Fútbol, el deporte más hermosa del mundo, is known to have an extensive network of academies around the world to scout talent. European clubs are constantly looking for promising youth they can add to their development academies. We’re familiar with the “successful” journeys of South American and African wonderkids like Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Agüero, Michael Essien, and Sadio Mané, who migrated to Europe at a young age and rose to prominence. However, these “successful” journeys are the exception. Mixed into them are a number of exploitive sports agents who traffic primarily African (but also South American) youth into Europe. It’s estimated that between 6,000 and 15,000 African youth in pursuit of football opportunities are trafficked into Europe each year. Christophe Gleizes, co-author of Magic System: African footballers and the modern slave trade, separates these players into three categories: talented, average, and untalented. The majority of youth trafficked into Europe are considered average.
In reading about European football’s trafficking problem, I’ve determined that there’s three levels of complexity in the scouting and migration process:
- Home country training environment
- The role of the sports agent
- Destination countries and clubs
Each of these factors play a part in a player’s transition from South America or Africa to Europe, but the sports agent has the largest influence. I hope, whether you’re interested in fútbol, migration, or both, this serves as an introduction to European football’s trafficking problem.
Home Country Training Environment
As previously stated, when considering ability, there’s three categories of players. The talented player migrates to Europe for football. Thus, they have access to the best training facilities and funding. The average player is a migrant who plays football. They see football as their route to Europe. Finally, there’s the untalented player, willing to risk everything to get to Europe. Despite their different levels of ability, Christophe Gleizes states in an interview with InfoMigrant, that what unites them is the strength of their dream.
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In a player’s home country, there’s typically three tiers of development systems: “roadside academies”, small clubs, and well-funded academies. Roadside academies are unofficial training programs for youth. They’re not recognized by the country’s governing soccer body. Therefore, player transfers from these roadside academies are not monitored by officials and leaves youth vulnerable to exploitation. A tier higher than roadside academies are small football clubs, which have the sole purpose of developing players to sell to European clubs. Although these clubs are recognized by their country’s governing soccer body, I’m inclined to believe that some level of exploitation still exists. At the top are well-funded academies. Due to their direct ties to big money European clubs and sponsorships, these academies are not directly involved in the trafficking process. Rather, their mere existence is the dream youth players in the lower tiers are trying to achieve.
Sports agents, the most important and exploitative link in the trafficking chain, are the biggest influencers on the welfare of youth trying to achieve their dream in Europe. Only a small percentage of sport agents traffic players to Europe, but those who do use one of two methods to do so.
In the first method, the agent sends the player on tryout with a European club, but doesn’t provide them with documents or money to return home if the club is not interested. With the agent in control of the player’s migration status, the youth can be forced into various labor. Dishwashing and prostitution are two occupations that African youth trafficked into Europe are often forced into. Sometimes, they’re shopped around Europe to different clubs in search for “cheap” talent. In the second method, the agent implores the player’s family to pay a large sum of money to arrange a tryout in Europe. When the player arrives in Europe, the agent is nowhere to be found. The player, often under the age of 18, is left to provide for themselves with no way of traveling back home.
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Regardless of the method, players are left stranded in Europe without money or family. Per player sent to a fictitious trial with a European club, agents make between £2,000-£6,000 ($2,700-$8300).
For players who do succeed, agents make a commission on their transfer fees between European clubs. That is, if a player signs a €100,000 contract with a club in Belgium, improves, and then a Portuguese club pays €800,000 to obtain the player, the agent may make 5% commission.
Destination Countries and Clubs
It’s important to note that the pyramid of club football plays an important role at this stage. The dream of all African youth aspiring to play professional football is to sign a contract with a Western European club — the top of the pyramid. Specifically, a club in one of the top 5 leagues: Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy), Ligue 1 (France). However, to get to these leagues, players often first play in lower-level leagues in West or East Europe. With the spotlight off of these lower-level leagues, migrant players are left vulnerable.
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When the player arrives in Europe, they’re arguably at their most vulnerable state. They are young, undocumented, and often do not speak the language. Additionally, the governing body responsible for stopping this human trafficking depends on the country the player arrives in. The national government, FIFA, and the country’s governing football organization are all accountable, but none of them want to take full responsibility. And unfortunately, they’re not coordinating their response to stop it. Moreover, European clubs somewhat discourage structure in African leagues and academies, because it maintains a constant flow of low-cost talent to Europe (cheap footballing labor).
Certain cities and countries have now earned reputations in this trafficking scheme. Agents operating in Portugal are known to leave players in a state of limbo. Paris and Brussels have communities of migrant footballers who meetup to play, aware that there may be a scout watching who will give them a chance at a local club. The scouts know that due to their undocumented status, they’ll be able to sign them to an undervalued contract.
Migrant footballers are essentially living a life on the fringe. Caught between deportation and achieving their dream.
Organizations and their Impact
In 2001, FIFA introduced Article 19 which banned transferring players under the age of 18 across international borders, except for a few exceptions. Surprisingly, FIFA has been tough in enforcing Article 19. They’ve blocked a number of transfers and placed transfer bans on big clubs who violated Article 19. Despite FIFA’s enforcement, in 2009 they estimated that roughly 500,000 players under 18 were still undergoing international transfers, per year. Perhaps, a next step would be to partner with academies and football’s governing bodies in Africa to prevent corrupt sports agents and immigration personnel from trafficking players to Europe.
The International Federation for the Protection of Young Footballers (Foot Solidaire), is a non-profit organization committed to protecting young footballers. They provide educational and financial assistance to players and clubs primarily in North and West Africa. They offer internships and volunteer opportunities for those looking to become more involved.
Two resources for those looking to learn more are the books Magic System: African footballers and the modern slave trade by Christophe Gleizes and Barthélémy Gaillardand, and Lost Boys by Ed Hawkins. These books discuss the experiences of African youth trafficked to Europe for football as well as the people and systems that enable agents to do so.
I’m not sure there’s much we can do, but it’s important to be aware of what’s going on. For those interested in immigration law or migrant worker rights, this is definitely an issue to read up on. As soccer becomes more popular in the U.S., I think fans should learn more issues such as this, that surround the game. In all sports, but especially in fútbol, I think it’s important that we care about players’ stories, families, and situations in their home countries, not just what they produce on the field.