A New Slave Trade

Football can fulfil the dreams of a young boy and his family trying to escape poverty. Around the world but especially in Africa boys are inspired by the players such as the current icon, Egypt’s and Liverpool’s, Mo Salah, that they see on TV. They learn of the wealth associated with international football stars, coming to believe that a career in football is a way out of destitution. For many young Africans, the rags to riches stories of the professional football player offers a route to the trappings associated with a lavish lifestyle.

But as well as hope there is greed, with unscrupulous shady football agents luring under-age talented players from Africa and South America then abandoning them if they fail to make their mark. 

‘Whoever does make it, can earn lots of money,’ said Cristophe Gleizes, a French journalist who wrote a book on the modern enslavement of African footballers. ‘African players are handled as traded goods, as if they were a kilo of cacao or cotton. European clubs come here to find cheap labour.’

15,000 young players are moved from West Africa each year under false pretences, estimates the charity Foot Solidaire, but a lack of monitoring means the number being trafficked abroad could be far higher.

The greater the success of African players, the more unaccredited academies spring up. Most demand fees from the children’s parents, who often take their children out of normal schooling to concentrate on football full-time. Since having a professional footballer in the family would be the financial equivalent of a lottery win, many reckon the risk to their child’s education worth taking. Middlemen haggle over the best players with the hope of making a lucrative return by selling the boys on to clubs in Europe, signing some as young as seven on binding pre-contracts – effectively buying the kids from their families. They also demand travel-costs from the families, taking the deeds on houses as security. This process of exploitation is raising alarm among NGOs including Save the Children and Caritas.

‘This football-related trafficking and the widespread creation of so-called schools of excellence is an area of huge growing concern for Save The Children,’ says Heather Kerr, the charity’s Ivory Coast country manager.

Tony Baffoe, the former Ghana captain, admits that ‘the trafficking of children to play football is a reality we must all face’.

The BBC in 2015 reported that African footballers as young as 14 years were being traded to Laos to attend a fictitious football academy. Champasak United, a club which plays in Laos’ top league, had imported 23 under-aged players intending to profit by selling the players on at a later stage. They became illegal immigrants after their visas ran out and the boys rarely left the stadium where they both lived and worked every day. The youths told the BBC they were poorly fed, rarely paid and received no medical assistance despite contracting malaria and typhoid because of the conditions. One described their existence at Champasak United as akin to ‘slave work’. As a result of the expose in April the Laos Football Federation (LFF) was fined 690,000 Swiss francs by Fifa.

‘It’s important to dream,’ says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroonian international, ‘but the dreams about football now are not realistic.’

Every year hundreds of young African players come to Europe in the hope of striking it rich. A handful make it but far more fail.

Raffaele Poli, a Swiss academic, has studied the career paths of African footballers in Europe. He looked at 600 players who played in the top European leagues in 2002. Four years later, only 13 percent had progressed upwards. A third had simply disappeared from professional football. Players are simply abandoned on the streets by their agents when they fail a trial or have their contract terminated.

The so-called agents are not the only ones making a profit. The European clubs benefit, too. In Africa serious money is being invested to operate academies or to buy a share in a minor league club. Just one top-class player every five years would cover the running costs of these accredited academies.

Football puts a price on players and talks of  “buying”,  “selling”,  or “giving out on loan” them. Footballers are real commodities influenced by market forces such as supply and demand and there exists a business akin to the slave-trade to make profits out of people.


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