The dark side of the beautiful game: the African slave trade in football

For many young African footballers migrating to Europe, their challenge is not to break into the starting XI, but to find something to eat, a place to sleep. It’s the sad truth of a form of modern Africa slave trade.

Illustrations by Charbak Dipta

At the age of 15, a boy from Accra, Ghana 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, his passport, his birth certificate and the plane ticket back when he arrived in Paris. The child was eventually forced into prostitution by the same agent. And that’s not the saddest story. There are thousands of children who have suffered because of this slave trade.

For most of the past three decades, there has been a serious humanitarian crisis in African football. While there are several reasons that contributed to this result, veteran coach Claude LeRoy said, it’s because of Africa’s poor academic system, where some agents are slave traders. In a 2018 interview with BBC Sports, Leroy, who led Cameroon to the Africa Cup of Nations title in 1998, said: “The only objective of these agents is to sell players for a little money. I have been fighting against these kinds of people for more than 20 years.

Some reports claim that more than 15,000 trafficked players enter Europe each year. Inspired by the glamor of the continent’s top leagues and cajoled by agents who tell them they can be the next big star, these children from Africa leave their families for the football grounds of England, Spain, France and from Germany to make a fortune. However, their dreams quickly turn into nightmares. Instead of the battles on the pitch promised to big European clubs, they face a fight for survival. The challenge is not to break into the starting XI, but to find something to eat, a place to sleep.

After spending so much and risking so much just to get there, the young wannabes find themselves alone in a foreign land whose language they may not understand. When their visa expires, they are stuck and ready to work any job to make ends meet. Many begin working illegally in manufacturing or selling counterfeit products to tourists. They are defenseless and frequently extorted by criminal gangs. Unwittingly, they have become football’s dirty little secret. Victims of the football version of human trafficking; a slave trade that breaks families apart, sends children to foreign towns and abandons them, all in pursuit of money.

the The United Nations Commission on Human Rights published a report in 2009 warning that a “modern slave trade” is being created with young African players. According to a report by Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), a charity set up to combat football trafficking, there were more than 7,000 cases in France alone in the nine years from 2005. The association also calculates that agents pocket between £2,000 and £2,000. 6,500 for each child sent to a mock trial.

While the phenomenon of football migration from Africa to Europe has been around for almost a century, it has only been in the last two decades that it has turned into a major movement. The strong performances of African teams at the world junior championships of the late 1980s and early 1990s awakened the world to the emerging talents of the continent. This was accelerated by EU free movement rules which lifted quotas on the number of foreign players a club could play or employ.

In 2003, FIFA introduced Article 19, a law that prohibited players under the age of 18 from being transferred across international borders. In 2009, FIFA revealed that half a million players under the age of 18 were still being sold to clubs. Even the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t put a stop to this sleazy affair. African footballers are still trafficked to Europe.

To understand why this trade could help wealthy European football clubs who are no strangers to avoid rules set by governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA, we need to look at the European Court of Justice’s ruling in a legal dispute. of 1995. The lawsuit resulted in new rules prohibiting the payment of transfer fees for European Union (EU) nationals who play within the EU and then transfer to another team based in the EU at the end of their employment contract. The laws were changed because previous regulations were seen as restricting the free movement rights of EU citizens.

This change resulted in a loss of revenue for several EU teams, as they no longer received transfer fees for out-of-contract players who were now free to go to other EU clubs. Clubs have started to see the transfer market as the best way to recoup their player acquisition costs. Especially if they were able to buy players cheaply and then resell them for a profit before their contract expired. Transfer fees for players still under contract have increased due to the new restrictions. As a result of this increase, European clubs have started acquiring new players from teams outside the EU who have less financial means.

The need for money has prompted super-rich European teams to take over one of the most heinous trades in history. Football fields have taken the place of plantation fields. The majority of boys are brought from Africa because they are considered cheaper, faster, stronger, more agile; they parade past predominantly white masters — scouts, managers, coaches — who choose the best fit.

There are two types of trafficking that could deceive a young African footballer. First, the agent sets up a trial in Europe for the player, only to then dump the kid without a passport, visa, money or any other way to get home when the club isn’t interested. The second, an agent asks the family to loot their life savings so he can buy the player’s plane ticket for trials with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. As soon as the boy leaves the gate, the agent disappears.

This anarchy of agents in Africa, especially in West Africa, is a clear reflection of the dismal infrastructure and governance at the academy level. There is a three-tier system; at the bottom are the “roadside academies”, which are not recognized by the FA and are said to be “illegal”. Any trades made by these academies on players cannot be verified by the respective FA. Smaller clubs come at the middle level; they are recognized clubs with a single objective of producing 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 a series of academies to argue that the European-style university system in Africa is responsible for a new wave of neo-colonial exploration. These neo-colonialists do not care about tradition or culture; instead, they participate in social and economic exploitation by stripping Africa of its greatest players.

The testimonies of these boys only appear if they are contacted by charities like Foot Solidaire, founded by former Cameroonian international Jean-Claude Mbvoumin.

Instead of becoming the next Sadio Mané or Thomas Partey, they fall victim to one of the most sinister jobs in human history. The migrant boats you have heard of have been abandoned off the coast of a European nation or have sunk and left their passengers in a watery grave carrying longing African footballers. If you look past the mothers carrying their newborns in the footage, you might spot migrant children wearing dummy shirts from a major European football club.

For those interested in this dark side of the beautiful game, the superbly researched book “The Lost Boys – Inside the Football Slave Trade” by investigative sports writer Ed Hawkins examines the issue in greater detail and is one of the most gripping investigative works on football in recent years.

Saikat Chakraborty

Saikat is a political correspondent by day and a football chief by night based in Kolkata, India. He supports AFC Mohun Bagan and Arsenal. Besides politics and football, he enjoys movies, music, socio-cultural studies and non-fiction books.

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