Was Arsene Wenger right? A deep dive into African infrastructure and its failed talent

It is fair to say that, in recent times, the football world is taking a more Eurocentric approach. It always seems like the world revolves around Europe.

The Champions League is usually the most-viewed football competition every year. Blockbuster trades from Europe’s elite always go viral. Even regular Nations League games go viral instead of CAF Champions League games.

It puts Africa at a massive disadvantage as it struggles to compete with Europe. Africa fails to get the recognition its mainstream counterparts do. Pitso Mosimane’s snub from the FIFA Coach of the Year award proves it. The AFCON saga where clubs refused to release their players also did.

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Enter Arsene Wenger.

The famed manager recently told reporters if “Mbappe had been born in Cameroon, he wouldn’t have become the striker he is today.” It only added to the disrespect Africa received and provoked anger worldwide. It also seems silly considering the amount of African talent excelling in Europe.

But did Wenger have a point?

With an increasing number of talents falling through Africa’s cracks, one must wonder if Wenger’s words were honest or ignorant. African football is struggling to keep up although it churns out so many stars, so Wenger may have been onto something. Yet his words come across as misplaced. To unlock the answer behind the question plaguing Africa and analyze Wenger’s comments, we have to turn the dial some years back.

How Yaounde helped bring Africa its first Ballon d’Or, and the case against Wenger

Yaounde, Cameroon, is an important place in football. It hosted the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations final and is the birthplace of many world-class footballers. Yet one of its greatest contributions came three decades ago.

Enter Liberian legend, George Weah. He signed for Tonnerre Yaounde fresh off his show-stopping performances in the Liberian Premier League. Despite taking on players double his age, he finessed Liberia’s finest defenders to draw attention from Africa’s finest.

Tonnerre was one of Cameroon’s biggest clubs in the 80s. They picked up an African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975 and won three Cameroon Premier Division titles before Weah joined. They were perennial title contenders in Cameroon and also succeeded in Africa.

Tonnerre advanced to the round of 16 in a tournament hosting Africa’s best clubs before losing to eventual runner-up Heartland FC. With Weah at the helm of an explosive attack, TKC Yaounde won the Cameroon Premier Division and the Cameroon Cup. His dominance is clear based on TKC’s trophy count. After Weah left for the starry lights of Monaco a year later, they have only won one Cameroon Cup and one Cameroon Premier Division title since.

Of course, the rest is history. TKC and Weah worked so well together that the latter drew the attention of Monaco. He dominated Ligue 1 with Monaco and PSG and won two Serie A titles with AC Milan. He became the first(and, so far, only) African to claim the Ballon d’Or.

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Weah is a prime example of the talent Africa churns out every year. Weah was a headache for opposing defenders and someone who could score like it was going out of fashion. He was athletic, clinical, and a manager’s dream.

His story is different from ones like Neymar and Ronaldinho, who left their homes early because the whole world had its eyes on them. He almost missed out on a transfer to the Arsene Wenger-coached Monaco. Cameroon national team coach Claude Le Roy called Wenger and told him of Weah’s talent rather than an established scout.

It is an example of the anonymity that African leagues live in. If Weah was born in France or England, he would immediately jump into the spotlight and make an immediate mark on European sport. Yet because he hails from Liberia, one of Africa’s smallest nations, he had to climb his way up to many levels and make his way through several clubs.

He shows that even African minnows Liberia can produce generational talents, and any player of any nation can be of Ballon d’Or calibre. Other Ballon d’Or winners show it. Eusebio came from Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, and George Best grew up in a violence-stricken Belfast. Who knows? A young Cameroonian prodigy could prove Wenger wrong. Only time will tell.

If Weah stayed in Africa and the case for Wenger

Some of Wenger’s words prove harsh but truthful. Renowned attacker Weah gained all his fame, made a name for himself, and achieved legendary status in Europe. Without Claude Le Roy’s fateful phone call to Wenger, that would not happen. Imagine Weah stays in Yaounde in the summer of 1988, and the European clubs around him all lose interest in him. He will go back to scoring goals and dominating Cameroon. Yet the Ballon d’Or, Serie A titles, and all the individual awards disappear.

Without Weah’s move to Monaco, he would likely become an African club great rather than an African legend. He wins an Africa Cup of Champions Clubs title or two, dominates Cameroon with TKC, and enjoys modest success with the Liberian national team. It shows that European clubs dwarf African clubs. To achieve legendary status, Africans must make the jump across the Mediterranean. 

It is true for many reasons. Europe’s wealth contrasted with Africa’s poverty makes the decision a no-brainer. The famed status European clubs boast dominates the modest attention African clubs get. But the main reason African clubs lose their players to Europe is that African leagues have worse players than European leagues.

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This is for many reasons. Europe edges Africa when it comes to money. Their stadiums, training grounds and youth infrastructure give them an advantage. There is also a stigma looming over African leagues: their teams are amateurs playing in abandoned, run-down stadiums. Corrupt officials run games looking for a quick payday, and the reffing is atrocious.

Those stereotypes combined with Europe’s legendary status in football make it hard for Africa to compete when signing players. The hard truth is that African stars must jump to Europe. Sadio Mane or George Weah staying in Africa would be like Stephen Hawking staying in high school. There are better players in European leagues than there are in African leagues. Africa needs guidance, investments, and a lot of restructuring to catch up with Europe. Wenger is right about that.

My take on Wenger’s viral comment

It is worth noting Arsene Wenger is a core part of many African footballers’ careers. He kickstarted George Weah’s legendary career by bringing him to Monaco. He also signed Nigerian attacker Victor Ikpeba, who won an African Footballer of the Year award and an Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria.

One of the best Nigerian players to grace a football pitch, Nwankwo Kanu, owes his Premier League success to Wenger signing him from Inter. Towards the end of his stint with Arsenal, he signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mohamed Elneny to the Gunners. Fans always say Wenger was great at spotting youth talent. He had an eye for Africans ever since he signed Weah.

So he knows first-hand the problems Africa faces.

His take is understandable when looking at Africa’s troubles with producing young players through its top leagues. It was why officials created the African Nations Championship, a tournament only letting national teams field their domestic players that play in their domestic leagues.

Yet it damages Africa’s reputation when Wenger says that if “Mbappe was born in Cameroon, he wouldn’t be the player he is today.” That is not true, considering the abilities of Yaya Toure, George Weah, and Didier Drogba, who came from nations like Cameroon. Legendary Cameroonian strikers Samuel Eto’o and Roger Milla prove Wenger wrong.

So Africa should take Wenger’s controversial comment with a pinch of salt. A world-class striker can emerge from Liberia and Cameroon to Romania and Georgia. He is right about Europe’s ability to develop talents and mold them into world-class footballers. “There’s Europe, and there’s everyone else. The latter desperately needs help,” Wenger added. One can only hope that the gap lessens as time wears on.

The Author

Deolu Akingbade

I'm an African football analyst who loves cheering for the Super Eagles and Atletico Madrid. I am 13-years-old and am featured in WorldSoccerTalk as well.

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