A New Slave Trade? Europe's Thirst for Young African Footballers
Part 2: Strict Regime
It is 5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in Bamako, and Amadou Kéita is walking to the bus he takes to the academy. A thin boy, he is wearing a fleece jacket and pulling a blue trolley case.
The boarding school is on Avenue de l'Union Africaine, in a neighborhood of twisted streets lined with busy spare parts vendors. The school building, a large, two-story block-like structure with a flat roof, almost looks like a spaceship amid the surrounding houses. It sits on the site of a former landfill. The courtyard contains a swimming pool surrounded by papaya and palm trees. The oldest student is 18 and the youngest is 11. They live at the academy from Monday to Saturday, rising at 6:30 a.m. and going to bed at 9:30 p.m. In between, they have two sessions of training and two sessions of school, learning subjects like French, mathematics, biology and physics.
Jean-Marc Guillou, 64, the white man who came to Bamako to recruit young football talents, is standing on a second-floor balcony. He is the owner of the school. His hair is thick and gray, and he is wearing sandals. He has osteoarthritis in both knees.
On the field below, his "académiciens," or students, are running through an obstacle course of yellow plastic cones, keeping the ball close to their feet. The children are not talking or laughing, but working. There is a lot at stake. The trainers call out their instructions, saying that they want to see short, quick passes and that dribbling is forbidden. As always, the boys are playing barefoot. "It strengthens the muscles and saves money," says Guillou, "and the kids get a better feeling for the ball."
Guillou is a big player in the business of grooming African footballers, perhaps even the biggest. A former professional who played for the French national team 19 times, he was a trainer in Cannes in the 1980s. His assistant at the time was Arsène Wenger, who is now the manager of the London club Arsenal. Guillou opened his first boarding school in 1994, in Abidjan in Ivory Coast.
"I chose Africa because there is inexhaustible potential here," he says. "It's comparable with South America. But the mafia is involved in South America. In Africa, I was able to build up everything on my own. It was a human adventure and also an economic one."
He now owns football schools in Mali, Ghana, Madagascar, Egypt and Algeria. He has exported 140 players from Africa to Europe, and his students have included Didier Zokora with FC Seville, Kolo Touré with Manchester City, Emmanuel Eboué with Arsenal, Arthur Boka with VfB Stuttgart and Yaya Touré with FC Barcelona. Thirteen of his former students will be playing at the World Cup in South Africa.
Guillou, and Guillou alone, sets the rules of his system. First he invests in a club in Europe, and then he has his students play for the club, using it as a showcase. If another club buys one of his graduates, Guillou collects a portion of the proceeds, usually between 60 and 90 percent.
He did this for the first time in 2001, when he acquired a controlling stake in KSK Beveren, a first-division Belgian team on the brink of bankruptcy. Arsenal, which is managed by his old friend Arsène Wenger, invested 1.5 million ($1.85 million) in the venture.
Choosing Belgium as a gateway for marketing his players was a clever move. There are no restrictions on foreign players in Belgian football, and the requirements to obtain a residence permit for a professional player from a country outside the European Union are relatively minor.
Guillou gradually brought more than 30 of his talents to Belgium. At times, there were up to 11 Africans playing for Beveren. Guillou continued to sell players to clubs in France, Ukraine and Switzerland. He terminated the project in 2006 and used the profits to build the academy in Bamako.
At the school, the students are measured and weighed on the first Tuesday of every month. Amadou Kéita was 1.43 meters (4'8") tall and weighed 30 kilograms (66 lbs.) when he first arrived at the Blue House. He is now 1.50 meters tall and weighs 33 kilograms. Weighing and measuring the children is Guillou's way of checking to make sure that they are developing normally.
"After all, we don't know whether the boys are really as old as they claim," he says. Many have no birth certificate, and the passport a boy shows him, he says, could perhaps belong to a younger brother. "A 10-year-old can't weigh 35 kilograms. Not in Africa."