How African boys are trafficked to Europe for football trials

Field of dreams? Footie may be only a pretext for young boys to leave Africa.

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Every year, thousands of young Africans pay men masquerading as football scouts for aeroplane tickets, passports and visas after being promised trials at European clubs. When they land, there is no one to meet them and no sign of a trial. They have been conned. Lured by the dream of self-determination through sport, the boys – many are under 18 – end up in Europe, unsure what to do next.

Or so the story goes. The sportswriter Ed Hawkins has written a book on the subject, The Lost Boys: Inside Football’s Slave Trade, and, as he recently told me, the narrative around trafficking is often insincere. “Halfway through researching the book, I realised this doesn’t make any sense,” he said. After all, if these “scouts” were only after money, they wouldn’t need to bother buying plane tickets. It turns out that many boys and their families are aware of how poor their chances are. What they pay for is a reliable route to Europe.

“There’s a strong chance that the kids are complicit and just want to get out,” Hawkins says. “They’re not naive. If they don’t sign at a club, they can get a job on the black market doing something cash in hand.”

The situation is complicated by the work of anti-traffickers in Europe. Hawkins believes that Europeans have unwittingly created incentives that encourage the con to continue. He spoke to Jean-Marie Dedecker, a Belgian politician who spent years working with the “lost boys”. When Hawkins said that it took two years for him to become cynical, Dedecker replied that it took him five.

Slight and bespectacled, Hawkins didn’t make for an easy fit in the trafficking underworld. But, with the help of Oxford United, he devised a fake company, Scout Network, to find out how the world of football trafficking works. He learned how scouts, agents and clubs disregard Fifa’s Article 19, a regulation that prohibits international transfers for
those under 18.

“Article 19 isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” Hawkins says. In 90 per cent of cases involving minors, clubs subvert the rules – often claiming that the player’s parents are moving to the country anyway. Those wishing to bring in underage players from Africa also bribe embassies to tweak official documents. “They’re bona fide passports, illegally made,” he adds. “So, when they go through passport control, it’s all above board.”

Even Foot Solidaire, a charity created by a former Cameroon international footballer to combat player trafficking, may be part of the problem. Hawkins found a young man from Japan who had paid Foot Solidaire for accommodation, travel expenses and exorbitant trials that did not lead to a contract. The charity claims that 7,000 footballers have been trafficked against their will from Africa to France alone since 2005 but Hawkins is unsure. “You just don’t know,” he says.

Yet this is not to deny that there are victims: those who “think they’re moving for football and are siphoned off into criminal practices”. One heart-rending case is that of Jay-Jay, trafficked when he was 17 from Guinea to London under the false promise of a career in football – only to be forced into prostitution. While he finally escaped his captors, he remained in England, totally alone, having been tricked into believing he was good enough for a football career.

“It was a book of surprises,” Hawkins adds. Few will be surprised to learn that Fifa does not come off well. “What they should do is say, no exemptions – you can’t move children under 18. You’d still have scouts and agents playing the underworld system in Africa to get visas, passports and birth certificates faked, but you’d cut out a huge swath of the problem.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article appears in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State