Soccer dreams and reality

In Africa, football can be a way out of poverty

By KATRIN BENNHOLD, Photo credit: Polfoto

Unfortunately, many young players are exploited by unscrupulous agents and end up in slave-like conditions in rich European clubs.

PARIS (July 11, 2006) – FAR FROM the festive atmosphere of the World Cup, the race for cheap muscle and talent in Europe’s lucrative soccer industry has created yet another wrinkle in the immigration debate: Every year thousands of school-age boys from Africa and Latin America are lured to Europe by dubious agents hawking dreams of glory and wealth.

After paying large sums for their passage to Europe, some are groomed in a succession of clubs. A very few rise to stardom and the millions of euros that come with it. Far more end up on the street, as illegal residents of a new country.

If clubs in Spain and Portugal traditionally go “player shopping” in Latin America, France has a long history of scouring North and West Africa for raw soccer gems, like Stéphane K, 18, who asked that his full name not be published.

In April last year, he had just scored 12 goals in a two-day soccer tournament in western Cameroon when a tall man with a Congolese accent and a winning smile walked up and asked: “Would you like to come to Europe and become a professional soccer player?”

Four weeks later Stéphane was homeless in Paris, his one-month tourist visa expiring and, with it, his hopes of a meteoric career.

“I trained for one week with an Italian team in Genoa,” he recalled this week. “Then the agent put me on a plane to Paris, paid two nights in a hotel and I was on my own. He just stopped answering his phone.”

The problem of unscrupulous international recruitment began with underage Brazilians lured to Brussels and left on the streets there. The Belgians, like the French, nationalize the best of the youngsters, but those cases are rare.

Now the focus has shifted to Africa. Today, at least half of the young African players headed for Europe every year end up in France, according to Culture Foot Solidaire, a nongovernmental organization that supports African youths brought here ostensibly to play soccer and abandoned on arrival.

According to the organization, based in Saint-Gratien, northwest of Paris, there are 600 such cases in the Paris area alone. Of the youths, 98 per cent are illegal immigrants and 70 per cent are younger than 18. The organization estimates there are more than 7,000 youths across France.

“It’s a modern version of the slave trade, and it comes in many different forms,” said Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, who played soccer for Cameroon’s national team before starting Culture Foot Solidaire six years ago.

A few young African players make it to Europe on their own, their heads filled with dreams of becoming the next Samuel Eto’o, a Cameroonian who plays for Barcelona and is considered the best African player in the world.

But the more common path is via recruiting agents, real or otherwise. Some of the youths Mbvoumin sees had one- year visas and training contracts that were not renewed; others, abandoned on arrival by fake agents, never even saw the inside of a football clubhouse.

Money looms large in most transactions. Typically, agents ask the parents of a young player to pay €3,000 to €4,000, or $3,800 to $5,000, supposedly for the airfare and a visa, Mbvoumin said, a sum that families scrape together in hopes it will offer them a way out of hardship.

Stéphane’s face hardens when he recalls the agent telling his mother that he would need €3,000 to cover expenses. “She said: ‘If what you say is true, then so be it. Sometimes one has to trust people one does not know,’” Stéphane said. “Then she went around to all her friends to borrow the money.”

When he has a few coins to call her in Cameroon from time to time, he tells his mother that he is training and that things are going well. “I can’t go back before I have got the money to pay back my mother,” he said.

A broad young man with tightly braided hair, Stéphane knows that the closest he will ever get to a European club is probably the FC Barcelona T- shirt he is wearing. He admits he was naïve in thinking it would be easy.

International recruitment of soccer players has a long history. France had its first recruitment drive in its North African colonies in the 1930s and in West Africa in the 1950s.

Recruitment from Africa has exploded over the past decade. Since a 1995 ruling of the European Court of Justice, relaxing caps on foreign players in UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, the number of African players in the top division clubs of 11 major European soccer nations has doubled to 316, according to a recent study by Raffaele Poli of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

How heavily some clubs rely on African talent is illustrated by Beveren, a Belgian first division club that played some matches this season with a team of 11 foreigners, 10 from Ivory Coast.

Importing players is about more than scoring goals. Developing young talent and selling it on is a major source of income for clubs, said Gilles Garnier, a former cabinet director in France’s Sports Ministry.

For example, Britain’s Chelsea Football Club paid €36 million in 2004 to Olympique Lyonnais in France for the services of Michael Essien, a midfielder from Ghana. Olympique Lyonnais had paid Bastia €8 million for his contract; Bastia, in turn, had paid about €50,000 to Liberty Accra, a Ghanaian team.

“It’s like with Chinese shoes that you buy at almost no cost and then sell here at a huge profit,” Garnier said. “Clubs make money from getting cheap talent, developing it and selling the players on to other clubs at a huge profit. It’s worth bringing over 1,000, even if you only end up using 20.”

FIFA, the Federation of International Football Associations, tightened its recruitment and transfer guidelines in 2001, making it illegal to import players younger than 18.

But agents working independently of FIFA often tweak the paperwork, making players a few years older and, in some cases, even changing their identities. “Player laundering,” Mbvoumin calls it.

Some clubs have set up satellite training schools (called “football plantations”) in Africa, including Amsterdam’s Ajax in South Africa and France’s Bastia in Senegal. (Similar arrangements have been established by U.S. Major League Baseball in Latin America in a practise called “sugarball” – TS editor). Others have partnerships with clubs in European countries with looser immigration rules for players, like Belgium.

One result: Belgian soccer clubs have 30 officially licensed agents but they also have another 170 unofficial ones, some of whom have ties to organized crime, said Jean-Marie Dedecker, a Belgian senator who has researched the subject.

Source: Play the Game

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