African Football: Out of the Ghetto

"In Africa it is very, very rare to find a football player who grew up with a silver spoon. Probably 0%." - Daniel Amokachi (Former Nigeria striker)

Stories of players shrugging off an underprivileged background to reach the top can be found all over the globe, and the superstars of African football are no exception.

With standards of play and facilities on the continent continuing to improve and the production of global superstars like Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o, African football looks to be in rude health - but some players have to do it the hard way.

Three of African football's biggest stars - Liberia legend George Weah, former Cameroon star Patrick Mboma and Amokachi - have explained how they shrugged off the challenges of their circumstances to scale the heights in their careers.

The trio notched up more than 150 international caps between them, winning three Africa Cup of Nations, two Olympic gold medals and four African Footballer of the Year awards in addition to a host of club honours. But it could all have been so different.

For Weah, growing up in Liberia's capital Monrovia was fraught with difficulties. With social, political and economic problems, it was not the easiest environment to nurture a mesmerising footballing talent.

But the former Monaco, Paris St Germain, AC Milan and Chelsea striker used his love of the game to escape the hardships of everyday life.

"Growing up in my community, I must thank God. We didn't know our future; we were just hoping one day things would be better," he told BBC Sport.

"Football kept me out of trouble in the ghetto. Some of my friends were doing drugs and stealing from people, but the time it took to make trouble in our neighbourhood, I would be out playing."

Despite his obvious talent, Weah did not have it easy in his early career.

"We had nothing. There were a lot of setbacks. The most difficult part was that I felt nobody loved me, coaches were not against me but I was not their favourite player - they said I was lazy," added Weah.

"Even though I could score and get them results, I was not a starting player. I accepted that, and worked on my weaknesses to become one of the best players in the country."

This determination led Weah to unparalleled recognition as an African footballer. In 1995, he was named World, European and African Player of the Year - two Serie A titles followed in 1996 and 1999 before an FA Cup triumph with Chelsea in 2000.

But he has not forgotten his roots, having moved into politics and stood for Liberia's presidency at the end of his playing career.

"I was in a position to help a lot of people, that's why I prayed to be successful," he said.

"Everybody who helped me knows I recognise them every day, like the coach who brought me to the Liberian Premier League, and believed in me when everyone else was putting me down.

"Putting Africa on the world map through sport was the greatest thing that happened to me."

Cameroon's second-highest goalscorer, Patrick Mboma - who will be working in South Africa for French television and radio - tells a similar tale to Weah.

Mboma left his native country for France aged just two-and-a-half and the now retired 39-year-old forward - who appeared at two World Cups and had spells in France, Italy, Japan and England - recognises how early life gave rise to his achievements.

"I discovered to become a footballer, it is better to have a difficult start as you have to fight," Mboma told BBC Sport.

"If you have the experience when you are young to battle against the elements it's a better way to improve."

The two-time Africa Cup of Nations and Olympic gold medal winner grew up in a deprived northern suburb of Paris and accepts he might have taken a very different path.

"When I tell people I grew up in Bondy, they say: 'ooh, what a neighbourhood'," he said.

"I could have turned to different things because I had the opportunity to do what others did: smoking, dealing drugs, stealing.

"We were a poor family, but because of football it helped me to follow the right way, and the result was not so bad."

Meanwhile, former Everton frontman Amokachi - assistant coach of the Nigeria side taking part in the tournament - also overcame hardships and even defied parental pressure to follow his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

"My parents didn't want me to play soccer, they said 'football was for losers'," said Amokachi.

"It wasn't really what they wanted me to do, but in the end they found football is a business and now everyone encourages their son to play."

The 37-year-old is most remembered in the UK for his spell with the Toffees between 1994-1996 when he helped guide them to FA Cup final success in 1995.

Amokachi was part of the Nigeria team that participated in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups and which won the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations. He also helped guide his side to the Olympic gold medal in 1996, scoring in the final against Argentina.

He said: "Growing up in Africa we liked kicking stuff from the streets - we kicked cans, oranges and plastic bags.

"Most of us are from the slums. But I think that's the drive, you've found something in football that would help you get out of poverty; that's why when we get to a professional football team we give our all."

So on the eve of the World Cup, the stage is set for the new generation of African internationals to 'give their all', to entertain the millions of watching eyes across the globe, and guarantee that the future of African football remains strong.

"I don't know what I would be without football," admitted Weah, speaking for thousands of people around the globe.

Exclusively by: Karen Fazackerley & Tim Hague | BBC Correspondent

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