La Liga Santander has enjoyed a surge in popularity on the African continent, fuelled not just because the Spanish top-flight is home to the biggest football superstars but also because fans watching from any part of the continent are more likely than not, to see a reflection of themselves in the players on the pitch.
Over the years, scores of footballers of African origin have adorned the hallowed turfs of La Liga clubs peaking at 36 between 2014 and 2016 and with their presence, opened a pathway for a whole new generation of African fans to fall in love with the Spanish game.
While the historical successes of Real Madrid and Barcelona played a key role in selling the Spanish top-flight on the continent and the presence of Guinea’s Salif Keita in Valencia in the mid-seventies helped attract an early generation of fans, it was the nineties and early 2000s that truly exposed African fans to the diversity of La Liga beyond its traditional big sides.
The transfers of Nigerian trio Emmanuel Amuneke, Mutiu Adepoju and Finidi George to Spanish clubs coupled with the presence of South Africa’s Quinton Fortune, Cameroon’s Geremi Njitap and a fledgling Samuel Eto’o amongst others led to a new found admiration and a surge in following on the continent for previously unknown La Liga clubs.
Their success in La Liga convinced Spanish top-flight clubs of the viability of the African footballer and the ubiquity of cable television which meant an ever increasing number of Africans could watch their compatriots in La Liga engendered a two-way relationship that endures till date.
The intervening years has seen the Spanish top-flight flight nurture and produce bonafide global superstars of African origin with the likes of Eto’o, Yaya Toure, Seidou Keita and Frederic Kanoute becoming global household names in their time in Spain.
The torch is now being carried by the likes of Samuel Chukwueze, Djene Dakonam and Sevilla’s goalscoring sensation Youssef En-Nesyri and other prominent African stars on the rise in La Liga.
And it is a phenomenon that is also being replicated in the Spanish women’s top-flight which has enjoyed exponential growth on the back of an influx of some of Africa’s best footballers such as Ida Rebecca, Jade Boho, Rasheedat Ajibade and reigning CAF footballer of the year Asisat Oshoala who became the first African to score in the Champions League final last year when she netted for Barcelona against Lyon.
While the above is a broad testament of the excellent sporting projects of Spanish football clubs, it is also clear evidence of the success of La Liga’s strategy to establish a presence on the continent to explore commercial opportunities, expand the frontiers of the league and contribute to the growth of the game in the grassroots across the continent.
This strategy has allowed smaller clubs like Osasuna who ordinarily would be stymied by a lack of resources to have a presence on the continent and seek ways to cultivate and reconnect with a fan base with fading memories of the club’s historical African connection.
In their centenary year, the Navarrese club are currently enduring a less than ideal campaign and are in danger of dropping to the second division.
It is a far cry from the halcyon days of Osasuna’s great years spearheaded by the excellent Cameronian forward Pierre Webo and Moroccan Moha El Yaagoubi who helped the club reach the Copa Del Rey final in 2005 and achieve their highest ever La Liga finish with 4th place in 2006. Little known Nigerian Emeka Ifejiagwa also turned out for the club in the 1999/2000 season.
While the priority, understandably, is to secure their place in La Liga at the end of the season, club president Luis Sabalza remembers the impact of Webo in particular, on their successes in those swaggering years and is eager to rekindle Osasuna’s love affair with Africa.
So, could we see the club make a play for an African player or two in the January window to help them beat the drop?
For Sabalza, there would be “no problems at all” especially if the player in question can replicate Webo’s impact on the pitch, embody his values off it.
“I have no problems at all of having an African player and especially if he could have such good human values like Pierre Webo,” Sabalza said in a call with journalists organised by La Liga.
“I was fortunate to share with him in the stands watching a friendly match and apart from the fact that he really delighted me when he played and I saw a match on the pitch, I realise that also, he had true feelings [for Osasuna] and he really felt connected to the club and he said that Osasuna was very special.
“So, I’d have no problems at all for any players to come, wherever they come from they’ll always be welcome and I’d like to say this, all the players that join us never want to leave.”