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Out of Africa

Football legend John Barnes was one of the many pioneering black footballers that forced the English game to confront racism in the 1980's as he tore opposition defences apart with Watford and Liverpool during a trophy-laden club career.

The Jamaican-born forward went on to represent England 79 times and scored one of the national team's most memorable goals when he bamboozled several Brazilian defenders before rounding the keeper to score at the famous Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.

He is currently working as a TV broadcaster, a scout in the Caribbean for Sunderland and in his latest role is helping to promote football in some of the poorest countries in Africa. Having travelled all over the continent Barnes is well placed to voice his opinion on African football and he believes it is high time that East Africa matched the achievements of their illustrious neighbours.

He is doing his bit to make that happen with charitable campaign ' Score Ethiopia' - which aims to promote football and build better facilities in the country's poorest areas - and Barnes believes the talent will come through if they can just be given a chance.

'You don't have as many East African players coming through as the East African countries aren't as strong as the West African but there are a few Tanzanians and you've got Kenyans playing in Europe too,' Barnes said.

'East Africa is behind West Africa but the talent is there.'

In 1989 Nii Odartey Lamptey left Ghana to join Anderlecht at the age of 14 and in doing so helped blaze a trail for West Africans to join Europe's lucrative football leagues. Now the likes of Didier Drogba from Cote D'Ivore and Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon are key players and big earners at their respective clubs, Chelsea and Barcelona.

North African clubs have won the last three African Cup of Nations, the continent's international championship, and the next World Cup will showcase what South Africa has to offer. Only the seam of talent in East Africa remains relatively untapped.

Conflicts and poverty have all played a part in hindering the advance of East African football and more recently political interference by the Kenyan government with the country's FA, the KFF, has seen the Harambee Stars banned and suspended from international football by FIFA.

Ethiopia were one of a trio of teams to participate in the inaugural African Cup of nations in 1957 and won the competition in 1962; but subsequent success has been hard to find since war and famine ravaged the country.

Barnes has been working with 'Score Ethiopia' to provide poverty stricken areas with essential aid packages that also include football facilities - ranging from stadiums to corner flags - to provide aspiring players with the possibility of escaping the hardships all too evident in their everyday lives.

'I have been all over Africa and football gives people some hope and some heart in an area where they have nothing. And I think it is amazing to see,' Barnes said.

'We know about the West African countries like Ghana and Cameroon and Nigeria and what they do in football. Football is as popular in East Africa even though they may not have been as successful. But you go and see people who have nothing getting so much enjoyment from football, it's a way of giving them some hope and enjoyment.'

A limited number of East Africans already play in Europe, such as Kenyan striker Dennis Oliech at Auxerre, compatriot McDonald Mariga at Parma and Mozambique international Paíto at Sporting de Braga; but the examples a few and more need a chance abroad to improve the standard of the region.

In the past, desperate African youngsters have taken dubious routes to secure a place in European football. Back in 1989 the aforementioned Lamptey illegally crossed three African borders in the back of a taxi and then flew to Belgium on a fake Nigerian passport to escape the neglect of an abusive childhood in Ghana.

In the current era methods have changed but young African players still yearn to escape to Europe and the clubs are happy to take them, even if some routes appear to be controversial.

'The talent is there and there are avenues to get into Europe and it's something that has been going on for years,' Barnes said.

In 2006 Nigeria midfielder Mikel John Obi signed for Chelsea but he originally moved to Europe as a 16-year-old amateur with Norwegian side Lyn Oslo. Upon tuning 18 Mikel supposedly signed a professional contract with Lyn before making his disputatious move to Chelsea, via Manchester United.

Former Lyn director Morgan Andersen was later convicted of falsifying documents, in particular Mikel's forged signature on his professional contract with the Oslo club, and was handed one-year suspended jail sentence. Given the controversy that surrounded the Mikel saga FIFA are now attempting to shut down the channels that brought Mikel to Europe.

FIFA have subsequently ruled that FC Midtjylland breached its child protection rule, Article 19, when the Danish club engaged three minors from Nigeria as players in its amateur ranks. The players, as students at local schools, have the same amateur status that Mikel enjoyed during his time at Lyn. Youngsters cannot sign professional contracts until they are 18-years-old.

The club have vowed to fight what they claim is a 'racist verdict' that violates the European Commission's Cotonou partnership agreement with African nations. The Cotonou pact vows to fight against poverty via economic and trade partnerships and improved financial cooperation.

A number of East African players also have places at clubs throughout Scandinavia and Barnes believes that although FIFA insist there are question marks over the handling of young African players no avenue should be closed to the youngsters.

'You have to realise that these are boys who won't get opportunities and so they have to go through different routes. If you are a young footballer and you do not play enough games for the national team you are not going to be given a work permit.'

'In Europe there is a structure in place. You get a 15-year-old kid poached by another European club then I think it is wrong and something has to be done about that. But a little kid in Africa who is looking to help his family... although technically it may be wrong or exploiting a situation... but for that individual who wants to help his family and has no other means of doing it - well, you know. FIFA don't have to do anything.'

'You are talking about a boy in Africa who has been given an opportunity to go and better himself.

'Until a proper structure is in place in Africa, where clubs can get properly compensated for their players this is the only way for these youngsters to be given an opportunity in life.

'You can't stop the players from going because they will be lost to Europe and the clubs won't get the benefit anyway.'

Since the misfortune that befell the highly-rated Lamptey, who fell foul of unscrupulous money men and personal tragedy, the path leading West African's to Europe has become a well-trodden one.

Champions League semi-finalists Chelsea and quarter-finalists Arsenal both boast a number of the continent's top talent in their ranks - many of whom got their original break by joining some of Europe's smaller club.

'Africans are playing all over Europe. You look at Toure and Eboue; they are at Arsenal but they came via Belgium. You look at Drogba who cost £18million. If you have the talent the opportunities will be there.'

Since West African players began to ply their trade in Europe the national teams of the region have benefited from stars playing in high quality leagues and this in turn has benefited football in each country. In 2006 three West African teams - Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo - qualified for the World Cup - with established West African powers Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal all missing out.

Football academies have been established in West Africa, bringing about some of the structure that Barnes deems so important. The flagship is undoubtedly the Abidjan football academy in Cote D'Voire, whose graduates include: Kolo Touré, Aruna Dindane, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, Yaya Touré and Emmanuel Eboué.

The exodus of West African players has brought back benefits for domestic football in the region and now East Africa must follow suit if they are to grow in international football. Players going abroad is key to that development and to prevent their exit will hinder football's evolution, but more than that it may offer hope to suffering individuals.

'If you are living in poverty in Africa and you are given an opportunity to go abroad and you can't because you are being told it is wrong for the English or European clubs, well that doesn't necessarily help you.' Barnes concluded.

• To get involved with 'Score Ethiopia', you can help by pitching a pound or more, visit:

• If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.