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The Scramble for Africa’s Athletes

Shady sports agents have taken a page from human traffickers. They’re luring young men to Europe with promises of fame and exploiting them instead.

By , a journalist who writes about politics, sports, and culture.
Children play soccer in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 7, 2010.
Children play soccer in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 7, 2010.
Children play soccer in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 7, 2010. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

It’s no secret that foreign interests have long exploited Africa’s resources: oil, gold, diamonds, and, of course, people. What isn’t widely known is that in 2018, Africa is now mined for its athletes.

It’s no secret that foreign interests have long exploited Africa’s resources: oil, gold, diamonds, and, of course, people. What isn’t widely known is that in 2018, Africa is now mined for its athletes.

For many young soccer players around the world, a professional career under the bright lights of Europe’s famous stadiums is the stuff dreams are made of. Playing for a big club comes with big rewards — even by European and North American standards. When a door opens to a pro contract in Europe, it’s difficult to not step through and see what’s on the other side, especially for a hopeful African player — who often has to contend with a daily grind of poverty at home.

This is where agents with dubious legitimacy step up, offering young men and their families the opportunity for trials with professional clubs in Europe. Research from Loughborough University in England has confirmed what’s informally discussed within the soccer business — there’s always a catch to the pitches from these agents. It usually means families must pay up front to have a chance at the “opportunity.” The fees, never required when following legitimate professional pathways, are huge for most African families. They often never see the money again. It’s a business model torn from the pages of a book used by human traffickers and people smugglers around the world.

Too many stories follow the same pattern. After being recruited from West African soccer hotbeds like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, athletes pay fees and begin their journey, only to be abandoned upon arrival in Europe. The agent disappears with the money, returning to another country or city with more false promises for other players. The young men are turfed from their cheap hotels and have to fend for themselves, often being absorbed into the black markets and underground economies of European cities.

Some players don’t even make it to Europe. One Nigerian team, thinking it was heading to Spain for trial matches, was dumped in Cape Verde. Others were abandoned in Istanbul thinking they were scheduled to try out with some of Turkey’s top teams. Some underage players actually did make it to a team — in Laos. When the dire employment and living conditions there were exposed, FIFPro — the union for professional soccer players — launched a successful intervention to free the players from further exploitation. One of the players now attends high school in the United States and has earned plaudits for his performances for the school’s soccer team.

The response from governments and institutions such as FIFA, UEFA, and the International Olympic Committee has been limp. In 2001, FIFA did introduce Article 19, a regulation stating that players under the age of 18 cannot sign a contract or register with a club in a country other than their own. There are caveats though: if a player lives within 30 miles of a country’s border and the club is within 30 miles of the same border, if a player is moving from one European country to another and is at least 16 years old, or if a player’s family moves to a different country for reasons “not linked” to soccer.

Article 19 has its critics — some, ironically, are middle-class American families claiming the regulations should not apply to them if their talented children are recruited by European teams. Big Spanish clubs — Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, and FC Barcelona — have received short bans from participating in the transfer market for not complying with Article 19, while the English Premier League team Chelsea is under investigation for possible breaches.

But Article 19 hasn’t stopped the flow of young players from Africa to Europe. Governments, soccer authorities, and law enforcement officials seem stuck on whether the irregular flow of African players to Europe meets the legal definition of trafficking, if it is a sports issue or a migration issue, and who exactly should have authority to deal with it. One question is whether the issue can be defined as trafficking if someone over the age of 18 willingly pays fees to travel to Europe and, for law enforcement, at what point a potential crime is committed. A case in Belgium involving minors fell apart in court when — after an investigation that revealed fake passports, an academy in Nigeria, agents, and professional clubs — the players admitted they wanted to come to Europe and had signed a contract with a player agent, even if that contract came with terrible conditions for the players.

Then there are the grand schemes, like Doha’s Aspire Academy, founded by the Qatari Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad. Sheikh Jassim renounced his claim to Qatar’s crown in 2003 and put his energy and money into his big passion — soccer. In 2004, he founded the Aspire Academy, which was formally launched in Doha a year later with the aim of discovering and developing young sports talent and establishing Qatar as a global sports leader. Soccer (including Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup) was a clear route to reaching that goal. Traditionally, camel racing and falconry have been Qataris’ favored sports. While money can build the best facilities and buy the best trainers and coaches, talented soccer players in a country with a population of 2.5 million were hard to find.

That’s why a Spanish-born coach took a boat ride into the Niger Delta in 2007, escorted by Nigerian militants armed with AK-47s and RPGs. That story is detailed in The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars, a new book by former Associated Press correspondent Sebastian Abbot that chronicles the incredible talent search run by Qatar’s Aspire Academy.

A coach sailing up the Niger Delta was just one part of the program that cast an eye over 5 million 13-year-old children across Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia. Called “Football Dreams,” the talent search aimed to find promising teenage players who could be developed by European coaches into elite players. The player’s age was critical — 13 years old was considered by coaches to be the oldest a player could unlearn bad habits and develop new skills.

The chosen players moved to Qatar, where they were provided with coaching, schooling, and an allowance they could spend on designer clothes at Doha’s shopping malls. Football Dreams initially saw its program as a way to strengthen Qatar’s national team — recruits would transfer allegiance from their native country to the Gulf state. Qatar’s leading soccer star at the time was a Uruguayan-born player who had lived in the country for many years. A similar strategy worked with hammer thrower Ashraf Amgad Elseify and javelin thrower Ahmed Bedir Magour, who had switched their national allegiance from Egypt to Qatar and competed for Qatar’s team at the 2016 Olympic Games. The idea of an entire foreign-born “national” team proved a flashpoint for criticism and ran afoul of FIFA regulations on national allegiance. To represent a country, according to FIFA, a player must be “born on the territory,” have a biological parent or grandparent born in the country, or have lived in the country for five consecutive years after the age of 18.

So Football Dreams shifted its mission slightly: enhance the country’s reputation ahead of the 2022 World Cup by finding players in Africa who could be “Made in Qatar” at the Aspire Academy. Somewhere in Africa, the Qataris (and the Spanish coaches they hired) believed, was the next Didier Drogba or, even better, Lionel Messi.

In 2012, Aspire Academy bought KAS Eupen, a struggling club in a small town in Belgium. The Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had already bought Chelsea, a group headed by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family took over Manchester City, and Paris Saint-Germain is now owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a company with links to BeIn Sports and the Al Jazeera Media Network. Those teams are global brands and big names in European soccer. Aspire thought it was a better idea to buy an ailing club in Belgium’s second division and provide European experience for its players. KAS Eupen, almost bankrupt when the takeover went through, was the opposite of a high-profile purchase. The money from the Middle East saved the club and brought more international players to the small town. It’s possibly the most successful aspect of Football Dreams.

But even with incredible facilities in Doha and the opportunity to play at KAS Eupen, no player from Africa has gone on to great heights through Football Dreams. A Senegalese graduate was signed by Barcelona from KAS Eupen but never made it onto the field alongside Messi and his legendary teammates in a competitive match. Instead, he returned to Belgium in relative obscurity. Some players from Aspire couldn’t make the modest grade at Eupen and returned to Africa to earn $50 a month playing with local teams.

The Football Dreams program paused in 2016, coinciding with a drop in global oil and gas prices that hit Qatar’s economy hard. Estimates suggest Aspire spent at least $100 million — possibly $200 million — on the program. Qatar’s national team again failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup in Russia — Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Australia will represent the Asian Football Confederation. Qatar’s national team is currently ranked 101st by FIFA but will play at the 2022 tournament — as the host. It is too far out to predict the makeup of the squad in four years’ time, but it’s worth noting that six of the 11 players who started a 2015 match against Algeria were not born in Qatar.

Aspire has said Football Dreams was a humanitarian project but, as Abbot explains in The Away Game, the project was an expensive venture that assisted very few people for the money it spent. The extent of its humanitarianism seems to have been providing free soccer equipment to some communities in Africa and distributing mosquito nets to villages with an image of Lionel Messi on them.

For reasons that remain unexplained, Aspire was able to recruit minors in blatant disregard of FIFA’s Article 19 and, while it may skirt the regulation by presenting itself as a training academy, its acquisition of the club KAS Eupen begs the question of why Barcelona and Real Madrid are punished for violations but the Qataris are not. Aspire was used as an incentive to get FIFA voters to consider Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, and it was named (in an unflattering context) in the report by Michael Garcia, currently a judge on the New York Court of Appeals, that was submitted to FIFA on the controversial bids for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

A well-funded program like Aspire was free to search Africa for the best talent on the continent, either for Qatar’s benefit or to reap financial rewards if players were sold to larger clubs. But at the lower levels of the game, scammers and fakes are free to take advantage of economic vulnerability, aspiration, and the idea that a ticket to the big games in Europe — seen on TV screens around the world — will reverse generations of inequality in Africa.

Most scammed players end up as silent victims; they are reluctant to speak publicly about their experiences, and there’s little pressure on authorities or the global soccer industry to take meaningful action. Regardless of whether the issue meets the formal definition of trafficking, is simply another strand to irregular migration, or is a sports or education problem, governments across Africa and Europe— as well as the European and African Unions, FIFA, UEFA, the Confederation of African Football, and law enforcement agencies — would serve their communities better by addressing this blot on the “beautiful game.”

Africa will send five teams to this year’s World Cup: Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. Fans will cheer on the stars, and kids will dream of following in their heroes’ footsteps. Few will achieve those dreams, but where there is hope there’s endless opportunity — unfortunately ripe to be exploited.

Matthew Hall is a journalist who writes about politics, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in the GuardianSydney Morning Herald, and South China Morning Post. Twitter: @matthew_hall

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