The subject of slavery is one that rouses reactions verging from the understandably passionate to the frankly irrational. I can recall with a pang of melancholy the furore issuing from José Mourinho’s assertion that the French Football Federation’s treatment of Claude Makelele was tantamount to slavery. As such, slavery and football themselves share a formal similarity, since my opening statement might be applied, with some accuracy, to the spectrum of opinions brandished by the average cluster of football fans.
There are the thousands who routinely belt out verses in which their teams — often starved of glory and competing in the third or fourth division, or even in the local leagues — are anointed the “greatest team / the world has ever seen”. The fan for whose support we can read addiction — precisely that group which would undoubtedly be most affected by the proposed “39th step” —, who attends each and every game, irrespective of venue or weather. Even the less radical bunch are hooked: often trundling through their daily existence, depending upon a flutter of gossip from the BBC website (we at Soccerlens don’t engage in such flummery, of course) along with the prospect of an evening match live on the telly in order to come out of a 9-to-5 in one piece. In a manner of speaking, football enslaves us all.
Unfortunately, the slavery about which I find myself writing these words is not of the metaphorical variety. The paradoxical slave/master dynamic that underlies a fan or (increasingly rarely) a player’s dedication to his team has, in this case, been traded in for a model in which draconian clubs exploit the dreams of thousands of young footballers, preying on their financial vulnerability in order to force them to sign illegal contracts, keeping them in inhumane conditions or simply abandoning them on the streets after first extorting them for vast sums of money. Much in the way that human trafficking has been revived by widespread currents of immigration, so too the massive numbers of African and South American footballers who flock into the European game has given rise to a new category of human exploitation: the football slave.
When I read the BBC’s report on the trafficking of young African footballers — a superficial document, but an important one in terms of promulgating news of the issue — my first reaction was one of shock. Could the “beautiful game” really have a hand in such an ugly business? A few moments of reflection later, I was able to uncloud my judgement. Modern day football is as beset by corruption as US Foreign Policy, and a summary glance at the track record of the figures whose money courses through our game — from Abramovich, to Berlusconi, to Shinawatra — is enough to hammer home the unsavoury links between crime and modern sport. Hell, if Rothstein could fix the World Series back in 1919, why couldn’t this be true?
Whilst the exact details of football trafficking remain unclear, the basic procedure seems fairly standard. Young players with varying amounts of potential are snapped up by the bucketload by corporations (mostly South America), football clubs (especially in countries with lax labour laws, such as Belgium) or opportunistic agents or traders. The latter often tether themselves to their clients, tricking them with cleverly worded contracts in which the young players promise their representatives 60, 70, 80% of their future earnings. Unregistered agents demand wads of cash from hard-up families in order to negotiate with European clubs or to provide the children with better opportunities to succeed.
Players as young as 14 or 15 are often transported to European cities, purportedly so that contracts may be signed and the player can start a new stage of his footballing career, and then abandoned by their “agents” in hotels or on the streets, with no possessions and unable even to speak the native language. A host of unlicensed “academies” — these often turn out to be nothing more than a couple of dilapidated buildings and a field or two, if the boys are lucky — have sprung up across the major African footballing nations, such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and children of seven or eight are effectively being “bought” from their families by coaches and traffickers, often taken out of school and away from their hometowns before being peremptorily discarded onto a trash-heap of stunted promise.
The legitimacy of the African Cup of Nations, supposedly a tournament in which the nation’s footballers provide a positive pipedream for their beleaguered countrymen, is cast into doubt by the revelation that thousands of young players from all over Africa bribe officials in order to purchase the fake passports required for them to be accepted at the academies in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, with Burkina Faso and Nigeria two of the main sources. Ages and nationalities altered, the players then go on to represent their surrogate nations at international level, in clear contravention of FIFA rules.
The BBC report offers the example of a Cameroonian man who, at the age of just 13, was taken to France by an unlicensed agent, supposedly to join up with a French club. His family had shelled out the relative fortune of 750 euros for the service. Within hours of arriving in France, the young boy was abandoned by his agent, from whom he never heard again. Such a case is by no means rare.
Thousands of teenage footballers up sticks every year in the hope of living out their dream. Of these thousands, the great majority fall by the wayside and end up homeless, without a visa, and scrapping to survive, with a number of them forced to turn to crime. In May last year, one of the hundreds of boats headed illegally from Africa to the Canary Islands was shipwrecked on the coast of Tenerife, with a cargo of 130 young Africans. Some fifteen of the load, all of whom suffered from hypothermia, were young footballers who believed — erroneously — that a trial at Marseille or Real Madrid awaited them.
A charity — Culture Foot Solidaire — has been set up by ex-Cameroon player Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, in order to attempt to bring relief to those youngsters in the most desperate of circumstances, whilst the “FAQ” section of the site reveals that many more are unfortunately out of the organisation’s reach, and that most young players and their families are unaware of the difference between a registered and an unregistered agent, and this despite the fact that employing an unauthorized representative is itself an act for which players may be fined up to 10,000 Swiss Francs and suspended for 12 months. As Mbvoumin states, “It is important to dream, but the dreams about football now are not realistic”
“Vulnerable people are lured into a kind of debt slavery in the expectation of a better life. These brokers are getting $3,00 per child and offering to smuggle them out on the promise that they will sign for a better club. So many boys have gone missing in this way.”
The situation in South America is little different. Dodgy agents and multinational corporations purchase hundreds of young players in one go, knowing that the discovery of just one Ronaldo will be enough to pay off the measly contract endured by hundreds of thousands of not-so-fortunate youngsters. Players are deceived by the “larger than life” status of the likes of Drogba, Essien, Tévez and Aguero into thinking that their success is guaranteed. Things are rarely plain sailing. Raffaele Poli, a Swiss academic, has demonstrated through his studies that of the 600 African footballers who played in the top European leagues in 2002, just 13% had climbed the ladder four years later, with a third having disappeared from professional football entirely. As in Africa, agents often have restrictive clauses inserted into the contracts, so that players, even when enjoying limelight success, are rarely financially emancipated and can be uprooted and told to play for this or that club at the drop of their agent’s hat.
In 2005, Jean-Marie Dedecker spoke about the problem of human trafficking in Belgium at the “Play the Game” conference. According to Dedecker, over 170 maverick agents exist in Belgium, where income tax laws provide an especial financial incentive for budding footballers. Many of these rogue agents are also linked to prostitution and drugs, and their young clients are kept as virtual prisoners in abhorrent conditions. Belgian ministers are said to be compliant in cases of forged identity papers, with protection afforded to agents and clubs alike. Lokeren, a fairly small Belgian club, have five “satellite” clubs in Africa, each of which prioritises profit at the cost of social wellbeing. In the documentary “Ball and Chains”, Dirk de Vos of the Belgian football players’ union showed the spectator how major clubs got away with paying young Africans next to nothing for their services. Two contracts were drawn up: the first, quoting the correct minimum wage and benefits, was sent off to the football federation, whilst a second, hand-written version displayed a far smaller sum.
Major clubs have showed few reservations in plundering the hoards of needy African and South American youngsters. Harry Redknapp has assembled a veritable legion of African performers. Just this week, Charlton Athletic announced a link with the Asec Mimosas academy in the Ivory Coast — with chief exec Peter Varney citing the players’ desire as their distinguishing feature, a desire clearly born of economic misery. Dutch giants Ajax and Feyenoord both run expensive academies in Ghana, whilst PSG and Monaco, amongst other French clubs, are known to scout the region heavily. Manchester United, meanwhile, have bought a controlling interest in Fortune FC, a team in the South African second-division.
Tim Vickery of the BBC has written extensively on the impoverishment of the Brazilian and Argentinian game that has been effected by the big European clubs, who are quite willing to snap up tens of young players and cut their losses if or when things don’t work out. This “feet drain” may well occasion the foundering of the grassroots game in newly developing footballing nations, such as Zambia, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter accusing European clubs of “social and economic rape” in their haste to unearth and uproot young talent across the globe. Much like in the ghettos of New York and California, where hip-hop artists are branded traitors for leaving the projects, the relationship between millionaire footballers and the nations they have left behind is often fraught with tension and ambiguity.
The line between “fair” scouting and footballing colonisation is almost impossible to draw, but outside of such issues, it seems fairly clear that the money generated by the transfer (and exploitation) of young footballers is not being reinvested in the societies out of which the talent is wrenched. University of Paris Professor Wladimir Andreff has proposed the idea of a “transfer tax” according to which a percentage of all transfer fees would be used to support sports training in developing countries, thus contributing towards the easing of gaps between countries and disincentivising the “feet drain”.
Such a consideration is well-founded but seems somewhat misguided in its focus on the depravity of sporting facilities rather than on the general societal misery that is at the root of the players’ desperate departure, although the existence of a series of well-equipped free academies across the continent would surely do something to at least slightly alleviate the problem.
The continued embezzlement and mismanagement of aid funds by African governments should leave us in no doubt as to breadth of the challenges posed, a series of challenges we should, as football fans and as world citizens, bear in mind the next time Kameni dives panther-like to his left to keep the ball out, one of the brothers Touré makes a last-ditch tackle of vital importance, or Drogba scores the winning goal.