The Damaging Culture of African Footballer Trafficking

In the summer of 2008, the president of football’s international governing body, Sepp Blatter, responded to a question regarding Cristiano Ronaldo’s apparent desire to leave Manchester United and join Real Madrid, the club the Portuguese had regularly described as his childhood treasured, by equating the contractual situation to modern-day slavery. “The important thing is we should also protect the player,” said Blatter, before continuing: “If the player wants to play somewhere else, then a solution should be found, because if he stays in a club where he does not feel comfortable, then it’s not good for the player or the club. I’m always in favour of protecting the player and if the player, he wants to leave, let him leave. I think in football there’s too much modern slavery in transferring players or buying players, and putting them somewhere.”

The reaction to the FIFA leader’s comments, not least from Sir Alex Ferguson’s office door, was of overwhelming outrage, seeing as Blatter conveyed either a tenuous grasp of history, or simply the unforgivably insensitive use of the term ‘slavery’ in relation to the purportedly unfair treatment of Ronaldo. Eschewing the comparison of historical slave conditions, modern-day slavery is broadly defined as the submission to authority for the purpose of economic exploitation; in other words, a confusingly inaccurate way to describe a professional athlete’s request for the termination of his willingly signed £100,000+ a week contract with arguably the world’s largest firm, in order to make £250,000 a week playing for one of his current employer’s biggest continental competitors.

Despite a reputation for trimming unruly influences, Ferguson tirelessly convinced his star asset to remain at Old Trafford for a further season, when he ‘reluctantly’ scored 25 goals as United reached the Champions’ League final for the second consecutive year following Premier League and Carling Cup triumphs, before eventually securing his protracted move to Madrid in July of 2009. It is widely considered that Real dwarfed their original investment of £80million in terms of shirt-sale income within hours of Ronaldo’s arrival, perhaps loosely exposing the economic exploitation Blatter had referred to a year earlier. I’m going to avoid describing the multifarious allegations of a more sinister nature that have littered Blatter’s presidency, but instead focus on an issue which the Swiss was so comfortable presenting his opinion on, albeit in an erroneous context.

It seems peculiar that the individual who retains a universal scale of influence in terms of football’s governance expressed his support for player protection when each year, thousands of young and vulnerable footballers are misled and manipulated by rogue agents, taken from their homes with the false promises of wealth and stardom, and then left to fend for themselves on foreign soil when the brutal reality is hastily acknowledged. This growing army of migrant talent has become a familiar part of the landscape in several major European cities, with children as young as 9 forced to beg on the streets of Milan or sell fake Prada handbags in Paris just to survive. The outcome these youngsters are guaranteed is as far removed as possible from the glamorous dream sold by Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, whose faces adorn every billboard in the Ivory Coast and Ghana respectively, selling anything from chocolate to mobile phones. But what is driving this damaging and abusive process and what measures are being conceived to prevent its intensification?

The reality, particularly in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where a large number of globally established footballers have been exported recently, is that the greater the success had by West African players in Europe, the vaster number of domestic Africans will believe they can follow this path. This has resulted in a substantial growth in the number of illegal football academies being established in Africa, offering children as young as six the chance to be noticed, with roughly 500 operating in Ghana’s capital, Accra, alone. Around 90% of these ‘centres’ are run by local men who claim to be ex-professional footballers, but in fact have limited experience, and are united in their shared intent on discovering the next Stephen Appiah or Asamoah Gyan; or a multi-million pound resource. Most of them charge subscription rates to the enrolled students’ parents and extended families, who, in several cases, remove them from routine schooling to allow them to concentrate on football full-time. The financial rewards reaped from having a professional footballer in the family evoke a rags to riches scenario of Hollywood proportions, so many consider the risk to their child’s education worth taking.

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In practice, the academies’ directors and the agents who are invited to attend training sessions, will persuade the family of a young student that a trial can be organized with an esteemed European club, before disclosing the extortionate cost of sending them abroad including that of flights, visa and accommodation. In almost every case, this leads to the family selling everything, from homes to family jewelry, in the firm belief that their boy will be returning millions from playing in Europe’s elite leagues. “These vulnerable people are lured into a kind of debt slavery in the expectation of a better life,” says Jean-Claude Mbvoumi, the president of Culture Foot Solidaire, a charity which assists African teenagers who are trafficked or sent to Europe for football trials and then abandoned. “These brokers are getting $3,000 per child and are offering to smuggle them out on the promise that they will sign for a big club. So many boys have gone missing in this way. Yes some of these boys have real talent, but it is not an agent they need, it is a mother and father.”

The ruthlessness of agents in discarding players who are unsuccessful at trials is the root of this problem. Those who fail to secure contracts are not returned home by the mediator who organizes the trip, and unable to afford the journey back to Africa, a considerable number turn to ominous practices just in order to survive. In other instances, the pressure to deliver the hopes of an entire family and community overwhelms the motivation for unlucky applicants to return home, often forcing them to mislead those who invested all to encourage their journey to Europe. This practice hasn’t gone completely unnoticed, and in 1999, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights investigated this process, specifically in France and Belgium, in a report which concluded by indicating the potential “danger of effectively creating a modern-day ‘slave trade’ in young African footballers.” But relatively little has been achieved since then, and FIFA didn’t agree to meet with Culture Foot Solidaire until 2008, having previously signed a Memorandum of Understanding to make football a force for development in Africa in 2006, with the express purpose of preventing the escalation of human trafficking.

This scandalous routine also hasn’t escaped the attention of current professionals who successfully migrated. “A lot of young players in Paris have nothing; they have come from Africa and if their trial doesn’t go well they are left on the streets,” explains Andre Bikey, who first signed for Espanyol before playing in Portugal, Russia and then England with Reading and Burnley. “Some agent will pick up the kid and take them to Europe, and if it doesn’t work out they abandon him. Young players in Africa do need more help and more attention.” Encouragingly, Culture Foot Solidaire have been assiduous in their efforts to support the estimated 20,000 child footballers who have been illegally shipped from Africa to Europe, and have identified as many as 1,200 in Paris alone. “So few make it, but they all come, more and more each year, and they are getting younger all the time. Everything is fluid in Africa – borders and passports. One-month visas are easy to get with bribes in Africa, but after they fail their trials they stay on. They have nothing to go back to,” Mbvoumi explains.

If the trade in African players is to be properly regulated and the more exploitative aspects of the process challenged, then the cooperation of European clubs is crucial. However, in a context where European Leagues and clubs are increasingly experiencing financial pressures, not least due to the recent global recession but also since UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations are to be implemented before the start of next season, it is highly likely that European football interests will continue with their proactive drive to seek out cheap recruits in Africa, swelling the opportunities for shrewd and callous agents to gamble on ambitious youngsters. Michel Platini, president of European football’s governing body, UEFA, used this heightening situation to further his chances of election in the presidential run-up of 2007, announcing: “How can we forget about those who don’t make it? Who are we to reduce them to a statistic, when perhaps we encouraged them to throw away their lives for a few thousand euros? It’s necessary for European football to recover its humanity, to put an end to bogus transfers of adolescents, to defend the values we uphold, and to protect the personality and the identity of even the youngest among us.”

Unfortunately, the focus since his appointment has strayed markedly from Africa’s plight and instead on streamlining European clubs’ finances, a strategy which has only served to strengthen this disquieting activity. In fact, as of 1st October 2009, there were 571 African-born/nurtured players employed by 528 clubs in 33 out of UEFA’s 36 member leagues, with Africans comprising 13.9% of the total number of footballing imports. More worryingly, the average age that Africans make the journey to Europe is 19.4, with the average age for all European expatriates being 21.9. “The harsh truth is that most of the time international results correlate with GDP per capita and population size – and on the former if not the latter, Africa just cannot compete,” says David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round. And this is essentially the heart of the issue; a culture which has been created provoking the departures of Africa’s best footballing talent in order to keep local economies and clubs surviving. Measures must be introduced at least with the intention of training players in their home countries for longer, as in South America, where the average age of players transferring to Europe for the first time is 22. For now, the number of talented Africans making the successful switch to the greater exposed leagues in Europe will increase, but for every new Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, hundreds more will be deceived by reprobate agents assuring the youngsters of Ronaldo-style slavery, but rather deserting them, their hopes and the aspirations of their families on arrival.

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