Shady sports agents have taken a page from human traffickers. They’re luring young men to Europe with promises of fame and exploiting them instead.
It’s no secret that foreign interests have long exploited Africa’s resources: oil, gold, diamonds, and, of course, people. What isn’t widely known is that in 2018, Africa is now mined for its athletes.
For many young soccer players around the world, a professional career under the bright lights of Europe’s famous stadiums is the stuff dreams are made of. Playing for a big club comes with big rewards — even by European and North American standards. When a door opens to a pro contract in Europe, it’s difficult to not step through and see what’s on the other side, especially for a hopeful African player — who often has to contend with a daily grind of poverty at home.
This is where agents with dubious legitimacy step up, offering young men and their families the opportunity for trials with professional clubs in Europe. Research from Loughborough University in England has confirmed what’s informally discussed within the soccer business — there’s always a catch to the pitches from these agents. It usually means families must pay up front to have a chance at the “opportunity.” The fees, never required when following legitimate professional pathways, are huge for most African families. They often never see the money again. It’s a business model torn from the pages of a book used by human traffickers and people smugglers around the world.
It’s a business model torn from the pages of a book used by human traffickers and people smugglers around the world.
Too many stories follow the same pattern. After being recruited from West African soccer hotbeds like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, athletes pay fees and begin their journey, only to be abandoned upon arrival in Europe. The agent disappears with the money, returning to another country or city with more false promises for other players. The young men are turfed from their cheap hotels and have to fend for themselves, often being absorbed into the black markets and underground economies of European cities.
Some players don’t even make it to Europe. One Nigerian team, thinking it was heading to Spain for trial matches, was dumped in Cape Verde. Others were abandoned in Istanbul thinking they were scheduled to try out with some of Turkey’s top teams. Some underage players actually did make it to a team — in Laos. When the dire employment and living conditions there were exposed, FIFPro — the union for professional soccer players — launched a successful intervention to free the players from further exploitation. One of the players now attends high school in the United States and has earned plaudits for his performances for the school’s soccer team.
The response from governments and institutions such as FIFA, UEFA, and the International Olympic Committee has been limp. In 2001, FIFA did introduce Article 19, a regulation stating that players under the age of 18 cannot sign a contract or register with a club in a country other than their own. There are caveats though: if a player lives within 30 miles of a country’s border and the club is within 30 miles of the same border, if a player is moving from one European country to another and is at least 16 years old, or if a player’s family moves to a different country for reasons “not linked” to soccer.
Article 19 has its critics — some, ironically, are middle-class American families claiming the regulations should not apply to them if their talented children are recruited by European teams. Big Spanish clubs — Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, and FC Barcelona — have received short bans from participating in the transfer market for not complying with Article 19, while the English Premier League team Chelsea is under investigation for possible breaches.
But Article 19 hasn’t stopped the flow of young players from Africa to Europe. Governments, soccer authorities, and law enforcement officials seem stuck on whether the irregular flow of African players to Europe meets the legal definition of trafficking, if it is a sports issue or a migration issue, and who exactly should have authority to deal with it. One question is whether the issue can be defined as trafficking if someone over the age of 18 willingly pays fees to travel to Europe and, for law enforcement, at what point a potential crime is committed. A case in Belgium involving minors fell apart in court when — after an investigation that revealed fake passports, an academy in Nigeria, agents, and professional clubs — the players admitted they wanted to come to Europe and had signed a contract with a player agent, even if that contract came with terrible conditions for the players.
Then there are the grand schemes, like Doha’s Aspire Academy, founded by the Qatari Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad. Sheikh Jassim renounced his claim to Qatar’s crown in 2003 and put his energy and money into his big passion — soccer. In 2004, he founded the Aspire Academy, which was formally launched in Doha a year later with the aim of discovering and developing young sports talent and establishing Qatar as a global sports leader. Soccer (including Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup) was a clear route to reaching that goal. Traditionally, camel racing and falconry have been Qataris’ favored sports. While money can build the best facilities and buy the best trainers and coaches, talented soccer players in a country with a population of 2.5 million were hard to find.
That’s why a Spanish-born coach took a boat ride into the Niger Delta in 2007, escorted by Nigerian militants armed with AK-47s and RPGs. That story is detailed in The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars, a new book by former Associated Press correspondent Sebastian Abbot that chronicles the incredible talent search run by Qatar’s Aspire Academy.
A coach sailing up the Niger Delta was just one part of the program that cast an eye over 5 million 13-year-old children across Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia. Called “Football Dreams,” the talent search aimed to find promising teenage players who could be developed by European coaches into elite players. The player’s age was critical — 13 years old was considered by coaches to be the oldest a player could unlearn bad habits and develop new skills.