The fight against illegal trafficking of young African footballers: some of Europe’s richest football clubs have been implicated. It is a fight that is far from over – and one that FIFA recently brought to light through the sanctioning of FC Barcelona and the club’s exploitation of young players.
By Marie Louise Albers, Paris/Genève
The phone vibrates in his breast pocket. Again. It is the fourth time in the last half hour, and this time Jean-Claude Mbvoumin feels compelled to answer. He apologizes, pulls the chair slightly away from the little coffee table where we sit, and lifts the phone to his ear.
“It is Jean-Claude,” he says in French, while a concerned father from Guinea identifies himself at the other end of the line. The Guinean man recently sent his son to a try-out in Europe, but now the father has not had contact with his son for several days, and he does not know where in Europe his son is. Jean-Claude promises to look into it and asks him to call back later.
The call is far from unusual for Jean-Claude Mbvoumin. As founder and leader of the organisation Foot Solidaire he takes 10-15 similar calls every day in addition to all the mails that tick into the organisation’s inbox every day. They are all about one thing: The trafficking of minor footballers.
In April, the Spanish club Barcelona, who has long been notorious for going after far too young football talents, was thus sanctioned by FIFA for illegal trafficking of under-18 players.
To many, this came as a surprising yet positive action from FIFA, who has long been criticised for not doing enough to protect minors. But according to Mbvoumin, FIFA’s judgment is far from tantamount to a forthcoming solution to the problem.
“The ruling is meaningless in reality. FIFA only has a symbolic power, it’s just politics. FIFA cannot be present where this actually takes place; that is with the families and the children. ”
The Foot Solidaire founder believes it is necessary to disregard the illusion that FIFA holds all responsibility. The key to a solution lies primarily with the European football clubs.
“FIFA cannot control all clubs throughout Europe and punish them, it is not possible (…) The real power lies with the European football clubs themselves who must begin to look at African players as anything but cheap ‘fast food’,” he says.
Basically, it is about a change of attitude in the entire football world. It is the responsibility of the clubs to do more when it comes to the integration of the African players. The clubs should help by checking the agents that bring them young talents, and make sure that they are not just men with greedy eyes and false intentions.
“Seen from the outside, FIFA’s regulations are good enough, of course. They protect the young players and African football, but it is a question of ethics. It’s a question about money not being more valuable than a child’s well-being.”
“The clubs also need to understand the benefits of improving the situation; in the long run, an improvement will benefit them in terms of a better image. And they need that in a football world that already suffers from very negative publicity in terms of corruption, the circulation of large sums of money, match-fixing and so on,” says Mbvoumin.
Poor families are being exploited
The trade of under-age African footballers is primarily a phenomenon that plays on distressed families’ hopes for a way out of poverty. The fake agents make unknowing parents spend all their savings on their son’s flight to Europe, but in the end, the boy might only get a single trial at a European club – or perhaps none at all – and is left on his own in an unknown world far away from family and without a safety net.
Jean-Claude Mbvoumin has often been in contact with bereaved children as young as 12-13 years old, he says.
“The young kids dream about becoming the new Samuel Eto’o. It is only after that they realise that they have been duped,” he says and points out that Africans do not see the problem to begin with.
“For them it is an opportunity for the young kids to get a chance to get out of poverty. In Africa, there are no offers and no way to make money on football the same way as in Europe, and therefore they try to get away from there,” he says.
It is when the damage is done – when the players have been fooled – that Foot Solidaire enters the scene. With Mbvoumin’s phone in the lead and his small staff, which does not count more than two handfuls, Foot Solidaire works as a direct emergency hotline to the lost footballers, concerned parents or other people involved.
“Just talking to someone about the issue helps the kids a lot. Having someone to talk to, someone who listens to them and knows about their situation. Foot Solidaire can offer them a piece of advice or a helping hand to get out of the problems they find themselves in,” says Jean-Claude.
Lost footballers on the UN agenda
In May, Mbvoumin and Foot Solidaire succeeded in taking another important step in the fight by putting even more focus on the problem. The organisation arranged a conference at the UN office in Geneva with the aim of sharing experiences and solutions to problems with recruitment and integration of under-age African footballers.
Among the participants were political dignitaries from the UN, the African Union, big Italian, Spanish and Portuguese football clubs, former African national team coaches and the International Organization for Migration, the world’s largest international organisation focused on migration.
“This was a turning point for us and a very important step for Foot Solidaire because for the first time we managed to bring together leading international organisations and important people in football to talk about the problem,” says Mbvoumin.
“The partnership between football’s many agencies and leading organisations is paramount and we cannot do anything about the problem before a true collaboration is up and running,” the advocate says.
70 per cent of the work must be done in Africa
Especially the meeting with the African Union has given the founder of Foot Solidaire hope that there will be more awareness about the problem in the African countries in the future.
“It is very symbolic and important that African countries themselves are aware of the problem, because it is in Africa that 70 percent of the work must be done while the remaining 30 percent takes place in Europe,” says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin.
This work consists primarily of information campaigns aiming at ensuring that young football players and their families do not fall into the hands of fake agents and send their children to Europe under false premises and with false papers in their pockets.
“The potential in Africa is huge, but the trading of young players ruins everything because Africa fails to hold on to their own good talents,” Mbvoumin says.
“Africa must begin to distinguish between professional football, amateur football and football for fun. Right now, it’s all mixed up and everyone who plays football, only thinks of becoming a professional and getting out of poverty by going to Europe. And this is not the purpose of the sport,” he points out.
Foot Solidaire expands
In the near future, Foot Solidaire will expand its activities and reach out to more countries where they can help lost footballers get back on track. The guidance has so far mainly been available in France, but the organisation now plans to offer its services in other major European countries by launching a network of reception and assistance centres so that the kids can be better protected.
France and four other southern European football nations, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal, have been identified as the countries where the presence of Foot Solidaire is most needed.
The new network, which has been named ‘le Réseau Européen Foot Solidaire’ (European Network Foot Solidaire) can also be helpful for Foot Solidaire and other organisations fighting for the same cause, in obtaining a wider view of the problem. In the long run, this may help to improve the integration and protection of the young.
“It’s not just about football, but about protecting young people and their rights in general. If we do not begin to fight this trend now, it will be something that will have an impact on football’s reputation and development in the future,” warns the founder of Foot Solidaire.
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