Book Review: First Touch by J. J. Welsh

There was a time when the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was a tournament that was generally ignored by the media, clubs and fans in Europe. However, this tide has turned over the years as African players such as Roger Milla, Abedi Pele, Kanu, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure have become famous names not only in Europe, but around the world.

However, if you look at the teams lining up in the forthcoming 2015 AFCON Finals in Equatorial Guinea, you will see that it isn’t all about the star players plying their trade in the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 or Serie A. The influence of African talent has now spread across Europe and not just in the top leagues.

Take the 23 man squad from Cameroon for example. Their group is drawn from clubs in Belgium, Cameroon, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey and USA.

How these players can make this journey from Africa to Europe is central to First Touch, a novel by J. J. Welsh.

It opens with a Preface, set in Abidjan within Ivory Coast, where the readers are introduced to Ismael Bamba and Habib Akoun – schoolboys and friends who play football on the streets and share a dream of being professional footballers. There is then a leap of several years as the opening chapter begins and Welsh shifts the scene to mainland Europe and starts the process of laying down the characters and plotline.

At the heart of this book is the story of Ismael and Habib, focusing on their respective, but very different journeys from the Ivory Coast to France in the hope of pursuing their dream of a professional football career. What runs alongside and is intertwined with that storyline is an introduction to a number of characters who are involved in the football industry in academies as well as agents and scouts.

What Welsh highlights through the book, is that the football world can be an unscrupulous one, and he opens the window on the issue of young African footballers who become abandoned in Europe by unscrupulous agents.

The author is to be praised for bringing this serious topic into the public domain through First Touch, and it is evident that Welsh has carried out extensive research in the writing of this book. However, there are occasions that the factual detail isn’t smoothly integrated into the narrative, so stopping the flow of what is an otherwise good paced book.

First Touch explores one of the murkier sides of football, but it is also about the human spirit and the desire to succeed. It is a story that will appeal whether you are a football fan or not.


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