The African Football Slaves of the 21st Century

In the last few years, countless African talents have achieved superstardom in European club football. Not that there weren’t any earlier, but the sheer number of African players in the top five European leagues is currently higher than ever. Through their individual talent and hard work, several of these African players have attained world-class status. However, the performance of African teams in global tournaments, namely, the World Cup, hasn’t been fruitful lately.  

In last summer’s World Cup, not a single African team went past the group stage. Though there are several reasons that caused this outcome, veteran coach Claude LeRoy has pointed his fingers at the dismal state of youth academies in Africa, where football agents are the new slave merchants.

In a recent interview with BBC Sport, LeRoy, who led Cameroon to victory in the 1998 African Cup of Nations, said, “The only target of these agents is to sell players for a little bit of money. [I’ve been] fighting against these kind of people for more than 20 years.”

Jake Marsh, head of training and youth protection for the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), estimates that as many as 15,000 trafficked players enter Europe each year. Inspired by the glamour of Europe’s top leagues and cajoled by agents who tell them they can be the next big star, these children leave their families in Africa for the glistening pitches of England, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany to chase their dreams.

But the dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Instead of promised on-field battles for the big European clubs, they are faced with a fight for survival. The challenge is not to break into the starting XI, but to find something to eat, and somewhere to sleep.

Unintentionally, they have become football’s filthy little secret. Victims of football’s version of human trafficking; a slave trade which breaks up families, ships children to foreign cities and then abandons them, all for the quest for money.

There are two primary player exporting ‘zones’ for traffickers: North Africa, and the coastal nations in the sub-Saharan west of the continent.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights released a report in 2009 warning that a “modern slave trade” is being created with young African players. In a report by the Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), a charity set up to fight against football trafficking, there were more than 7,000 reported cases in France alone between 2005 and 2014.

Foot Solidaire calculates that agents pocket anywhere between £2,000 and £6,500 for each child they send to a fictitious trial. According to CFS, 98% of those would-be footballers who make it to Paris are illegal immigrants, and 70% are under the age of 18.

While the phenomenon of football migration from Africa to Europe has existed for the better part of a century, only in the past two decades has it developed into a major movement. Strong performances by African teams in the world youth championships of the late 1980s and early 1990s awakened the world to the emerging talent in the continent. This was accelerated by EU rules on free movement, which lifted the quotas on the number of overseas players that a club could play or employ.

The majority of the boys brought in from Africa are considered to be, in comparison to their European counterparts, cheaper, faster, stronger, and more agile. They are paraded in front of predominantly white masters- scouts, manages, coaches –  who pick the most suitable one.

In 2003, FIFA introduced Article 19, a law which made it illegal for players under the age of 18 to be transferred across international borders. However, in 2009, FIFA revealed that half a million players under the age of 18 were still being sold to clubs. In 2015, a record 2,323 international transfers of minors were accepted by FIFA, while only 393 were rejected.

A formal structure for pinpointing potential talent in Africa involves top governing bodies such as FIFA, UEFA, and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), in collaboration with European clubs and registered academies in Africa. However, most children do not reach such academies, and instead try and make their own passage, invariably after being approached by unscrupulous fixers.

There are two kinds of trafficking that a young footballer from Africa could be duped into. First, the agent arranges a trial in Europe for the player, only to jettison the child without a passport, visa, money, or any means to return home when the club is not interested.

In the second type, the agent asks the family to shell out their life savings so he can buy the player a plane ticket to Barcelona, Lyon, London, or whichever club in Europe is seemingly interested. As soon as the boy leaves his family behind at the departure gate, the agent disappears.

This lawlessness of the agents in Africa is a clear reflection of the dismal infrastructure and governance at academy level. There is a three-tier system; at the bottom lie the ‘roadside academies:’ they are not recognized by the FA and are called ‘illegal’. Any trade made by these academies on players cannot be checked by the respective FAs. Small clubs filter into the middle tier; they are recognised clubs with a single agenda of produce young players to sell to Europe. At the top are academies with serious financial muscle provided by European clubs and corporate sponsors.

This has led to a wave of charities arguing that the European-style academy systems since implemented in Africa have been responsible for a new wave of neo-colonial exploitation.

Beyond Europe

Player migration and trafficking is an emerging concern well beyond Europe. In July 2015, FIFPro, the global footballers’ federation, uncovered a trafficking ring linking African countries to Asia.

African players rarely travel to places as disparate as Southeast Asia, Australia and the United States. CFS and Anti-Trafficking Consultants have also expressed concern about the trade between Africa and the emerging wealthy leagues of oil-rich Middle Eastern states. Any country with money dreams of creating a football league as prosperous as the Premier League. They look around for young, cheap players to fill it, and often begin with Africa. The unsuspecting children turn up in a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, and where, too often, human rights are non-existent. They exit as disrespected and neglected young men.

At the age of 15, a boy from Yaoundé, Cameroon left his home and family in pursuit of greatness. An agent asked his parents for fake death certificates so a club could sign the child. The agent took all the money they had, his passport, his birth certificate, and the return plane ticket upon arriving in Paris. The kid was eventually forced into prostitution by the same agent. But this is not the saddest story, nor the rarest. There are thousands of children who suffer similar fates every week.

Instead of becoming the next Samuel Eto’o or Yaya Touré, these children fall victim to the grimmest fate in history–the same fate their ancestors suffered, but this time, at the hands of a different culprit.

By: Saikat Chakrobarty