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

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.
Von Christoph Biermann und Maik Großekathöfer

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.

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."

'Inexhaustible Potential'

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.

Clever Move

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."

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."

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.

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."

'For African Children, Football Is Everything'

Sitting at a laptop in his office in the Blue House in Bamako, Jean-Marc Guillou fumes when asked about his critics. "I am doing more for African football than FIFA. It's good that an organization like Foot Solidaire exists, but why do such dramas happen in the first place? Because FIFA doesn't give African children a chance." His voice almost cracks, he is so angry. "For African children, football is everything. If I didn't exist, Arthur Boka might be selling shoes by the side of the road," he says, referring to the Ivorian defender who plays for VfB Stuttgart.

It has become more difficult in recent years to export African players to Europe, with the embassies of many Western European countries no longer issuing visas as easily as they did in the past. Nevertheless, Guillou is expanding his operation. He is building an extension to the Bamako academy that will include another six rooms, with a total of 24 beds, as well as a restaurant with a rooftop terrace.

In two or three years, when the first Mali graduates are of age, Guillou plans to invest in another club in Europe. A second-division club in France would be good, he says. "Preferably in Île-de-France," he adds, because the region surrounding Paris is so centrally located, and therefore accessible for agents and scouts. He feels confident that he will find a club, because, as he says: "I don't show up with money like some Russian billionaire. I come with good players that will cost the club nothing and are worth a lot of money."

He opens a file on his computer. It is a forecast for the future development of his business. "I assume that of all the students in all the academies who were born in 1992, five will make it to Europe. Of those born in 1993: three. In 1994: four. In 1995: 29."

Imitating Their Role Models

Amadou Kéita was born in 1995. He is just taking out the garbage from his room, which he shares with three other students. This month, it's Amadou's turn to make sure that the room is clean and that all of his roommates hand over their mobile phones to the janitor on time. Calls are only allowed between 6 and 9 p.m. The purpose of the task is to teach the residents to take responsibility and lead the others like a team captain.

"I don't care if Monsieur Guillou makes money with me," says Kéita. "He is a friend, a second father. I want him to make me as famous as (Argentine footballer) Lionel Messi." Then he turns around quickly and walks over to his fellow students.

They are sitting in front of the television, their hair still wet from showering, watching the Champions League. Whenever they see a footballer playing well, the children jump up, cheer and imitate the movements of their role models.

The boys are wearing jerseys with bright colors that stand out in the dim light, for clubs like Real Madrid, AS Roma and Manchester United.

Amadou has his red-and-black striped AC Milan jersey on again. It's as if he hoped that by wearing the clothing of his hero, he could somehow acquire his strengths. As if this were a way to become a new person. A professional footballer in Europe.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Mehr lesen über
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.