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

By Christoph Biermann and Maik Grossekathöfer

Part 5: Broken Dreams and Greedy Agents

There are many possibilities for African players who want to go to Europe, but no certainties. Jean-Claude Mbvoumin knows this. He is familiar with Karaboué's odyssey, because he helped him register with the welfare agency. In fact, he is familiar with hundreds of other cases like Karaboué's, cases that consistently involve broken dreams, greedy agents and the complicity of clubs.

Mbvoumin, 42, has a sharp chin, is clean-shaven and keeps his hair cropped close to his head. He is from Cameroon, where he played on the national team eight times. He has been living in France for 16 years. Ten years ago he founded the non-governmental organisation Foot Solidaire, which assists the victims of the trade in African players.

"Once, at the Cameroonian embassy, I saw an entire team of 14-year-olds, all boys, who had been abandoned by their agent," he says. "That was the impulse to do something." He talks quickly, probably because he doesn't want to lose any time in getting his message out.

'Africa Will Explode'

This month, Mbvoumin launched another campaign against child trafficking in football, a program supported by the African Union and France's national Olympic committee. But the money they provide still isn't enough. Foot Solidaire doesn't even have its own office, and Mbvoumin works from home.

He is convinced that he will have even more work on his hands after the World Cup. "Africa will explode," he says. "Even more people will want to go to Europe because of football."

To address the problem early, he is about to embark on a trip through the continent, giving talks in Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast and handing out brochures in Ghana and Cameroon. He wants to explain to young players and their parents that Europe is not paradise. He wants them to know that there are agents who take advantage of players, just as human traffickers do with refugees, and he wants them to understand that a trial training period doesn't automatically lead to a contract, and that they shouldn't sign anything that they don't understand.

Mbvoumin faces an uphill battle. About one in two sub-Saharan Africans lives on less than $1 a day, and the flow of young football players hoping to reach Europe isn't subsiding. The clubs, for their part, are becoming more and more ruthless in scouring Africa for the next season's jewels.

'Neocolonial Exploitation'

Since 2001, when FIFA expanded its transfer rules to include an article on the "protection of minors," an age limit of 18 has applied to players being transferred to another country -- unless, that is, the parents accompany the player.

But the clubs are constantly trying to circumvent the rules. For example, the Danish first division club FC Midtjylland tried to add six Nigerians to its lineup, all of them 16 or 17 years old, by bringing them into the country as guest students.

"The human trafficking trade changes every time the rules are changed," says Mbvoumin. The football academies in Africa are the biggest problem at the moment, he says, because the children are given false promises, because foreigners take advantage of their poverty and because the players are exploited as if they were raw materials.

For Paul Darby, a British expert on the sociology of sports, it is the more professional projects that involve collaboration with European clubs or Western investors that are an example of "neocolonial exploitation." Their only objective, Darby says, is the "procurement, refinement and export of natural resources, in this case, footballers."


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