Amid the excitement of the FIFA World Cup that kicked off on 20 November, there can be no denying that transnational organised crime is part of the game. Netflix’s FIFA Uncovered series highlights corrupt dealings and ‘sportswashing’. Match fixing, even at the World Cup level, has been reported and threatens the integrity of the sport.
Of particular concern is the growing trafficking and smuggling of young African footballers to Europe via countries in North Africa. These young boys, mostly in their teens, are often subjected to inhumane conditions and some die while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea illegally.
Musa is one example. An aspiring young player from The Gambia, he sees himself as a ‘dream chaser,’ not an economic migrant to Italy. While only a handful of young African footballers will succeed in Europe, thousands dream of becoming the next Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. These boys, mostly from poor families, have become the targets of one of the fastest-growing human trafficking and smuggling networks.
Many young men from sub-Saharan Africa are drawn to North Africa, where football associations are seen as a springboard to the more lucrative and renowned European leagues. North African clubs also offer young players more financial benefits than those in their home countries. Salaries are usually paid on time, and managers have opportunities to sell players to European clubs.
The high standard of soccer played in North Africa allows youngsters to improve their skills. Accessing the clubs is also easy. Citizens from Côte d’Ivoire, for example, can travel to Morocco on a three-month visa and play for local teams once there.
With these incentives, many footballers are willing to travel to North Africa either as their final destination or in transit to Europe, despite the risks. But most become stranded, with no legal route to Europe and no opportunity to stay in North Africa.
Boys from Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria pay criminals posing as agents or scouts between €1 000 and €1 500 to travel to Tunisia on the promise of a contract with a big club, such as Espérance Sportive de Tunis. Once there, and after weeks of waiting, the young men realise there’s no contract and their ‘agent’ has tricked them. They are forced to take jobs as cleaners or work in restaurants to survive.
A second and more serious problem is that their visas expire, turning them from football migrants to illegal migrants. In Tunisia, migrants cannot leave until they pay a fine for each extra day they have remained in the country. Many aspiring young footballers get stuck there, with no money to buy a ticket home or settle their accumulated visa fines. In Morocco, they become illegal migrants once their visa expires.
The trafficking begins when African ‘agents’ – usually part of a network with kingpins in Europe – approach young footballers in local leagues directly or through social media. Some offer under-aged boys contracts for fictitious European clubs, even though it’s illegal for a minor to join a European club. The agents also benefit from corrupt officials in European embassies who facilitate the visa process for aspiring footballers.
Some young dream chasers choose the illegal migrant route after struggling to obtain visas for European countries, hoping to make the football trials once they reach Europe. Amane travelled from Côte d’Ivoire to Morocco by bus and eventually found his way to Spain illegally by boat. Once there, he realised his fake agent had abandoned him with no prospects of a contract or club.
In Senegal, Bouba’s parents paid over €5 000 to two agents who promised their son a football contract in Portugal. However, after a month in Portugal, Bouba had no club, lived with an old man, and his agents had disappeared, leaving him stranded with no money.
After a long journey organised by violent smugglers who took him from The Gambia to Mali, Libya and Italy, Musa eventually signed with Carbonia, a semi-professional Italian league team. This is a far cry from the glamorous, football-star lifestyle young athletes dream of.
According to Mahfoud Amara, a North African sports expert from Qatar University, thousands of young football graduates from mushrooming academies across Africa end up lost in this complex system of football migration. The academies are established with the promise of offering professional contracts abroad.
To prevent players from being duped, better education and awareness are needed. Social media platforms, TV, local radio and posters at football stadiums should show the risks of signing fake contracts with unscrupulous ‘agents’. African federations need to be more transparent when recruiting young footballers. As a first step, they should publish the names of official agents so parents and young men can verify who is genuine.
FIFA should extend its development initiatives in Africa from building pitches and developing young players to supporting pathways for aspiring footballers to reach professional leagues. Condemnation of the exploitation of young Africans needs to materialise in concrete action.
FIFA should also set out common certification requirements for football agents and establish a hotline for reporting unscrupulous or fake agents. This means requiring European clubs to publish their recruitment policies and verify the names of official agents on their websites.
Most important, as a global body, FIFA must make good on its platitudes. It should ensure that African clubs receive financial and material support to retain talented young players and boost football at home.
Written by Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, ENACT West Africa Regional Organised Crime Observatory, ISS