Juliet Nwagwu Ume-Ezeoke. Originally published in Spring 2018.
The hawkers along Beulah Road on Ghana’s Cape Coast are hardly an unusual sight. Their brightly colored wares reflect against the whitewashed colonial buildings, as Atlantic waves crash on the shores of the former slaving outpost. The more peculiar spectacle is the throngs of men, women, and children pushing into a stadium nearby. It is just minutes before a crucial match between the Ghanaian Black Stars and their archrivals, the Nigerian Super Eagles. Spirits are high as boisterous football lovers from all over the region crowd in to see the last two teams in the West African Football Union (WAFU) Nations Cup go head to head.
While the rowdy football fans filling the stadium might evoke the perception that all is well on Cape Coast, just streets away a very different narrative is playing out. In these streets, young boys that go on to become the biggest African names in football, the Samuel Eto’os and Didier Drogbas of the world, start from humble beginnings. Kicking around tightly wound plastic bags masquerading as footballs, they practice tirelessly in hopes of becoming household names themselves. Unfortunately, their hard work often goes unrewarded.
In 2009, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights warned against the “modern slave trade” being created with young African football players. In 2017, it seems that this warning has gone unheeded. According to Foot Solidaire, a watchdog and charity, 15,000 young boys, some as young as nine, are moved out of West Africa each year under false pretenses. Promised lavish football contracts by agents, they end up abandoned, exploited, and abused. Sepp Blatter, the former head of FIFA, recognized the potency of the issue, calling out “neo-colonial” European football clubs for robbing the developing world of its best players. Yet, it is not just the developing world that suffers in this strange exchange, but children themselves. Many who nobly pursue international football stardom end up losing everything, including their free will. They become victims of the game that they cherish.
At any given moment, as data from UNICEF confirmed earlier this year, there are more than 5.5 million children being subject to crimes that fall under the umbrella of human trafficking. The misfortune of trafficked football players does not rest lightly atop as yet another statistic, but compounds the problem of this modern slave trade. Its use of football—a sport that is celebrated globally—as an innocuous front emphasizes the sinister nature of player trafficking. With the sport more popular than ever—FIFA claims that nearly 50 percent of the world’s population tuned in for at least one minute of the last World Cup—the danger to young children who want to play it has never been more intense. It is high time the international community recognized it.
Raising the Red Card: The Problem
Ghana is home to some of the best football academies on the African continent. Schools like the West African Football Academy just outside of Accra, Ghana’s capital, are decades old and well-funded—making them alluring to young footballers. This is because, for many young West African boys, playing for a football team “abroad” in Europe or in the United States is tantamount to a perfect Hollywood ending. These posh football institutions are the easiest way to achieve such a goal. Every year, more than 30,000 hopefuls as young as nine years old try out for 15 spots in the US-sponsored Right to Dream Football Academy in Accra.
Those who don’t make it into formal academies do not simply give up. The economic incentive to do well in football is far too great. Although sub-Saharan Africa’s economy is the world’s second fastest growing, with an average of 5 percent growth in GDP annually, the creation of middle class jobs still lags far behind. In big cities like Abidjan and Dakar, unemployment rates stand at just below 30 percent. Even employment has its shortfalls, as the average yearly income for many West Africans is below $1,000. Thus, becoming an internationally recognized football player is an offer that is often too great to resist.
Unlicensed football academies have sprung up to meet the demand. In Accra alone, there are over 500, with thousands spread out over the rest of the country. Many are little more than roadside operations without proper recreational equipment. They are run by local men who claim to have had great football careers, but are slow to provide any evidence of experience. The biblical names that the operations take on, such as “Son of Moses” or “Lovers of Christ,” stand in stark comparison to the real goal: profiteering off of the hopes of young children.
In order to attend one of these roadside academies, children and families may pay exorbitant upfront costs. Yet many are willing to do so, understanding that a son’s success will lead to future dividends. For the family of Stephen Appiah, the captain of the Ghanaian national team, this is certainly the case. At one point Appiah’s family was forced to sell their television to pay for just his shoes. Now, only a few years after being picked up by an Italian scout while playing in Ghana’s youth leagues, Appiah is a millionaire.
If they are not asked to pay up front, players may enter into questionable agreements with their so-called coaches. In one instance, a family agreed to give a coach 50 percent of their child’s signing on fee, before the child in question had even been scouted. When it comes to financing the journey to Europe so that the player can actually enter into a contract with a team, coaches continue the extortion. It is not uncommon for the deeds on family homes to trade hands before a player even sees a plane ticket. On the other side of the spectrum, some scouts offer families money to enter into “pre-contracts” with their children, betting that they can trade them to teams in Europe in even more profitable exchanges. This is an especially questionable practice, as these contracts give the scouts almost total ownership over the player, fundamentally restricting the freedom of the athletes. This agreement is made worse by the fact that the athletes are under 18 and already have few legal rights.
Recruiters representing football clubs from across the world, including big names like Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain, can be spotted combing the streets of major cities in the region, keeping an eye out for talented young players. In order to be spotted, youth as young as 12 leave their homes in neighboring Burkina Faso and Nigeria to get to optimal cities where they have a greater chance of recruitment. As Kingsley Chibueze, a teen who has come to Ghana from next door Nigeria, acknowledges, “No European scout is crazy enough to go to the slums of Lagos.” The result is that over 20 percent of the students in Accra’s football academies have already left their families behind in pursuit of their dreams.
However, money and time are not all that young players give up in an effort to gain international recognition. They also are encouraged to bend the law as well. Foreign recruiters and local coaches alike are often under-invested in ensuring that their potential prodigies have proper documentation, and will cut corners to get what they need. Luckily for them, in big cities like Accra, temporary passports can be secured for as little as US$100. Forged visas and fake birth certificates are traded like candy in markets, easily accessible for recruiters who know where to look.
When the recruits arrive, they are cared for as long as they do well in football tryouts. Unfortunately, they are often in competition with other footballers who have trained in superior facilities in Europe. If they are unsuccessful, or, as in the case of Effa Steve, a 17-year-old Equatorial Guinean footballer whose mother sold her house to get him to a time trial in France, are injured, there is a high chance that they will simply be tossed aside, whether or not they have a return ticket home.
Contact with the recruiter may cease completely, and the player will often find themselves in a foreign country without a way home, or an incentive to go home. This was the case for Simon, a Cameroonian living in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. He had left Cameroon on a 30-day visa and an emotional high: his family had hired a bar to celebrate his future success. Yet after he was rejected by the club that sent him, he lost touch with his agent and continued to stay in France without any future prospects. The fundamental well-being of the recruits then takes a turn for the worse. Often, they lack legal permission to work or go to school, and must choose between several bad options: homelessness, selling illegal merchandise, or even prostitution. Boys who were once the pride of their hometowns become second class citizens and objects that frequently arouse police attention.
Yet, even if the recruits are able to make it on a team, the reality falls short of their dreams. A small fraction of them actually get to play for major leagues, while the rest end up in lower divisions, playing on the very margins of football. A recent statistical analysis of professional and semi-professional leagues in the Union of European Football (UEFA), found that compared to migrants of other origins, Africans are more likely to be concentrated at lower levels of competition. Pay at these levels is correspondingly low. In some cases, footballers play for free in order to gain greater exposure. This can be attributed to the limited opportunities for athletic advancement, as these teams practice, at most, three times a week. Most players are forced to take on secondary jobs in order to make ends meet. In addition to low wages, the players face intense solitude, as many lower division teams are located in rural areas, not big cities.
The problem is clear. At ages as young as nine, volumes of boys of African origin are subject to trafficking that results in social and emotional harm, completely altering their futures. Yet because society is so blind to the issue, it persists.
Watching the Game from Home: Solutions for Regional Governments
Player trafficking is not a problem for all of Africa. In eastern and southern Africa, players have less incentive to move overseas to play on international teams. Interestingly, West African teams tend to do much better in pan-African football contests. Nearly 75 percent of accolades from the Confederation of African Football (AFCON) go to West Africans. Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana are the most historically successful African teams in the World Cup. Nigeria and Cameroon are the only countries to have won Olympic gold medals for football. The reason is that the national team’s players have international experience and have developed novel playing techniques. Yet this positive outcome results in extreme financial disparity. For example, the South African national team, Bafana Bafana, is paid far more than the internationally recognized Nigerian Super Eagles. In fact, the league of the South African Football Association is among the ten richest in the world. The failure of West African states to properly reimburse their national teams, not to mention their local teams, is a large factor in the prominence of player trafficking.
The lack of organizational structure or a clear path to success causes further problems for the youth. To solve the problem, organizations facilitating football on the continent must literally get their heads in the game. WAFU, the West African Football Union, founded in 1975 for West African national teams specifically, has missed the mark on many occasions The most recent tournament, hosted in Cape Coast this past September, was the first since 2013. For WAFU to counteract this negative trend, it must facilitate more local matchesmatches, produce quality opportunities for player development, and provide players with adequate wages. The money to do all of this does not have to come from thin air. Indeed, in the past decade alone, several West African countries have constructed stadiums—financed with Chinese loans—worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Money should go toward building up the institutions that will make the football industry successful, not just the appearances.
This solution complements developing a local fan base in the countries in question. Creating a demand for football in the neighborhoods where the players come from can have an extremely positive impact on mitigating player trafficking. Currently, most matches that West Africans are exposed to are those of international teams. Indeed, 80 percent of Africa’s World Cup players play club soccer on teams based in Europe. Creating local demand would increase attendance at matches, fill expensive stadiums that are usually empty, and create revenue to make games more appealing to local football fans.
The current model that AFCON engages in is not helpful towards this goal. In 2011, it signed a contract with a French media company that holds the broadcasting rights to all of its tournaments. It has come under fire from the Egyptian government for the perceived unfairness of the arrangement, as well as internal corruption. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Although host countries shell out millions to host the football conferences, AFCON is slow to reimburse their efforts. Rather than sharing profits to develop the football industry in member states, AFCON grows wealthy at the expense of the individuals that it is supposed to serve.
Signaling the Referee: Solutions for the International Community
West African governments and AFCON working to create favorable environments for football players in the region is not a short-term project. In some instances, it will require an unprecedented change of attitude from top-level officials, who have shown little initiative thus far. In others, it might require significant reform of the state governments themselves.
Thus, UEFA, the organization analogous to AFCON in Europe, has the opportunity to provide short-term relief to youth players in West Africa. After all, it is recruiters from UEFA teams, or fraudsters posing as them, who are responsible for securing passage for young boys to unsuccessful careers in Europe. There should be more rules in place to ensure the welfare of recruits, even if they do not perform as well as hoped in time trials. Additionally, there should be restrictions against asking families to put unsustainable sums of money on the line to have their children go to Europe. If recruiters believe a player can truly be a valuable addition to their team, they should be willing to cover the costs up front.
FIFA, being the international football hegemon that it is, can also play a critical role in ensuring that the rights of children are being protected. In 2003, it created rules that criminalized the transfer of youths under 18. Clearly, these rules are not being enforced. FIFA’s lax attitude towards and unawareness of player trafficking is particularly reprehensible.
Scoring a Goal: Conclusion
They used to wake up at the crack of dawn and run outside. They used to leave their shoes at the door, preferring the feeling of the powdery red dust between their toes. Their heads were still filled with dreams of bright green turf and thousands of fans screaming their names, even as they would kick around deflated footballs on fields littered with trash, with faded billboards of football stars in the background.
Now, they are alone and unprotected in countries very far from home—15,000 youths each year—who become victims of player trafficking. By following their dreams, they end up losing everything, including their futures. It is easy for the world to ignore them, to not know their stories. After all, they are poor, young, and unrepresented.
For many West African governments, optimizing the football industry might not seem like an overriding objective. At a time when the entire region has been shocked by low commodity prices and governments are focusing on tightening their budgets, spending money on sports might appear to be nonsensical. For clubs in UEFA, stopping the import of West African players might seem counterintuitive to becoming more competitive. For FIFA, any mention of player trafficking at all, especially as it goes through its own slew of corruption scandals, could be fatal. Yet for the more than 15,000 children who are trafficked under the guise of football, it is critical that all of these institutions take up the mantle. Only through international intervention in West African football can we restore the integrity of local institutions and the hopes of local youth.