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

By Christoph Biermann and Maik Grossekathöfer

Part 4: A Modern Slave Trade?

Ibrahim Karaboué also dreams of striking it rich and becoming famous as a professional footballer. One could say that he is already a step further than Souleymane, because Karaboué has already made it to Europe -- to France.

He is sitting on a train headed west from Paris, looking out the window. He has broad shoulders and soft facial features. He is wearing a down jacket and large headphones, listening to African music. He doesn't look very different from the other young men in the car, and yet he leads a completely different life.

Karaboué, 18, is from the Ivory Coast. In December 2008, an agent, who introduced himself as Jean-Michel, approached Ibrahim in Abidjan and asked him if would like to play in Europe. "I was thrilled," says Ibrahim. And then he tells his story.

Jean-Michel told him that he would have to pay him 1 million West African CFA francs (about €1,500, or $1,850) for the trip. Karaboué borrowed the money from friends. The agent bought the plane tickets and got him a forged passport that made Karaboué older than he was. At the airport, he noticed that he wasn't even flying to Europe, but that he had a visa for Dubai. He boarded the flight nevertheless.

Showing Off His Skills to Gadhafi

He completed a trial training period in Dubai. The club there wanted to sign him, but Jean-Michel, the agent, couldn't reach an agreement with the Arabs, so they left.

The next stop was Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Once again, Karaboué showed off his skills. This time Saadi Gadhafi, the son of the revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi and a football player himself, was sitting in the stands. He was impressed by Karaboué's strength and perseverance, and he even shook his hand after the training session. But Karaboué was not offered a contract.

Jean-Michel took him to the Moroccan city of Casablanca next. For two weeks, Karaboué trained with a club whose name meant as little to him as the previous clubs. The Moroccans wanted him, but his agent turned down the offer. He explained that he had bigger plans for Ibrahim.

On Jan. 4, 2009, the two finally landed in Europe, at Orly Airport in Paris. His agent took Karaboué to a hotel, took away his passport and said that he would return in two days.

"That was the last time I saw him," says Karaboué. He was 16 and had €20 in his pocket.

Ending Up on the Streets

More than 10 years ago, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights issued a report warning that "a modern 'slave trade' is being created with young African players." In Belgium, the politician Jean-Marie Dedecker investigated 442 cases of alleged human trafficking with Nigerian players. Many of them ended up on the street, with some even falling into prostitution. There are also reports of 5,000 boys who went to Italy, hoping to begin careers as footballers, and then disappeared.

Ibrahim Karaboué hasn't disappeared, however. He plays on an eighth division team in Les Clayes-sous-Bois. The playing field, with its red-ash surface, is outside of the city. Most of the players are still in high school or work as apprentices, some are overweight and almost all of them usually smoke a quick cigarette before training. The trainer works as a delivery driver. Karaboué has already shot 15 goals this season, and the club stands a chance of advancing to the next division, but his life is not what he imagined when he left the Ivory Coast.

Karaboué has reached Europe, but he hasn't achieved his goal. He lives in a hostel and has completed an internship at a nursery. He becomes furious when he is asked whether he could imagine earning a living by planting flowers. He says that he will soon be training with a second-division club, and that he expects it to turn into something. "I'll be the next Didier Drogba," says Karaboué.

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