Africa’s trafficked footballers

The Scandal of Africa’s trafficked footballers

“To play for Chelsea is my dream, my family are so happy and well supported now” so intones Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s talismanic, Ivory Coast born striker. Drogba, and other famous African players such as Michael Essien, Emmanuel Eboue and Nwankwo Kanu making their fortune playing in Europe’s premier competitions have become the weavers of dreams for millions of children across Africa. In countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon the images of these millionaire footballers adorn countless billboards and bedroom walls. Unfortunately, the dreams these figures inspire are increasingly becoming nightmares as unscrupulous ‘agents’ exploit the hopes and ambitions of a generation of boys and young men.

Two ways to exploit…

As the price of young, quality European talent has soared in recent years, clubs across mainland Europe have been looking further afield for their next potential superstars, with Africa providing a wealth of talented players, many of whom have become enormously successful.

Last year, Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, football’s global governing body, argued that Europe’s richest clubs have been engaging in “despicable” behaviour which amounts to “social and economic rape” as they scour the developing world for talent. Whilst there is no doubt that the behaviour of some clubs needs serious examination, for example the practice of signing players as young as seven on tightly binding contracts, effectively ‘buying’ them from their parents, the more sinister and troubling practices to be found in African football are of cause for far greater concern.

As demand for African players has risen across Europe, so called ‘academies’ have sprung up across Africa, with the problem being particularly acute in western states of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. In Accra, the Ghanaian capital, these ‘academies’ can be little more than an organized kick about under the watchful of eye of the ‘agents’.

For those with a shred of talent, the offer is resoundingly the same, and the stories depressingly similar. An ‘agent’ will approach a player with the offer of a trail for a major European club such as Paris st. Germain, Marseille or Real Madrid. A large fee will be demanded up front to cover the travel expenses and the accommodation, which, depressingly often is raised by the parents of the boy selling their home. Of course, once the boy signed his first professional contract this ‘small’ fee will pale into insignificance. Once this money has been raised, the boy is trafficked to Europe, most commonly through Morocco, into Spain and onto mainland Europe. However, as is becoming increasingly clear, the majority of these boys are simply being trafficked into Europe with no trails lined up whatsoever, and being forced to work on the streets of Europe’s capital cities as hawkers of novelty tat and thieves. As these boys and young men have a bonded debt to their traffickers, are in a strange and foreign country and have no recourse to funds or support networks, they are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation.

Whilst evidence of these children being forced into work is currently patchy and anecdotal, it is clear that the vast majority of these kids are simply being abandoned when they arrive in the destination country. This cruel exploitation makes up just one more element in the global trade in human beings and is a reprehensible element of the global game which needs severe examination. Whilst the major clubs may not explicitly be involved in the trafficking and exploitation young African players, the lure of playing football in Europe is a great draw for many. These clubs need to accept the two way nature of this relationship and take responsibility for the demand side of the issue which clearly lies at their feet.

Football is a great force for global unity and prosperity but this ugly side of the beautiful game needs urgent attention, before its reputation is tarnished forever.

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