A New Slave Trade? Europe's Thirst for Young African Footballers

By Christoph Biermann and Maik Grossekathöfer

Part 3: The Need to Make a Profit

A student remains at the school for six to nine years, depending on the age at which he was accepted. The parents sign a contract, and the training, instruction, room and board are free. Guillou spent €1.6 million to build the academy in Bamako, which costs €165,000 a year to run.

To recoup his money, Guillou has to make a profit when he eventually sells his students to European clubs. Like a fund manager, he depends on his investments increasing in value. That is his interpretation of the globalization of football.

Guillou has also operated a football academy in Thailand since 2005. Arsenal is an investor and has acquired an option to sign the school's two biggest talents. Guillou likes to work with Arsenal, because the club is "good advertising and collateral for the bank."

He trains Thai boys, as well as Africans from Ivory Coast, at the academy in Chonburi, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Bangkok. Guillou brought the Ivorian boys to Asia four years ago. One of them was only eight at the time.

'Clean Conscience'

"I have a clean conscience," says Guillou, speaking on the balcony of his school in Bamako. He insists that he is not breaking any rules or violating any laws, because he hasn't sold the children to a club. Besides, he adds, the parents gave their consent. "And culture shock isn't a problem, either. Africans can adjust easily anywhere."

There are politicians who call Guillou a human trafficker. Certain officials at football's international governing body, FIFA, also have a low opinion of him and accuse him of sucking Africa dry. For Lennart Johansson, the former president of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the business with African talent is "child abduction and nothing else."

But for the boys in Bamako, Guillou is someone who can help them achieve a better life.

Treated Like a Commodity

Souleymane Diomande is sitting in the grass after a training session. He is 15 and, until a month ago, was still at the academy in Thailand, where he spent three years. He saw his family once during that time. He returned to Africa because his passport had expired and he was unable to get a new visa.

Of course he missed Africa, he says, "but I got to know another country, and now I can speak English and Thai. I would go anywhere to get to Europe in the end."

Doesn't he feel that he is being treated like a commodity?

"Well, so what?" says Diomande. "Monsieur Guillou is helping me so that I can earn money later on."

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Graphic: Origin of foreign players in Europe's top clubs Zoom

Graphic: Origin of foreign players in Europe's top clubs