drives them to move to places in which they often encounter blatant racism? Why do we find so many under-18 Africans in the football academies of many western football clubs? Is the hypothesis of human trafficking in sport plausible? What happens to those who don’t make it?

This last point is particularly interesting. For the majority of those would-be sport stars, the dream turns into a nightmare. There is a desolate football ground in the periphery where almost every morning about 20 African football players train. All of them were attracted by Western clubs on a contract or a promise of contract, very often at a young age.  All of them believed that they would make their way in professional football and pay back the community or family that helped them financially to come to Europe. But none of them made it and became a star. Most of them are now unemployed, without economic resources. Many of them have become undocumented aliens who could be expelled anytime. This is the other side of the great global sport show, far away from the astronomic salaries gained by the few who really reach the top.

No doubt sport migration is an interesting topic that needs more careful attention than it has so received so far.

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