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

By Christoph Biermann and Maik Grossekathöfer

The football World Cup is being held in Africa for the first time this year, but young African players have long been a sought-after commodity among Europe's top clubs. While some youngsters make it to the top, many players end up on the streets. Critics talk of a new slave trade.

The hut is 3 meters by 3 meters (10 by 10 feet) in size, the walls are made of concrete, the roof is corrugated sheet metal, and the sparse furnishings include a bed and an oil lamp. There are no windows. There is also no electricity, no toilet and no running water for the five people who live in this mosquito-infested hut in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

As the sun sets, the heat of the day gradually subsides, dogs bark and the muezzin leads the call to prayer. In front of the hut, the mother is cooking maize porridge over an open fire, while the two daughters sit in the dust, peeling mangoes. The father and the son talk about the future. Both are wearing AC Milan jerseys.

The boy, whose name is Amadou Kéita, says he could certainly imagine playing for Milan, but if he had his pick, he would go to Barcelona to play as a midfielder. His father strokes his head and smiles. An old man who works as a porter, he has pain in his knees, his back and his hip.

Amadou grabs a rubber ball and keeps it up in the air, bouncing it hundreds of times alternately off his left and right foot, then taps it up to his shoulders, onto his head, and back to his feet. The ball doesn't touch the ground once.

"I want to become a pro. I want to make money with football, so that I can give my family a better life," says Amadou. "I don't want my parents to die in this hut. That's my mission. I cannot fail." He sounds oddly serious for a 14-year-old.

Dream Factory

It's a long way from Bamako to Europe, a long way from a dusty street in Mali to AC Milan, but Amadou has already taken the first step.

He remembers clearly what it was like, a year ago, when he heard about the white man who was looking all over Bamako for children who could play football well, boys who were fast, agile and could control the ball. The man, a Frenchman, organized tournaments throughout the city, and Amadou played in one of them. In the end, the man selected the top five children -- five out of 5,000. Amadou was one of those five boys.

He has been attending a football academy on the edge of downtown Bamako, near the banks of the Niger River, since early September. He trains on a well-kept grass pitch, receives three meals a day and sleeps in his own bed.

The football school, which is called "Maison Bleu" (Blue House) because of its blue walls, is a dream factory. Those players who have made it this far stand a chance of becoming professionals in Spain, England, France or Germany. "My papa wept with joy when I was accepted to the boarding school," says Amadou.

Athletic and Cheap

There are many football academies in Africa. Some people see them as a blessing, others as a curse. Schools like the one in Bamako train the players which professional clubs in Europe have expressed an interest in. They are young, technically adept, athletic -- and cheap.

Footballers from Africa, the continent where the World Cup begins on June 11, are a hot commodity. European clubs have been going to Africa to look for talent since the 1950s, and in recent years the search has become a hugely profitable business. About one in four foreigners playing for a top-division European club comes from Africa.

It is a business that trades in hope and is run by serious managers. But unscrupulous traffickers also have their fingers in the pie.

Africans are drawn to Europe because they believe that everything there exists in abundance: work, money, confidence. Some players make it and become stars, players like Mahamadou Diarra with Real Madrid, Samuel Eto'o with Inter Milan and Didier Drogba with FC Chelsea. But for most the dream of achieving a better life as a professional footballer never comes to fruition.

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