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The soccer slave trade in Africa

The lure of untold riches makes thousands of young hopeful footballers from African countries pay huge sums of money to dubious agents who swindle them. Nick Harding reports on a charity that is helping such players who are abandoned overseas

By Nick Harding, <i>Friday</i> magazine
14 Jun 2013 | 12:00 am
  • Source:AFP Image 1 of 4
  • Ivorian Elephants' Didier Drogba (R) vies with Libyan Ahmed Osman (L) in a African Nations Cup (CAN)-Mondial 2006 elimination match 06 June 2004 at Abidjan. The Elephants won, 2-0.

    Source:AFP Image 2 of 4
  • Boys play soccer at Gyandu park in Sekondi.

    Source:REUTERS Image 3 of 4
  • Eye on the prize: Young, poor football players in Ghana and in Ivory Coast are some of the most vulnerable.

    Source:© Ding Haitao/Xinhua Press/Corb Image 4 of 4

Four years ago Luc Rosso was 16 and living in Cameroon. The promising young footballer attended a local football academy and had dreams of becoming a famous player like Aurélien Chedjou, one of his country’s most celebrated athletes, who recently signed up to play for Galatasaray in Istanbul. So when Luc was approached by a Nigerian scout who promised him a trial in Europe, he thought his dreams were about to come true.

“The agent had seen me play and knew my dream was to be at the very top,’’ says Luc. “He said I could play at a good level.” But there was a cost: The man wanted £6,500 (Dh37,134) to fund Luc’s trip overseas for some football trials at top clubs.

“The agent told my mother that if she could pay the amount I could get a deal. So she borrowed money from various people and gave it to the agent,” says Luc. She hoped that once Luc began playing for a big club, the money he earned would help her take care of her four other children and improve their life.

Everything appeared to be going well and a few days later, Luc was taken to Paris where he was told he would have a trial with a Portuguese club. “The agent took me to the Garde du Norde station and told me that we would get a train from there to the trial venue. He told me to wait on the platform while he got together a few other boys. That was the last I saw of him,’’ says Luc. After waiting on the platform for more than eight hours he realised he had been abandoned.

The teenager, who had never been overseas before, was scared and didn’t know what to do or who to approach for help. “I slept on the streets and in the underground,’’ he says. All he had was his suitcase, which had his football kit and a few provisions like some dried fruits and nuts that his mother had packed. He had given all the money he had to the agent.

Fake agent, fake tryout

Luc was another victim of a con that has fooled thousands of poor young African footballers. The ‘agent’ was obviously bogus. There was no trial. Today Luc doesn’t have enough money to return home and his mother owes thousands of pounds to loan sharks who are constantly at her door. The family has been reduced to growing cocoa plants around their home to make ends meet.

After spending months homeless and on the streets, Luc was spotted by volunteers of a charity called Foot Solidaire, who helped him find free accommodation. They also provided him with some money for food and his basic necessities. But not all such football hopefuls – who come from as far away as Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal – are as lucky.

“I’m lucky Foot Solidaire found me,’’ says 
Luc. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d still be on the roads or worse.’’

Ask any of the boys kicking worn-out balls in one of Africa’s football academies who they aspire to be and the answers are always the same: Ivorians Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, and Yaya Touré and Ghanian Michael Essien. They dream of playing in Europe like their idols. Cashing in on this dream are scouts who frequent ramshackle clubs in Africa hoping to spot a lucrative prodigy.

Each year, hundreds of football hopefuls end up in Europe, though not with a professional player’s contract. Instead, 
they find themselves living on the streets like Luc, without money and abandoned after being targeted by so-called agents. Many become targets of criminal gangs. Success stories like those of Drogba and Essien are rare.

Paris-based Foot Solidaire helps many people whose dreams turn sour. It acts as a support network for youngsters abandoned in France and directs them to the relevant social services they need to find accommodation and work.

It also lobbies international sports bodies and national governments to raise awareness about the problem. The charity’s founder, former Cameroonian international player Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, says the problem is as global as the game.

“Today the trafficking of young African players is increasing. It is not easy for Foot Solidaire. We are not funded for this scale, we have more and more cases of young people being trafficked,” he says.

A legend gives back

Cameroon football legend Roger Milla is the NGO’s roving ambassador. “As a former footballer from the African continent, I owed 
it to myself to make my own humble contribution to improve the fate of these youngsters. It was my responsibility,” he has said. “It was also a way to give something back to the game after all it had given me.”

The organisation has, over the years, dealt with a wide variety of cases. “We’re constantly uncovering new problems,” says Jean-Claude. “The main danger is that young players are being treated like objects.”

The money and glamour of professional soccer lure children from some of the poorest countries in the world. In Ghana, many 
families survive on as little as Dh4 a day, so 
the opportunity to earn a huge wage playing 
in Europe, Asia, the US or the Gulf is irresistible. Fake sports agents exploit these dreams to a shocking extent.

Governments, football’s governing bodies and international lawyers consider this human trafficking. An estimated 20,000 hopefuls from around the world have fallen prey to it.

Trafficking young footballers is so lucrative that it has become an important part of organised crime. An investigation in 2007 revealed that businessmen in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, who were once preoccupied with diamond and timber smuggling have shifted their focus to young and underage football players, establishing illegal training schools across the country in an attempt to farm out the best talent to some of the largest clubs around the world. Often, the young players 
and their families end up in debt and without 
a contract to play.

The authorities have taken measures to stop this cruel practice. In Ghana, football academies have to be licensed, but many are not. Agents also must be licensed by governing bodies such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa). But many still operate without permission.

At licensed Cheetah FC in Accra, Ghana, where the motto is ‘The impossible is possible’, many of its promising young players have attended trials in countries such as Turkey, Greece and Portugal. But some have been victims of fake agents.

The club’s chief executive officer Abdul-Hayye Yartey says, “It is the dream of every family in Ghana to see their boy play in Europe or outside Africa. They believe that aside from the fame, the boy will be getting some money to take care of the family as well.”

One such boy is 15-year-old Maurice Koné. He was known on his team for his technical skill and sharp eye for the goal in Koumassi, 
in the south of Abidjan, where he lived. He 
was thrilled when a so-called agent invited him to a trial for a club in Switzerland. The agent asked for Dh11,700, a huge sum, which Maurice’s father – who earned just $290 (Dh1,065) a month – found difficult to raise. He borrowed the money in the hope that Maurice would be able to follow his dream and eventually support his seven siblings on his footballer’s wage.

Maurice joined the agent and seven other teenagers. When the day came to fly to Switzerland, the group of youngsters discovered their destination had been changed to Pattaya, Thailand. They had several inconclusive trials with Thai clubs and were eventually abandoned.

The boys stayed in the country together for four months, scraping together money doing casual labour. Some of them managed to go to Spain where they hoped their chances of making it would be bigger, while others found an escape by training with Tunisian clubs. “But I don’t know if they’ve accomplished their dream or not,” he says.

Maurice, who is still in Thailand, was helped by Foot Solidaire to find some casual work and a place to stay. Despite being let down, he still has dreams of becoming a professional footballer.

Shipping youngsters around the world chasing dreams is a practice that Fifa frowns upon. It is taking steps to protect minors, but no matter how many measures are in place, the gap between the riches on offer for successful footballers and the poverty-stricken reality of the young players is so wide, the lure is too much to resist, and too easy to exploit.

Campaigners continue to raise awareness of the issue, but Foot Solidaire’s Jean-Claude is not sure that the message is getting through.

“Football is not well governed... Bad practice is the norm. There is no control. When you call it ‘trafficking’, most African countries are surprised. They think the agents are helping children to have a better life.

“It is not about football, it is a humanitarian issue, it is a criminal act.”

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Making a difference

What: Foot Solidaire http://www.footsolidaire.org
Where: France
How: Protecting young football players from being exploited by fake agents

By Nick Harding, <i>Friday</i> magazine

By Nick Harding, Friday magazine