The African football slave trade has become a humanitarian crisis

Words by Saikat Chakrobarty Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 7, 2018
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In the recently concluded World Cup in Russia, not a single African team went past the group stage. Although there are several ways to explain that outcome, veteran coach Claude LeRoy theorised that it is because of Africa’s poor academy system, where agents act as figurative slave merchants.

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

Some reports claims that more than 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, children from Africa leave their families for the football pitches of England, Spain, France and Germany in order to find their promised fortune.

But the dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Instead of 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, somewhere to sleep. They have become football’s dirty little secret. Victims of football’s version of human trafficking; a slave trade which breaks up families, ships children to foreign cities and abandons them, all for the quest for money.

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 counter football trafficking, 7,000 cases in France alone were identified 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.

While the phenomenon of football migration from Africa to Europe has existed for the best 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 awoke the world to the continent’s emerging talentt. In turn, this was accelerated by EU rules on free movement that lifted the quotas on the number of overseas players a club could play or employ.

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. Yet, In 2009, FIFA revealed that half a million players under the age of 18 were still being sold to clubs.

There are two kinds of trafficking that a young footballer from Africa can be ensnared by. The first, in which an agent arranges a trial in Europe for the player, only to jettison him without a passport, visa, money or any means to return home when the club is not interested. And the second, when an agent asks the family to raid their life savings to buy the player an airfare and then, once the boy passes through the departure gate, 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 come in the middle-tier; they are recognised clubs with a single agenda of producing young players to sell to Europe. At the top are academies with serious financial muscle, often provided by European clubs and corporate sponsors. 

This has led to a raft of charities arguing that the European-style academy system in Africa, an increasingly common model, is responsible for a new wave of neo-colonial exploration.

The accounts of these boys only appears once they’re contacted by organizations like Foot Solidaire.

At the age of 15, a boy from Yaounde in Cameroon left his home and family in pursuit of greatness. An agent asked his parents for their fake death certificates so a club could sign their child. The agent took all the money he had, including his passport, his birth certificate and his return plane ticket, and vanished after landing in Paris. The boy was eventually forced into prostitution and, regrettably, this is neither a unique tale or even the darkest one.

For those interested in this dark side of the beautiful game, the superbly research book “The Lost Boys – Inside Football’s Slave Trade” by investigative sports writer Ed Hawkins looks at the issue in more details and is one of the most captivating investigative works on football in the recent years.

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