FIFA president Sepp Blatter casually uses the term “slavery” in referring to the £ multi-million contract of Cristiano Ronaldo, who in turn “dreams” of leaving the greatest football club in the world to play in Madrid.
Jean Claude Mbvoumin could teach them both some revealing truths about dreams and slavery.
This year, Mbvoumin was named one of seventeen “Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery” by the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Mbvoumin is a former footballer, recruited from the African country of Cameroon in 1995 to play in France.
After retiring from football, Mbvoumin founded the French organization Culture Foot Solidiare to raise awareness of the issue of the criminal recruiting and trafficking of young footballers from Africa. “It’s a modern version of the slave trade, and it comes in many different forms,” says Mbvoumin.
Thousands of young African boys dream of leaving their lives of poverty to play football in Europe. The majority of the boys trafficked into Europe come from Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. CFS estimates that in France alone there are more than 7,000 young Africans living on the streets after failed attempts to play for a professional club. Ninety-eight percent are illegal immigrants and 70 percent are younger than 18. Inspired by players like Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, and buoyed by promises from unscrupulous, unlicensed agents and scouts, their impoverished parents deplete their savings or go into debt to finance their sons’ journeys.
Thousands of unlicensed football “academies” operating in countries like the Ivory Coast promise parents that, for a fee, their sons will get a chance to try out for a European football club. Childrens’ charities in Africa are becoming increasingly concerned.
“This football-related trafficking and the widespread creation of so-called schools of excellence is an area of huge growing concern for Save The Children,” says Heather Kerr, the charity’s Ivory Coast country manager. “The motivation for these children joining these footballing schools and being trafficked out of the country is purely about money and that is not surprising as these families are incredibly poor. Quite often we find it’s the parents who send their children to the West or take their children out of school and force them to concentrate on becoming footballers because they want the youngsters to earn more money for the family.”
Coaches and agents have the pick of the best of thousands of young players, signing them to binding pre-contracts, with the hope of making a profit selling the boys on to clubs in Europe.
A small percentage of the players do achieve proper professional contracts and employment permits, but those cases are rare. Some of the youths whom Mbvoumin helps had visas and contracts that were not renewed, and others were abandoned as soon as they arrived in France.
The Independent reported last week that twenty-seven European football leagues are set to sign an agreement this autumn to better control the recruitment of African boys in football. Richard Caborn, Britain’s sports ambassador, and chair of the Football, Social and Economics Forum, is one of the men behind the campaign. He is drafting the guidelines to be voted on by the leagues.
“We need to make sure this trade is stamped out,” said Caborn. “We do not want football to be tarnished by this kind of activity.”
Playthegame.org, an organization dedicated to ethics and sport, tells the story on their website of one young African player who had a dream of playing in Europe.
Stéphane, 18, scored 12 goals in a local tournament in Cameroon when he was approached by a man who asked, “Would you like to come to Europe and become a professional soccer player?”
His mother borrowed money from everyone she knew in their village to finance his journey. Four weeks later Stéphane was homeless in Paris, with no work permit and no money to return home. “I trained for one week with an Italian team in Genoa,” he recalls. “Then the agent put me on a plane to Paris, paid two nights in a hotel and I was on my own. He just stopped answering his phone.”
“I can’t go back before I have got the money to pay back my mother,” he said.
The Observer, in a piece on the issue, quotes Bernard, 17, who says he travelled to France from Ghana on the promise of a trial with Metz. ‘My mother sold our house and my two younger brothers started work at 12 to help pay for my passage,’ says Bass. “I made it to France, but Metz had no idea who I was and threatened to report me to the police. Now I am here in Clichy-sous-Bois, (a notorious ghetto in the suburbs of Paris), staying on a friend’s floor.’
Speaking to the International Herald Tribune, Mbvoumin explained that many of the boys’ families have paid 3000-4000 Euros — a literal fortune for these people – for visas and plane tickets to unlicensed agents, in hopes that a professional football contract is waiting for them in Europe.
Too often, these boys are left homeless and abandoned on the streets of European cities. Penniless, with only expired tourist visas, and without legal status, afraid to return home, they melt away into the urban fabric.
Profit, of course, is driving the crisis.
A Senegalese Football Association representative said: “The boys are cheap compared to European players. It is always worth sending one hundred. The agent can make money from the one or two who make it. The other ninety-eight are forgotten.”
“A lot of African parents are completely naive. They trust anyone who is white and promises to bring their kids to Europe. Of course, none of the agents are officially accredited by FIFA, and normally the kids only know their agent’s first name or a nickname. That’s why I want to open offices in Africa to inform and support young footballers and their families,” Mbvoumin told the Financial Times.
The illegal operators are serious about protecting their profits. Belgian senator Jean-Marie Dedecker was the subject of death threats when he investigated the criminal trade of Nigerian players in Belgium. “I was warned that if I went to Nigeria to investigate this I would be killed,” he said. Belgian soccer clubs have 30 officially licensed agents but they also have another 170 unofficial ones, some of whom have ties to organized crime, claims Dedecker.
In January, BBC Radio 4 aired a documentary on the issue. Dirk de Vos of the Belgian football players’ union showed a pair of contracts between a club and an African player. One, properly printed, gave the player the correct minimum wage and benefits, and was filed with the football federation. The other, hand-written, showed the true salary – less than a quarter of the official figure. “They have no choice but to sign the second contract,” says de Vos.
UEFA has been working for the last three years to try to curb the abuse through tougher rules for agents.
“We would like to see regulation which is more firm, and that action can be taken through the regulation towards the agents,” Lars-Christer Olsson, former Chief Executive of UEFA, said in 2005. “This is a huge responsibility we have to look into.” He estimated that no more than 5% of players recruited from outside of Europe make it into the first team of European clubs.
“If you take this into account that you bring in all these young players â€” what is happening when they are not good enough? The risk is obvious that they are kicked out, of course,” he said. “There is no safety net at all for the countries from outside of Europe.”
Mbvoumin says that it is in nobody’s interest to clean up the system unless forced to do so. The clubs and agents want cheap African talent, and desperate to help their families rise above poverty, the young footballers are abandoning their educations to pursue their dream of football in Europe. Without football, without an education, without their communities and without their families, they are adrift.
“Many children here in France don’t want to return,” says Mbvoumin. “They say: if I go back my parents will kill me because I don’t bring them money, or big cars. And that’s the main objective.”
“It’s important to dream,” says Mbvoumin, “but the dreams about football now are not realistic.”
Though FIFA president Sepp Blatter spoke out five years ago against the exploitation of foreign players in football, in what he described as the “rape” of Africa, it has been UEFA and organizations like Save the Children and CFS that have led the way in the campaign against the the modern day enslavement of football players.
Blatter’s use of the word “slavery” in reference to Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract at Manchester United highlights two such divergent realities that it is an outrageous insult to those who are the truly victimized.
And Cristiano’s “dream”? Perhaps a conversation with some of those same young men might help to put that dream into proper perspective.