In November 2023, former Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi reignited a long conversation about the burdens faced by breadwinners, especially multi-millionaire footballers playing at the highest level.
Speaking on the Vibe with Five podcast hosted by former England international Rio Ferdinand, Obi said: “When you come from Africa, and this is something I don’t think we talk about much, when you make money, it’s not your money. .”
He explained: “You have all these relatives, cousins, whatever. You get a salary and you say, ‘I’ll reserve this for this person, I’ll reserve that for that person, and I’ll reserve this for my mom and dad.’ Before you know it, you’ll be getting less than them. That’s the culture. They expect you to do that. “You owe them something.”
For years, as major leagues expanded and racked up billions in marketing revenue, player salaries increased exponentially. But with more money, more problems arose.
More footballers accumulated wealth, but by the end of their careers, many were also bankrupt or owned only a small fraction of their assets, if any.
Many examples abound of African players who once played within the continent or abroad: Lerato Chabangu played for Mamelodi Sundowns, South Africa’s highest-paid team, with a generous package. He also played for the national team but is now destitute. Former Leeds United striker Philemon Masinga has died penniless aged 49.
Several other former Premier League stars, from Cameroon’s Eric Djemba-Djemba to Nigeria’s Celestine Babayaro, fell on hard times after their careers ended. Former Ivorian right-back Emmanuel Eboue went from earning millions of pounds at Arsenal and Galatasaray to sleeping on a friend’s sofa after a messy divorce.
In Nigeria, many former internationals have had to resort to social media appeals and GoFundMe campaigns to fund life-saving surgeries, sometimes for illnesses arising from complications due to injuries during their career.
While financial mismanagement has been responsible in some cases, many actors, and indeed commentators on the issue, have also blamed their misfortunes on the vigorous demands of family and friends, often referred to as the “black tax.”
The term “black tax” originates in apartheid-era South Africa and refers to the money that black workers, especially professionals and other higher earners, gave to their parents, siblings or other family members. often out of obligation or a deeply held feeling. of family responsibility.
For footballers, often among the world’s highest-paid professionals, the Black Tax has become endemic, but the issue has generally been discussed quietly or in private. Players who have discussed it publicly or cut ties with their family have been perceived as the “black sheep” of the family and sometimes ridiculed for seemingly turning their back on their relatives.
So Obi’s recent comments about the financial demands placed on African footballers by their families started a conversation on the topic online and offline.
There were mixed reactions on social media: some users blamed Obi for speaking publicly while others supported him.
Industry insiders were more aligned with their opinions.
Football is a notoriously boom-and-bust business. At the highest level, where the highest salaries are earned, a career typically lasts between 10 and 15 years, and within that period footballers are expected to not only fill the nest egg for the rest of their lives, but also take on the burdens of others.
The root of this expectation is a misconception, according to Nqobile Ndlovu, director and founder of Cash N Sport, an Africa-focused sports research company. “The idea that most football players earn millions is false,” he told Al Jazeera. “The FIFPRO Global study published in 2019 found that more than 45 percent of players surveyed worldwide earned less than $1,000 per month. While this may have increased in subsequent years, the average player globally does not make millions.”
The widespread nature of the Black Tax is a direct challenge to the long-term financial security of African professional footballers, analysts say.
“The black tax is an important issue,” Ndlovu said. “In South Africa, for example, only 59.4 percent of households in the 2022 national statistics had income from wages and salaries, while 51 percent had social grants as their main source of income.”
“With this data in mind, it is important to consider that, in 2019, the average household size in sub-Saharan Africa was estimated to be 6.9 people per household. “These players, in most cases, support several people with their salaries.”
Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor has been one of the few players to publicly detail his frustration over what he perceived as “manipulation” by his family.
The former Togo international had a successful club career, playing for teams such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Real Madrid, and won the CAF African Player of the Year award in 2008.
However, he has had to face the same realities that Mikel brought to light. In a 2017 interview with Paris-based So Foot magazine, he revealed that he had considered suicide due to her demands.
“They call me, not to ask me how I am, but to demand money,” he said. “That was the case after I injured my hamstring while at Tottenham. They called me while I was having an ultrasound to ask if I could pay for a child’s school fees. At least ask me first how I am…”
A lifestyle change
But today, Adebayor is still considered one of the richest former footballers in Africa and lives decently. He attributes it to a change in lifestyle for a more prudent one.
“I’m not in banking, but I was lucky enough to be able to buy everything,” he told Al Jazeera. “I liked buying land and building houses. “I also invest a lot in banks and have a lot of cash flow.”
Although his spending became extravagant during his days as an active player, he has had to abandon his devotion to designer jewelry. In that sense, his life is an example and a warning that the younger generation must heed.
Like many current players, he bought a lot of diamonds and expensive watches. “I have more than 100 gold watches, the prices of which are crazy,” he told Al Jazeera. “I regret? Not really, because I didn’t know any better, but if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it.”
Adebayor’s advice is for players to look after themselves first and seek suitable financial advisors, before looking after others, as life after football is much more challenging.
“I’m tired of seeing all these African legends in the latter stages. [of their lives] being on the road, begging for money and begging for money to survive or maintain your health problems. When we are footballers, our lifestyle is crazy. We just have to find a way to maintain that gap and it is never easy,” he stated.
“It is important to know that as a footballer you want to take care of other people’s problems, but you quickly forget that when you fall, no one is going to take care of you,” he added.
Without exposure to financial literacy, African footballers are at a unique disadvantage in their post-career position, Ndlovu explains.
“The biggest common factor across Africa is the lack of an ingrained savings culture, both from a player perspective and across leagues,” he said.
In England, players registered with clubs in the top two divisions are automatically enrolled in a pension scheme to which they contribute and which is administered by trustees with their assets separate from the normal business of the leagues. This is missing in many sports and leagues in Africa.
“Furthermore, having agents who are competent to provide some form of financial advice has also not been mandatory, leaving players vulnerable to get-rich-quick schemes and bad investments,” Ndlovu said.
“The pressure to make others happy or solve their problems is something that could end up consuming you, if you’re not careful. “Football is a short career because a single serious injury can end everything.”
According to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), an average of 30 players a year in UK football leagues see their career end prematurely due to injury. There is no data available on players in Africa, but as there are many more substandard courts on the continent, that number is likely higher.
With the Black Tax still a difficult element to dislodge, experts say the key to self-sufficiency and continued financial freedom is specific preparation for a career off the court.
And while Adebayor is proof that finding financial stability after a playing career is not impossible even in the face of the challenges outlined above, he remains the exception rather than the rule.
“Some have found employment in fields completely unrelated to sports and are doing well or have saved enough to live a comfortable life after retirement… [but] Many of them only know one thing: football,” said Ndlovu.