Everyone hates the middle man. They hate the nickle and dime negotiator. They hate the middle manager. They hate the guy that you have to talk to before you can talk to the guy who actually makes decisions. The middle man is usually one of two types: a greasy con artist or a mediocre malcontent. In either case, you can’t win. I was watching ESPN the other day and they were doing a story on their new series (E60) about the process by which young Africans wind up in Europe in search of a career in big time soccer. It should go without saying that this does not typically end well.
In this process of identifying and gathering talent for big teams, there is a middle man – a conduit. (It occurs to me that the process for major league baseball in the Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean is probably very similar. After all, MLB and FIFA are both looking for Africans who can add to the bottom line. Whether that child is the next David Ortiz or Alfonso Soriano or Freddie Adu is such a potentially profitable risk that teams are lined up to roll the dice. I don’t recall if the E60 (no relation to E40) piece discussed the potential monetary gains to teams, but they must be considerable for this type of talent hunt to be conducted.) The middle man is typically African with some command of a European language and connections both in Africa and in Europe. These persons may or may not be particularly knowledgeable about the sport, but they make promises to parents that children can be sure to find success if they pledge their loyalty and services.
I suppose extreme poverty, unfulfilled aspirations and sometimes a tinge of greed can create a burning desire to believe that this one thing which sounds to good to be true really is not too good – it’s just good enough. That is a delusion that many Africans cannot afford. For every Adu or Ortiz or Soriano, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people who are unable to escape or enrich their homelands. They are unable to repay their parents for all the disbursements made to the middle man in hopes of creating a better future. Instead, the dreams of these players never materialize and the team moves on to the next hot recruit. The middle man moves on, having sold his bag of dreams to many very low bidders, from one team to the next.
The more I thought about this particular role, it occurred to me that there are thousands of Black folks with these very same jobs. University recruiters for big time football programs are charged with getting the coffers to “overflow.” That standard must be met just in case someone gets injured or decides to leave school early. Music companies hire A&R middle men to increase their “stables of artists” while ensuring that there is a sufficient surplus to give the company options. A few of the talent prospects make out well financially. Most though never get anywhere close to their goals.
The middle man does not sell an apprenticeship or a chance to considerably improve one’s skill set. The middle man sells exposure because that is all that he has at his disposal. He has no real power. He can make a few introductions and glad hand you – but he can’t make you a star. He can’t even convince his employers to make a commitment to you that matches your relative commitment to him. For hopeful families in Senegal, that might mean cooking meals or making payments to a middle man. The same would be true in Latin America. It also means gambling with the most valuable asset that many families have – and they’re gamble is predicated on the words of the conduit…not the commitments of a decision-maker.
Middle men have established deep roots in athletics, music and other fields and many have been able to get off the plantation of trafficking in raw cultural production to a position of ownership, leadership or refining the finished product. European football has not yet evolved to a point which is analogous to Georgetown basketball or Jive Records. Providers of raw talent like old high school coaches or long time recruiters can make the transition. The question is at what cost along the way. In many nations, the prospects of a successful athletic career is so dramatically better than other options (and the window of opportunity is to tight), that young cannot be expected to do anything but work toward their aspiration.