The game of soccer is beautiful in and out, until trafficking of dreams and high-aspirations of young minds to make a name for themselves set in, dashing many young talents dreams into inexistence and leaving a black dot on the beauty of the game.
An estimated 1,000 African children yearly are tricked into going to Europe for non- existent football trials by traffickers who take their money and abandon them. African footballers are in high demand in Europe; they’re talented, eager and, most importantly, inexpensive. This is why deceitful football agents lure underage players to Europe just to cash on them. The true scale of the problem here may be even higher because many of the children, who arrive on false passports, are sold into slavery and vanish off the radar.
Some who fought their way into football academies in Africas most impoverished nations are taken into the UK by traffickers, or sometimes simply contact them on social media, telling them they can earn a fortune in the Premier League (Yes, same most famous English Premier League! Not even the Championship) – later leaving them high and dry to face unavoidable woes they never envisaged a trap!
Modern day slavery in football
Modern day slavery revolves in many ways – and football is not exempted in this regard. Thousands of suspected child slaves from countries across Africa have been uncovered by the British government in recent years – with most trapped in forced labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. Sierra Leonean and ex-Premier League footballer Alhassan Bangura in 2015 revealed he was trafficked as a teenager to Britain, where he narrowly escaped being forced into the sex trade. What do you call that? From stardom of dreams to stardom of brothels?
It is believed that many of these children are trafficked into Britain by men posing as agents and criminal networks that offer the children and their families the prospect of a lucrative footballing career abroad and a salary to send back home.
However, it should be noted that player migration and trafficking which is point of concern is well beyond Europe. In July 2015, FIFA uncovered a trafficking ring linking African countries to Asia. More than 20 Liberians, including six minors and eight young adults were tricked into moving to the academy of a club in Laos (whose national team is ranked below Liberia in FIFAs rankings) – therein they slept in the stadium. They were told they could leave only when they paid back all of their expenses. However, the begging question here is; if there was enough money in the leagues in Africa would there be the pull factor to chase glory elsewhere? Your honest response to this question is simply why theyre drawn to Europe where they think the streets are paved with gold!
“Instead of embarking on a career at a top club, many children are abandoned or enslaved after being taken to Europe in exchange for thousands of pounds – often their family’s savings,” anti-child trafficking charity ECPAT UK, as well lamented on the unpleasantness bedeviling football.
“Yet, many child victims avoid seeking help or going to the authorities as they fear they may be arrested or criminalized”, said Debbie Beadle, ECPAT’s head of youth development programmes.
The truth is, the trafficking of children through false promises of a footballing career is widely underreported through official channels making it difficult to measure the true scale.
So to speak, football has failed to deal with this problem. Many African parents and guardians have been discouraged to acknowledge their wards football aspiration – they’d rather see their wards wander about in their vicinity rather than in a foreign land with hopelessness trailing their heels. Who would blame any parents for this after all?
Also, FIFAs decision to end licensing of agents in 2015 has contributed largely to the problem, by leaving parents with no clue of knowing if their children are being preyed upon by criminals masquerading as professionals. This may fuel more trafficking of young players to foreign clubs seeking cheap talent. No doubt there is a need for the world football governing body to review this decision to curb this mistrust.
Football: An African boy’s pathway to affluence
Football has long proved to be a means to get out of a life of poverty. A boy’s realisation of dreams (football) has several times liberated a whole family from penury. I mean Cristiano Ronaldo for instance, his family was no one until the Portuguese icon hit the stardom and took the world by storm as a teen – and obviously, the rest was history, as they say.
A career in professional football and migration to a league outside of Africa is a viable livelihood strategy to lift an individual and their family out of poverty. This is why many young African footballers, mainly from poor homes, have dreams to make it big in life through football and help their families out of rags.
Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel of Chinese club Tianjin Teda, Liverpool Senegalese star Sadio Mane, and the legendary Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba to mention but a few are all examples of some African players who rose from the cradle to stardom.
Inroads on modern day slavery
Some English Premier League football teams, including Manchester City, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur to mention but a few have outlined on their websites their policies to ensure the wellbeing of children at their clubs and prosecute any illegal import of young talents.
The Premier League conscious efforts to curb football trafficking cannot be over-emphasised. Premier League director of international football relations Mathieu Moreuil revealed to a panel at European Parliament in Brussels earlier this month that cases of human trafficking could be less a problem in the League as effective measures have been put to place to battle this seeming ugliness. “Are there any cases of child trafficking in the UK? Probably. But hopefully not in the Premier League,” he said.
Further, while FIFA have introduced rules designed to prevent trafficking, which ban the movement of under 18s in most cases, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) have also promoted an Ethical Transfer Charter, which operates in a manner akin to fair trade agreements for products such as coffee and diamonds, as clubs that sign up would agree to only sign minors who had been ethically sourced.
However, in a means to tackle football trafficking, agents in the home countries should be registered and qualified, the academies should be registered and regulated. The national football associations should have a registry and an anti-trafficking team – so if someone wants to take a talent out of a country they seek permission. Also, no team in Europe or elsewhere should take such a player for trial without having seen all such documentation. Until that happens, those who prey on dreams will continue to enjoy lucrative pickings.
All in all, I hope a day finally comes when parents or guardians follow the true and right way, take their wards to grassroots football clubs in across Africa for nurturing, realising that opportunities abound for them to play in big clubs abroad and finally ride in the non-delusional stardom of dreams!
Kekereekun Victor writes from Ibadan, Oyo State.