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Dossier: The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’

Dossier: The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
16 Jul
Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister underbelly with human traffickers using the bright lights of Europe’s elite clubs as a lure for Africa’s vulnerable youth

Looking back, it’s easy to view the battered trawler boat that bumped up onto a beach in Tenerife in 2007 as a harbinger of the exodus of migrants and refugees headed for European shores. Yet 15 of the young men on board did not it the standard profile of African migrants: they were bound, or so they thought, for trials with the footballing giants of Marseille and Real Madrid.

No such trials existed. The men were marooned in Europe, their savings disappearing with the ‘agents’ who organised the journey. They were yet more victims of an underworld that trades and preys on dreams and poverty, and which the football world struggles to control.

The football-driven movement of young males from Africa to Europe leaves a murky trail, one that includes human trafficking, child exploitation, money laundering, child benefit fraud and, in the vast majority of cases, broken dreams. The phenomenon also says much about economic conditions and drivers in the countries of origin. That such youths – often they are just children – strive to reach Europe in pursuit of a footballing career can somehow make the issue seem less serious: they are not fleeing for their lives; and they have an evident skill to offer for which they may one day be lucratively rewarded. And there’s a further irony that, in a Europe where migration has become such a burning issue, those who demand tighter borders appear happy to suspend their principles when it comes to transcontinental migration in football.

‘What we find in a lot of the debate about migration is that some migrants are more acceptable than others,’ Professor Dr James Esson, lecturer in human geography at Loughborough University points out. ‘A Polish footballer playing at Wembley is fine, but it seems a Polish plumber fixing the toilets at Wembley is less welcome.’


• Immigration: 98 per cent of would-be footballers who make it to Paris are illegal immigrants

• Age: 10 age limit for transfers lowered by FIFA from 12

• Applications: 2,716 applications for international transfers of minors

• Applications: 393 applications for minors rejected by FIFA

• Trafficking: 15,000 (est.) trafficked players entering Europe annually


There are two primary player exporting ‘zones’ for traffickers: North Africa, and the coastal nations in the sub-Saharan west of the continent. Most countries in west Africa have large numbers of football academies regularly combed over by scouts. In many cases, boys are lured to Europe by agents who know full well the kids are not good enough to make it there. In a handful of instances, where the aspiring players are talented and may possibly make the grade, it often transpires the agents have no contacts; where they do, the contracts that await are often hugely unfavourable to the footballer, but lucrative for the agent.

‘There are legitimate scouts out there who do things properly,’ says Andy Desmond of Anti Trafficking Consultants (ATC). ‘But then there are the illegal ones. They praise the lads who maybe aren’t up to standard, they say they can get them a trial in Italy. The catch is the boys’ families have to pay him “fees”. The families go for it because it’s a chance for their offspring to change their lives. The kids get pressure from their peers, their families, to go and make money. The lure of playing in big leagues, such as the German Bundesliga, is the pull factor – you will earn much more money there than you would in Senegal or Nigeria. You’ll make yourself famous and then come back and build a house for your family.’

The charity Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS) calculates that agents pocket anywhere between £2,000 and £6,500 for each child they send to a fictitious trial. Once in Europe, the children, youths, or young men are almost always left to their own devices. ‘The son goes with the agent, there is no trial, they are abandoned at the airport in Europe,’ says Desmond. ‘The agent has made thousands of dollars, conned the family and just goes off and does it again in another part of Benin City in Nigeria, or wherever he is.’

African boys playing football


According to CFS, 98 per cent of those would-be footballers who make it to Paris are illegal immigrants, and 70 per cent are under the age of 18. Some reports claimed that 15,000 trafficked players enter Europe every year. However, Jake Marsh, senior manager for operations and betting integrity at the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), says ‘the key issue is that no-one really knows the true figure’.

According to Dr Esson, the majority of such operations meet the definition of trafficking as outlined in two of the Palermo Protocols: The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children; and the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air.

While the phenomenon of football migration from Africa to Europe has existed for the best part of a century (see Colonial Ties panel), only in the past two decades has it developed into a major movement. Strong performances by African teams in the world youth championships of the late 1980s and 1990s awoke the world to the emerging talent. This was accelerated by EU rules on free movement that lifted the quotas on the number of overseas players a club could play or employ.

A further decision, in 2001, had far-reaching repercussions. FIFA stipulated that clubs involved in the training and education of players aged 12 to 23 must receive financial compensation from any buying clubs. The outcome was actually the opposite to what was intended: the regulations gave a monetary value to the labour and investment spent training youth players. ‘This made footballers at academies more than human resources,’ says Esson. ‘They became a potential source of capital.’


Player migration and trafficking is an emerging concern well beyond Europe. In July 2015, FIFPro, the global footballer’s federation, uncovered a trafficking ring linking African countries to Asia. More than 20 Liberians, including six minors and eight young adults, it says, were tricked into moving to the academy of a club in Laos (whose national team is ranked below Liberia in FIFA’s ratings), where they slept in the stadium. They were told they could leave only when they paid back all of their expenses.

Andy Desmond of the Anti Trafficking Consultants suggests the affair must be viewed through the prism of the boys involved. ‘A rogue agent tells them he can get them a trial in Laos. “Where’s that?” they ask. They’re told it’s a country with a strong football league near China. Being kept under the stadium makes them seem like gladiators, just brought out for the show.

Darby points out that ‘African players travel to places as disparate as India, Thailand and the United States’ where a similar trail is trodden by African would-be basketball players. CFS and academics have also expressed concern about the trade between Africa and the emerging wealthy leagues of oil-rich Middle Eastern states. ‘Any country with money wants to raise a football league as prosperous as the Premier League,’ says Desmond. ‘They look around for players to fill it and often begin with Africa. The lads turn up in a country that doesn’t know what to do with them and often where human rights are non-existent. They are low ranked human beings.’

Concern regarding irregular migration within the football industry was raised back in 1999 by a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report. The report concluded by highlighting the ‘danger of effectively creating a modern day slave trade in young African footballers. Similar arguments were made a decade later in the European Commission’s Study on Sports Agents, which claimed that increasing numbers of young West African males were undertaking clandestine journeys to Europe under the false pretence of a contract or trial with a professional football club.

As far back as 2007, the now discredited Michel Platini spoke during his campaign to be elected UEFA president of how it was necessary for European football to put an end to the ‘bogus transfers of adolescents’. As UEFA president he suggested the transfer process was tantamount to child trafficking. The equally discredited former FIFA President Sepp Blatter also called the situation ‘a modern day slave trade’ and described the European clubs involved in the trade of African playing talent as ‘neo-colonialists’ involved in ‘social and economic rape’.



Two migration routes have evolved in recent years. A more formal structure involves governing bodies such as FIFA, UEFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), working with European clubs and registered academies in Africa to pinpoint potential talent. The more common route, though, has been for the many children who do not reach such academies to try and make their own passage, invariably after being approached by unscrupulous fixers. Alongside this, small, unlicensed academies have sprouted up across the region, often run by men posing as agents.

Concern is growing, says Esson, that the formal academy system enables European clubs and speculators to take ownership or executive control of African based academies to sidestep certain regulations – such as the ban on the international transfer of minors – in order to sign African talent at an early age and then profit from their subsequent sale to rich, typically European, clubs.

Some of FIFA’s rules are clear cut. According to its regulations on the status and transfer of players, international transfers of a minor cannot take place, except in very few circumstances. According to a spokesman for FIFA, ‘while international transfers might, in specific cases, be favourable to a young player’s sporting career, they are likely to be contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of players as minors. Protecting the appropriate and stable development of a minor as a whole should prevail over purely sporting interests.’ Yet despite this apparently clear-cut position, in 2015, a record 2,323 international transfers of minors were accepted by FIFA, while only 393 were rejected.

Main migratory flows of football players in Europe:
• South America: 808 players
• Africa: 401 players
• Eastern Europe: 394 players
• Other countries: 199 players
(Study on Sports Agents, 2009)


The difficulty for FIFA and UEFA is that critics say the organisations’ own rules – sometimes well-intentioned – have made matters worse. For example, in July 2015, FIFA lowered the age limit for transfers from 12 to 10-years-old, saying the move aimed to ‘curb unacceptable practices’, regulate such transfers and safeguard the interests of children. Before the change, clubs only needed to go through the official process of applying for an International Transfer Certificate if their target was at least 12-years-old. Those under that age were being signed up or moved to Europe, often without any semblance of regulation.

According to Marsh, the decision by FIFA in 2015 to scrap its licensing system could make matters worse – as agents no longer need to be qualified. Marsh fears this may fuel more trafficking of young players to foreign clubs seeking cheap talent. ‘The rhetoric is good, FIFA and UEFA obviously care about young players,’ he says, ‘but more needs to be done. FIFA needs to take a stance on what is going on.’

In response, FIFA points to a high-profile case earlier this year when it sanctioned two Spanish clubs – Atlético de Madrid and Real Madrid – for breaching articles in relation to the protection of minors. The cases related to minor players who were involved and participated in competitions with the clubs between 2007 and 2014 (Atlético de Madrid) and 2005 and 2014 (Real Madrid). Both clubs were handed a transfer ban that prevented them from registering players at national and international level for two registration periods, and both were given 90 days in which to regularise the situation of all minor players concerned. Similar sanctions were imposed on Barcelona in 2015.

A spokesman for FIFA said the organisation could only regulate activities within the scope of organised football. ‘Issues related to “child trafficking”, like any other criminal activity, fall within the competence of the relevant national and international authorities (police, judicial, governmental),’ he stated. ‘Such matters are outside of FIFA’s jurisdiction, although we certainly welcome measures that show authorities are taking them very seriously.’

Nevertheless, ATC’s Desmond feels FIFA and other sporting agencies have struggled to turn rhetoric into enduring meaningful action. ‘I’ve tried to explain to FIFA officials what constitutes trafficking and I get the impression they can’t really get their heads around the concept,’ he says. ‘They want to encourage young lads to play football, play the “beautiful game”, and don’t quite understand how they are being exploited. We have to get away from the idea that football is a game of hard-knocks, where you either make it or you don’t. We need to look after the 98 per cent who don’t make it.’

Real Madrid


It is all too easy for a boy with a semblance of talent – and his parents – to be tricked, says Dr Esson. From interviews with victims, he has built up a depressing picture.

Typically, someone claiming to be an agent will contact a young player at a match or in a trial and say he thinks he has the potential to make it playing in Europe. He charges around €3,500 – a ‘ finder’s fee’ – to cover living costs in Europe. To meet these costs, the boy’s family will often sell possessions or take other siblings out of school. Getting to Europe is generally straightforward: the journey usually involves legal channels such as short-term tourist visas. On arrival, says Esson, the boy hands over his money for ‘safe keeping’, which tends to be the last he sees of his so-called agent. Choosing his words with precision, Esson describes this practice as ‘human trafficking through football’.

‘In extremely rare cases, after handing over money to an intermediary, the players do indeed procure contracts or trials with clubs, albeit of an exploitative nature,’ says Esson. Such contracts tend to be on extremely unfavourable terms – often giving the agent 50 per cent of the player’s wages – and committing the player to giving large cuts to the agent, often for as long as the contract runs. This, says Esson is trafficking in football.

Human nature, says Esson, means that young men put in this situation will often not wish to return home and remain illegally without any immediate means of subsistence. ‘All of the irregular migrants I spoke to in Paris had at one point or another felt ashamed and embarrassed by their situation,’ he says.

It’s a picture Desmond recognises. ‘The boys find themselves in Europe, they have probably never even left their village before. Because of peer pressure they can’t go home and be seen as a failure, they will be held responsible for losing the family wealth. Instead, they’ll try and earn money, but they are now in Europe illegally. That makes them vulnerable to crime, begging or even sexual exploitation.’


There are 20,000 footballers playing in the ‘colts’ leagues in Accra, Ghana. According to the Ghanaian Football Association, the national ‘Colts’ league (under 12, 14 and 17 years) comprises 700 clubs; Accra has 240 clubs. Colts teams reflect not just the desire of young Ghanaian males to be a footballer but of coaches to make a living. Previously unemployed or precariously employed, they view owning a Colts team as more than a recreational activity. ‘It’s a window of opportunity, they take financial risks and invest in Colts football in the hope of making a profit,’ says Esson.


To this end, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has 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’. CFS has being steadily setting up principles apply to young women who live in the same cities as the would-be footballers. They get lured to Europe on the premise of getting an education or a job. When they get there, they find there is no job and the agent says they have to work as a prostitute to pay him back. No-one says those women are anything other than victims. It’s a phenomenon where some people are exploiting the vulnerable, and the vulnerability lies with kids in Africa.’

Boys playing football


Esson argues that economic drivers must be understood if meaningful solutions to deter people from making the journey, or to make it safer, are to be found. The perception of danger can be overplayed and risks overlooking important local cultural beliefs. ‘Information documenting the risks associated with football trafficking is likely to be ineffectual, as it would be deemed biased,’ he says. ‘They know it’s risky but it’s potentially better than what they have right now. The driver is not that they are poor, the driver is that they know there are parts of the world that have a better quality of living than they do.’

More can be learnt, he suggests, by acknowledging the ‘increasingly spatial nature of approaches’ used by young West Africans to overcome the constraints on their life ambitions. ‘Existing policy responses frame irregular football migrants as being better off at home. This creates a tension because for many of these migrants their country of origin is precisely where they do not want to be. A career in professional football and migration to a league outside of Africa is viewed as a viable livelihood strategy to lift an individual and their family out of poverty.’

As Dr Paul Darby, a reader in Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Ulster, puts it: ‘There is little in the way of infrastructure, professionalism or the possibility of a good salary to encourage them to remain in their home nations and eschew the potential of the sort of financial security that the European game can offer.’


It’s not just young African males who follow the football migration route to Europe – African women do so too. During the past decade, girls and women’s football has undergone exponential development, with professional leagues in European countries and the United States. Many African women players head for Scandinavian leagues.

Sine Agergaard, Associate Professor of Sports Science at Aarhus University in Denmark, says local culture prohibiting participation in women’s sport is one driver for African female footballer migration; political and economic realities which mean women have little time to play sport is another.

‘It’s true you could expect women to be more exploited, they are perhaps vulnerable if they come to new societies,’ she says. ‘But the women we are seeing in Scandinavia tend to be from national teams and are able to negotiate their salary and conditions. It’s still very new, so we don’t know yet whether the same issues [of trafficking] will affect women footballers. We don’t know yet if the women’s game in Europe has the structures to head off the problems the men’s game faces.’

Generally, players find clubs through informal contacts rather than unknown agents. ‘The informal network, friends of friends, is very strong,’ says Agergaard. ‘Things may change though if it turns into a bigger phenomenon.’

The majority of these players do not cite financial or economic migration as reasons for moving, instead citing better training facilities and more opportunities to play. However, in an echo of their male peers, social mobility is an overarching theme, Agergaard says, adding that ‘the women view the move as enhancing their self-respect back home.’


Practical measures on the ground may help, says Desmond. ‘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 lad out of a country they need permission. No team in Europe or elsewhere should take such a player for trial without having seen all such documentation. You need border agencies and national crime agencies to be joined up. Parents of the boy should be able to make a quick call to the national association to make sure the scout is legitimate. Airlines should not be allowing young children to travel by themselves. It needs a multi-agency approach. At the moment, none of this exists. It’s a free-for-all.’

And consumers – football fans and the rest of us who benefit from migrant labour – need to ask themselves questions too, according to Sine Agergaard, Associate Professor of Sports Science at Aarhus University in Denmark. ‘It’s extremely interesting and difficult to talk about the issue in terms of trafficking,’ she says. ‘If you look at the United Nations definition of trafficking, a key point is to what extent is exploitation the purpose. Trafficking can involve sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery. We have to get a conceptual understanding of trafficking in terms of sport. Sport is different, it has other dimensions, you have a voluntary dimension. You may enter into football voluntarily but how much do you gain in comparison to the education you might have been getting? To what extent are we as consumers in the West responsible? We “consume” these athletes. There’s a general dimension to using youth in sport – to what extent are they volunteering, do they have an option not to do it?’


Some of the strongest rhetoric around the trafficking of young footballers has described the process as ‘neo-colonialist’ and it is no coincidence that the trade has historically been strongest between European nations and their colonies. According to Dr Paul Darby at the University of Ulster, ‘African colonies were recognised as being rich in natural resources, raw material and cheap labour. This applied not just to economic activity but also football. In effect, the process was a mining of just another of Africa’s raw materials – in this case football talent.’

For many years, it was the countries who had the strongest presence there – France and Belgium – who benefited. Players from North Africa are apparent in French teams from the 1930s and by 1938 there were more than 140 Africans playing in the French professional leagues; sizeable numbers of players born in the former French territories of Cameroon, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Algeria and Mali have regularly appeared in the French leagues.

Portugal’s late colonial era also saw a large number of players move to Europe and major Portuguese clubs such as Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Porto, particularly from Mozambique and more recently from Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. ‘The historical influences of European colonialism remain knitted into the fabric and routes of African football migration,’ says Darby.


The consensus is that, by and large, trafficking in football is less an issue nowadays at the elite level. ‘The top European clubs have safeguarding officers, their academies in Africa and Asia are registered,’ says the ICSS’s Marsh. But Esson and others fear that trafficking can still be found in the lower leagues of many European nations, where large numbers of African players ply their trade. ‘Trafficking within football can be addressed relatively easily, I’m optimistic there,’ says Esson. ‘But trafficking through football is more complex. It’s fraud. FIFA by itself can’t do much about rogue people just going to Africa and selling people a dream that doesn’t exist. That has less to do with football and more to do with structural issues around inequality. I’m not sure how much political will exists to address those wider issues.’

Until that happens, those who prey on dreams will continue to enjoy lucrative pickings, warns Desmond. ‘Slave owners are very good at smelling out vulnerabilities. Football is just another way of luring people into traps. If there was enough money in the leagues in Africa there wouldn’t be the pull factor. Instead, they’re drawn to Europe where they think the streets are paved with gold. To really prevent this happening you have to reduce poverty and make societies equal, but that’s like securing world peace or finding a cure for all cancer. The whole subject has the same ingredients as trafficking, it’s just that in this case the cover story is football.’

Underpinning all these themes, agrees Marsh, is the big picture: ‘Many sports are a soft target for corruption and criminal in filtration. Migration and trafficking of footballers is just another area. For the sake of the young players I really hope we will resolve this. Knowing how football can work, its approach of not rocking the status quo makes me more pessimistic. We need more organisations shouting about what is going on and saying that football should be ashamed of itself.’

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