With two goals in England’s win against Iran on Monday (Nov. 21), Bukayo Saka became the youngest soccer player since 1966 to score twice on his World Cup debut. But the 21-year-old was already getting acclaim for recent achievements off the field before a ball was kicked in Qatar.
In Nigeria where his parents are from, Saka paid the bill for 120 children to obtain surgeries for severe conditions like hernias and brain tumors. The cost of the operations are not disclosed but the high cost of scarce quality healthcare in northern Nigeria where the surgeries were performed in October has seen Saka’s gesture gain widespread appreciation.
“I still feel very connected to Nigeria,” said the London-born Saka whose pride in his African heritage has always been reciprocated, even after he broke Nigerian hearts by accepting his first England call-up two years ago.
A positive theme around a contentious event
Saka donated for the surgeries through BigShoe, a charity founded during the 2006 World Cup to channel resources from sports players and fans to children with medical needs around the world. The non-profit says it has supported 1,600 children so far.
Another recent BigShoe benefactor is German player Antonio Rüdiger who pledged his expected World Cup bonuses to fund clubfoot surgeries for 11 children in Sierra Leone, which was his mother’s home until she fled the country’s early 90’s civil war. As in Nigeria, the surgeries have been performed in Sierra Leone with the children in recovery.
Saka and Rüdiger’s gestures are sunny subplots to a World Cup that has been accompanied by controversy around human rights. Hosts Qatar and FIFA (soccer’s governing body) have been accused of using the most popular sporting competition to achieve political purposes. The tournament has cost a staggering $220 billion to put together, a bill that may be hard to justify when the curtains close on Dec. 18.
Away from the chaos and contention, donating expected earnings for charitable causes is becoming a recourse for soccer players seeking some kind of personal legacy. It ensures they make a lasting contribution that promotes the beautiful game regardless of what the scoreboards say at the end of the day.
For Rüdiger, the gesture builds on his visit to Sierra Leone earlier this year to launch a foundation for education, seeding it with a $40,000 pledge. That is not going to fix the structural issues that position the country near the bottom of the UN’s latest human development index rankings. But an aid dependent country, as Sierra Leone has been for three decades, might as well get all the help it can.
Saka and Rüdiger follow in the footsteps of French World Cup winner Paul Pogba in channeling soccer earnings towards funding one-off medical care for children in Africa. Born by Guinean parents, Pogba funded surgeries in Tanzania in 2016. These are just three among many players with African parents who play professional soccer for wealthy countries. Could more players join the trend?
One such player on the US Men’s national team roster at this World Cup is Timothy Weah, son of Liberian president and soccer legend George Weah. The younger Weah scored the USMNT’s only goal in a draw against Wales on Monday.
Philanthropy from foreign players born to immigrant African parents compliment efforts by those born and raised on the continent, from Didier Drogba, and Samuel Eto’o, to Kanu Nwankwo, and Michael Essien. An injury is preventing Sadio Mané from playing for Senegal in Qatar, but the African player of the year has scored big goals off the field: last year, he donated $693,000 to fund a new hospital in Bambali, his home town 250 miles off Dakar.