Young African footballers: going for gold but smuggled for cash

2022-11-18

Billions of people are turning their focus to Qatar for the 22nd Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup kick-off on Sunday, 20 November. Many world-class players will be there, including Senegalese-born Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy.

Amid the World Cup excitement, it’s important for the international community to condemn and take action against growing transnational organised crime in the sport. Netflix’ series on FIFA’s corrupt dealings and ‘sportswashing’ highlights this, and match fixing, even at the World Cup level has been reported and remains a threat to the integrity of the sport.

Of particular concern is the increased trafficking and smuggling of young African footballers through countries in North Africa to Europe. These young boys, mostly in their teens, are often subjected to inhumane conditions and some even die while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea illegally.

Musa, an aspiring young footballer from The Gambia, believes that far from an economic migrant to Italy, he is a ‘dream chaser.’ While only a handful of young African footballers will achieve success in Europe, thousands dream of becoming the next Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. These boys, mostly from poor families, have become the objects of one of the fastest-growing human trafficking and smuggling networks.

Some players fall prey to organised criminals who pretend to be agents

Many young men from sub-Saharan Africa are drawn to North Africa to advance their football careers. Football leagues there are seen as a springboard to the more lucrative and renowned European leagues. North African clubs also offer young players more financial benefits. Salaries are usually paid on time and management often have opportunities to sell players to European clubs.

The football played in North African clubs is usually of a higher standard than in most sub-Saharan championships, giving players an opportunity to improve their skills. It’s also bureaucratically easier for the young players. Citizens from Côte d’Ivoire, for example, can travel to Morocco on a three-month visa and once there can play for local clubs.

Many young players are therefore willing to travel to North Africa either as their final destination or in transit to Europe, despite the risks. Most become stranded though, with no legal route to Europe and no opportunity to stay in North Africa.

Many young players from Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria pay criminals posing as agents or scouts between €1 000 and €1 500 to travel to Tunisia on the promise of a contract with one of the big clubs, such as Espérance Sportive de Tunis. Once in Tunisia and after weeks of waiting, the young men realise there’s no contract, and their ‘agent’ has tricked them.

Many young footballers are willing to travel to North Africa despite the risks

They are forced to take jobs as cleaners or in restaurants in order to survive. A second and even more serious problem is that their visas expire, turning them from football migrants to illegal migrants.

When visas or work permits expire in Tunisia, migrants must pay a fine for each extra day they remain in the country before they are granted permission to leave. Many aspiring young footballers get stuck there, with no money to buy a return ticket home or settle their accumulated visa fines. In Morocco, unless they are able to extend or renew their three-month visa, they become illegal migrants once their visa expires.

The trafficking begins when false African agents, usually part of a bigger network with kingpins in Europe, approach young footballers playing in local leagues either directly or through social media. Some offer contracts for fictitious European clubs to under-aged Africans, even though it’s illegal for a minor to sign on to a European club. The agents also benefit from corrupt officials in European embassies who facilitate the visa process for aspiring footballers.

In addition to being conned into paying fake ‘scouts’,  other dream chasers choose the illegal migrant route after facing difficulties obtaining visas for European countries, hoping to make the football trials once they reach Europe.

FIFA should unequivocally condemn criminal networks that exploit young Africans

Amane travelled from Côte d’Ivoire to Morocco by bus and eventually found his way to Spain illegally by boat. Once there, he realised his ‘agent’ had abandoned him with no prospects of a contract or club.

In Senegal, Bouba’s parents paid over €5 000 to two agents who promised their son a football contract in Portugal. However, after a month in Portugal, Bouba had no club, lived with an old man, and his agents had disappeared leaving him stranded there with no money.

After a long journey organised by violent smugglers who took him from The Gambia to Mali then to Libya and eventually to Italy, Musa was eventually able to sign with Carbonia, a semi-professional Italian league team. This is a far cry from the glamorous, wealthy, football-star lifestyle young sportsmen dream of.

According to Mahfoud Amara, a North African sports expert from Qatar University, thousands of young football graduates from mushrooming academies across Africa end up lost in this complex and fragmented system of football migration. These academies are established with the promise of offering professional contracts abroad.

To prevent these players from being duped, better education and awareness is needed. Social media platforms, TV, local radio and posters displayed at football stadiums should be used to show the risks they take when signing fake contracts with unscrupulous ‘agents’.

In addressing the problem, African federations should be more transparent when recruiting young footballers and as a first step should publish the names of official agents. This would make it easier for parents and young men to verify who is genuine or not.

FIFA should extend its development initiatives in Africa from building pitches and developing young players to supporting pathways for aspiring footballers to achieve their potential in professional leagues. Condemnation of the exploitation of young Africans needs to materialise in concrete action: FIFA should set out common certification requirements for football agents and establish a hotline for people to call to report unscrupulous or fake agents. This means also making it an obligation for all European clubs to publish their recruitment policies and verify the names of official agents on their websites.

Most significantly, as a global body, FIFA needs to make good on platitudes and ensure that African clubs receive financial and material support to keep talented young African players in their respective clubs, and boost football at home.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, ENACT West Africa Regional Organised Crime Observatory, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, Sahel Basin and Lake Chad

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