Millions of young Africans dream of a career in international soccer, longing to join the ranks of players like Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba or Mohammed Salah. Many see soccer as an instrument of social mobility and recognition: an easy path to becoming rich and famous. When Cameroonian player Samuel Eto’o joined Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011 he became the most highly paid player in the world, with an annual salary of about €20 million.
The search for a sporting El Dorado has seen thousands of young players move abroad to Europe, and increasingly, as the European market becomes saturated, also to Asia. Clubs in Asia are said to be easier to join, and according to a report by Asia by Africa, ‘are viewed as a stepping stone to success in Europe.’
Thousands of African footballers can be found in countries like Nepal, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Mongolia. According to French NGO Foot Solidaire, around 15 000 young players try to leave the continent every year. But in many cases, players are exposed to organised criminality, abuse and exploitation at various stages of the process, and particularly at the hands of unscrupulous agents.
In principle, agents are supposed to be regulated by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), much like professional soccer players themselves. National federations also have in place guidelines to regulate the transfer of professional players. But enormous financial interests are at play, and in many instances, the business of soccer seems to be driven by bad governance and greed. In Cameroon, for instance, the national federation for the regulation of soccer is badly run and highly corrupt.
There are elements of organised criminality at many stages of the recruitment process. Young players are typically identified by scouts from dusty pitches in countries like Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. While this phenomenon can be traced back to the mid-1960s, in Cameroon, the trend has seen an alarming spike in the past five years. According to one local sport analyst, about 400 young players leave the country each year, with more than a half going to Asia.
The scouts then begin to negotiate with the players and their families, offering them an opportunity to join a soccer team which, in some cases, is fictitious. Typically, the players’ parents pay the agents, and thus begins the long process to apply for a passport, purchase a plane ticket and make their way abroad. Agents and other intermediaries often only purchase a one-way ticket. In some cases, players are unable to purchase a return ticket, and are stranded without the means to fly home. There are other risks too. According to reports, there have been several instances where aspiring players exceed the number of spots available on professional teams, and African players often end up with little or no pay.
One young player interviewed in Yaoundé explained to ENACT Observer that his parents paid a local agent €4 500 to a local agent to go Bahrain. In his case, it turned out to be a fake contract. The analyst we spoke to believes that close to a hundred fake agents are operating in Yaoundé and Douala, driving a highly lucrative operation that can be likened to a form of human trafficking.
The impact on families is often devastating, with parents sometimes incurring debt to pay agents and buy air tickets. Having been promised a high-paying career and financial success, the players expect to be able to pay off this debt in the short term. In some cases, destitute families are no longer able to send the players’ siblings to school.
‘This issue is a social issue’, says Mbvoumin. ‘Today we have criminal actors threatening world football and the young players, so it's important to work together, with FIFA and African governments at the frontline’.
This so-called ‘muscle trade’ has been linked to slavery, illegal immigration and prostitution, and needs to be addressed at all levels. It is clear that extensive awareness-raising is called for so that young players and their families are adequately informed about unscrupulous scouts and the associated risks.
There is a clear role for civil society in this regard. Efforts such as those by Foot Solidaire, which has created an information centre for young players in Yaoundé, should be commended and strengthened. Similarly, the Cameroonian government and the national football federation must also strengthen responses to detect and sanction unscrupulous agents.
Phil René Oyono, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS