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Soccer’s Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

Soccer’s Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

The World Cup isn’t just a fantastic festival of football — it’s also a shop window for professional clubs looking to spice up their squads with new talent. Even for players on losing teams, the tournament offers a chance to catch the eye of the agents, scouts, managers, and executives who can seal million-dollar contracts. Plenty of established players will be in Brazil, so who else stands to gain the most?

The poorest countries sending teams to the World Cup are the four from West Africa: Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Nigeria. With incomes per capita below $2,000 in all of these countries, a star footballer making the move to one of Europe’s top leagues might earn more in a week than he did through all of the previous season.

Of course, big bucks are nothing new to strikers like Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, or indeed most of the players for the West African squads. But consider the case of Cédric Djeugoué, a 21-year-old defender for Coton Sport, the current champions of Cameroon. His team is based in Garoua, a town of somewhere around 400,000 people — depending who’s counting — in the far north of the country, where temperatures rarely fall below 90 degrees. According to Coton Sport’s president, Gabriel Mbaïrobé, his players earn about $1,000 a week.

That’s quite a chunk of change for anyone in Cameroon, but the deal Eto’o signed with Chelsea last year paid him £100,000 a week (about $155,000 at the time). That was a pay cut of 71 percent versus his previous wages at Anzhi Makhachkala, a team in the Russian league whose obscurity belies the deep pockets of its billionaire owner, Suleyman Kerimov. Either way, Eto’o was earning two orders of magnitude more than Djeugoué.

The youngster is scheduled to start today’s match against Mexico, but just having been called into the squad will already have attracted the attention of European scouts. And Djeugoué won’t be the only one looking for a shot at the big time. Ghana’s Harrison Afful made it into the Dutch club Feyenoord’s academy as a teenager but ended up being loaned to Asante Kotoko, known as "The Great Porcupines of Africa", in Kumasi. Now playing for Espérance Sportive in Tunis, he has recently attracted interest from France. With his 28th birthday around the corner, though, he could probably use some World Cup minutes to boost his chances of a big-money move.

Though Djeugoué and Afful may be among the lowest-paid players in Brazil, at the team level it’s hard to beat Honduras. About half of its squad is based domestically, where income per capita stands around $2,300 and players’ salaries are similar to those in Cameroon. Luis Garrido, a defensive midfielder known as "The Beast", is the youngest prospect who stands a chance of playing; the only younger domestic player is the third-choice goalkeeper, Luis López. For Garrido and 24-year-old playmaker Mario Martínez, a single touch of the ball could represent a once-in-a-lifetime chance at untold riches. After all, Honduras is hardly guaranteed to quality for the next World Cup in 2018.

So if any of these players do manage to take the field in the coming weeks, I’ll be rooting for them no matter who the opposition might be. For them, there’s much more at stake than just a trophy.