The Soccer Slaves
The Champions League trophy was his pride possession, when he got past Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich in the final shootout. Didier Drogba was kissing his Chelsea badge, he was ecstatic – so was the whole continent of Africa. Thousands of young Africans started dreaming big, once again, to become the next Drogba or Michael Essien or Samuel Eto’o. Ironically the reality was not so charming.
Innumerable young ambitious players from Africa are left stranded far from home, abandoned in Europe. By a bunch of crafty, crooked, cut-throat coaches – the new age slave traders. Srinwantu Dey delves into the issue to uncover a most ruthless form of football trade and tries to look for ways to eradicate the detrimental problem of trafficking of minors, which is sadly still largely ignored
Back in 2005, the world was in for a shock, when Belgian Senator Jean-Marie Dedecker, at a conference in Copenhagen, declared that he has investigated 442 cases of illegal trade of Nigerian football players in Belgium. Dedecker revealed that the deals are made by an agency connected to football schools by scooping up the transfer fees while the athletes get nothing. He even stated that he received death threats following his plans to travel to Nigeria to investigate the root of the problem.
Yes, the condition is that critical. Thousands of African youths have a dream of leaving their lives of poverty to play football in Europe and become multi-millionaires like Drogba or Essien. But the eventual fate of their dreams tends to be harsh and cruel. Most of them fail to get into the professional teams in top European leagues and are thrown back onto the streets. Without money, without family, without any hope of coming back – their multi-million Euro dreams go in vain. The majority of the youth trafficked into Europe are from Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal. Football has become a medium of youth trafficking from Africa. Currently around 13% of foreign players playing in different European leagues are African but the number of players who are dumped and deserted is too alarming.
There are thousands of unlicensed and illegal football academies in Africa which create the illusion of European glory to the slum children. They have spent their lives in poverty, under ragged roofs, in torn clothes. People like Didier Drogba or Michael Essien showed the way to earn money, fame, a good lifestyle. The current hopeless situation of African nations cannot offer them much; however, they seek to escape poverty by emulating Essien’s success or Drogba’s glory. The illegal academies and the agencies happily take advantage of this vulnerable situation. The state of affairs is far worse than we can think of.
The students are bound to pay a lump-sum amount to get registered in the academies and sign up contracts with agencies. In exchange, they are supposed to get a chance to play at European top leagues. The poor families sell their belongings (even homes) to collect money to pursue their million-dollar dream. These academies not only lack proper facilities to train the young boys, they are in want of better fields and staff members. In Accra itself, they have more than 500 illegal academies which toy with their future. Often these unlicensed academies run on a daily payment system. A video by Al Jazeera TV shows a coach of one such academy beating up a young boy for not offering the payment and nonchalantly admitting that he can transfer his players to any agent who approaches him, without the slightest verification. A 2010 demographic study shows the average age of departure abroad for Africans to be almost two and half years less than that for all other origins – which clearly depicts the degree of immature African footballer trading.
Eventually, the young boys are sent to Europe without adequate training. The agencies promise them trials at top clubs, mostly in France, Italy, Belgium and the East European countries, however, reality is far from it. With no clubs, no money and no visa, these African boys are thrown to the streets as illegal immigrants. During chilly European winters, they become desperate for food and shelter and slowly get sucked into the world of crime. The agencies make thousands of Euros from each boy but just smuggle them out promising a good future. Apart from drugs and guns, human trafficking becomes a most profitable source of smuggling. They are nothing other than football slaves. An academic study in 2009 estimated as many as 20,000 African boys living on the streets of Europe after failing to secure contracts with European clubs following their trials. Another study shows approximately 700 young players from Cameroon alone go to Europe to build their career every year. This unscrupulous business starts seeing the children as money-making objects, if even a hint of talent is discovered. The greed to play in Europe is so luring that according to a BBC report after the 2003 U-17 World Championship, 14 players from Sierra Leone just disappeared while the team was returning from Finland. Later they applied for political asylum but why and how they disappeared was never disclosed to the public at the time. Today, we can only guess the answer.
How to stop this crime?This is a huge matter of discussion among FIFA partners and other governing bodies. As mentioned earlier, Belgian Senator Dedecker did a thorough trial in this regard and according to him, the way to fight the exploitation could be more severe immigration laws or a tax on transfer fees which would be used to benefit those who have been exploited by the human trade. His findings are amazing. He discovered that apart from the 30 legal football agents in Belgium there exist around 170 other illegal counterparts. Shockingly, a few of the former players are also engaged in this highly corrupt business. The death threats faced by him only emphasize his conclusions.
Former Cameroon international, Jean-Claude Mbvoumin stepped up against this slavery and set up an NGO in France by the name of Culture Foot Solidaire, that tries to help young Africans who realize they have been exploited by false football agents and dumped by a club as their talents failed to develop as expected. Cameroon superstar Roger Milla is working tirelessly as an ambassador for this NGO and trying to explain the harsh situations to young talents and most importantly to their parents. This project is backed by FIFA to portray a clear picture of the cutthroat reality to illiterate children to prevent them from getting duped easily by fake agents. There are other ex-players also involved to get rid of this giant scam. One sting operation reveals a corrupt agent of Nigeria named Coach Innocent who claims to arrange trial at Arsenal FC in return of $2100 – which the London club denies when contacted later. The situation needs to be explained to young Africans more clearly else their ambitions will have to pay a really high price.
Apart from racism and doping, football trafficking is becoming an atrocity, looming large over the football sphere. The muscle drain of African football players to Europe must be stopped. This slavery needs to be abolished – it’s always better to prevent the disease than curing the wound. FIFA and other concerned bodies must go to the heart of the problem and provide a clear picture of the unrealistic dreams. It is really vital to nurture the talents with proper care and scrutinize the academies carefully. Only then can we wipe off slavery one more time from the face of this earth.