The African youngsters who become prisoners of their own dreams

The African youngsters who become prisoners of their own dreams

“I was 16, very young, and very scared.” Fabrice (not his real name) found himself in a shoddy hotel room near Charles de Gaulle airport, where he had arrived from Cameroon a few hours earlier, glowing with the promise of a trial at one of France’s top football teams.

The night ahead was long and sleepless. The agent had told him to wait, he would be back soon. But Fabrice was still waiting. When the knock on the door finally came it was the hotel manager telling him he had to leave ­– the agent had paid for only one night’s stay. Suddenly, he was on his own, one of the thousands of young Africans trafficked into Europe each year by fraudsters posing as agents for wealthy clubs.

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Fabrice. “I rang my mum and she started to cry. She called my aunt who has a friend in Paris. I was lucky as she came to pick me up.”

Fabrice had just a small holdall containing a few clothes, his boots and around €500; the agent had taken his passport and visa. He stayed with his aunt’s friend for two weeks, but then the hospitality ran out. He slept on the streets or, when possible, in the city’s central bus station.

Fabrice’s story is typical of many African boys whose families are deceived by promises of football fame and riches into paying a fraudster posing as an agent to take their son to Europe.

He was just a child when Fabrice was spotted playing for his local club in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The boy dreamed of emulating his hero and countryman Samuel Eto’o, the most decorated African footballer of all time, by travelling to Europe and “playing for a club like PSG, Barcelona, even Chelsea.”

The agent told him he could make his dreams into a reality. “He told me he could fix it. He said I was a very good player and that he could get me a trial in France, so I was very happy,” Fabrice says. “He said he needed to speak to my parents as I was so young, so we went to see them.”

For Fabrice to make it as a professional footballer he needed to be in Europe, his talent was being wasted in Cameroon, the agent explained. He could give the boy the chance that he deserved, but he needed €5000. “He said that it was for plane tickets and a visa to get me out of Cameroon,” Fabrice says.

In a country where the average monthly wage is just €80, Fabrice’s mother decided the opportunity was too good for her son, and her family, to miss. “It was a lot of money, so she had to take a bank loan to pay the agent. She said that she knew it would be worth it,” Fabrice says.

After the money changed hands, Fabrice took the seven-hour flight from the Cameroonian capital to Paris, where his dream swiftly became a nightmare.


A growing problem


Jean-Claude Mbvoumin knows only too well the predicament of Fabrice and the other boys who are abandoned in European cities by unscrupulous agents.  The former Cameroon international heads Foot Solidaire, a Paris-based charity that works to expose the problem.

“Five years ago we had about 10 children per month. Today we have children contacting us every day, every single day,” Mbvoumin says.

The problem is now worse than ever, he believes, and not only in terms of numbers but also the geographical spread of the victims who contact the organisation. “Ten years ago we had requests from France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, sometimes Portugal,” he says. “Now we have requests from as far away as Eastern Europe and the Maghreb countries of North Africa, even Norway.”

The overwhelming majority of these players, some as young as 12, have been conned, duped by so-called agents who claim strong links to influential and important people within the game, and who promise trials and contracts with major European clubs.

The illegal agents thrive on families’ desperation to find a way out of their current lives. Parents, like Fabrice’s, hopeful that their son will be the next African football superstar and therefore their route out of poverty, believe the flattery and hyperbole served up by the footballing charlatans.

“The family trust anybody who will give them just a little bit of hope,” Mbvoumin says. “But all these fake agents want is money. When they say ‘I can get your son a contract at Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan or Barcelona’ the family trust them. They let their children go with someone that they have never seen before because they hope that there is a chance for their child to be successful.”

Many hand over their entire life-savings, sell heirlooms or even the family home in order to fund the trip. They pray that the financial risk they take will enable their son to follow in the bootsteps of the continent’s footballing heroes, such as Ivory Coast’s Yaya Touré, Ghana’s Michael Essien or Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor.

Unfortunately, these stories rarely have a happy ending, Mbvoumin says. Many boys are left at train stations or in squalid hotel rooms soon after arriving in the country on a short tourist visa, waiting for the agent to return to take them on the next step of their journey to success and riches. But they seldom do return.

Some who make the long, arduous journey over land and sea, or by the more direct route of by air, are rewarded with a trial. Due to Europe’s financial crisis, Mbvoumin explains, smaller, lower league clubs in minor footballing nations are willing to break the rules if it means surviving.

“You have fake agents, unofficial agents, working for professional European clubs. Apart from the big clubs, European clubs need low fee players. They recruit in Africa, then later transfer them to big European clubs. It’s a good revenue.”

But this is not the norm. Most of the young hopefuls fail to live up to their own expectations, mainly because they are not of the level that their agent has convinced them of. Unsuccessful, they find themselves in the same position as all of the other unfortunate victims.

The recurring themes of abandonment, loneliness and poverty weave their way through Mbvoumin’s stories of these deserted young footballers, discarded onto the streets of Europe’s cities. Without money or the correct visas they are forced into the shadows. Some survive by working on the black market or turning to crime, others fall victim to sexual abuse and are coerced into prostitution, he says.

Thousands of miles away from home, they are trapped. They still have faith that they will one day fulfil their ambition of becoming professional footballers in one of the world’s top leagues. It is chasing this dream that brings these young players to Europe and, as Mbvoumin reveals, ultimately keeps them here.

“It’s very hard for them to go back, to return home, because they are ashamed. They have to be a success before they can imagine to go home. They are prisoners of their own dream.”


“A global problem”


It is hard to determine how many children have fallen victim to fake agents, but in their book Den Forsvunne Diamanten (The Missing Diamond), Norwegian investigative journalists Lars Madsen and Jens Johansson estimated, by means of several sources, that the number may be as high as 20,000.

Foot Solidaire say they are working hard to tackle the problems that young African footballers and their families face. In 2008 the organisation received the backing of FIFA, world football’s governing body, and has since worked with FIFA’s European counterpart, UEFA, in order to highlight trafficking. Yet Mbvoumin believes that the duty of care to combat the growing crisis falls not only at the feet of football’s lawmakers, but also those of international governments.

“Our main goal is to work with important, influential bodies,” he says. At the moment he is working with the Council of Europe and several European and African governments. “This isn’t just a problem for footballing bodies such as FIFA and UEFA, but a global problem which concerns everybody.”

FIFA state that they have made continuous efforts to combat the exploitation of children within football over the last 10 years. The introduction of Article 19 of the Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) was introduced to effectively ban the international transfer of minors, with a few choice exceptions, and the creation of the electronic Transfer Matching System in 2009 further increased transparency involving transfers.

However, the measures that have been introduced pertain to the involvement of two credible, official parties and mean nothing to the fraudsters operating in Africa. FIFA are keen to point out that “the protection of minors is a matter of utmost importance”, but in this instance the problem is beyond their remit and therefore beyond their control.

“Issues related to ‘child trafficking’, like any other criminal activity, fall within the competence of the relevant national and international authorities,” says FIFA. “Such matters are outside of FIFA’s jurisdiction, though we certainly welcome measures that show authorities are taking them very seriously.”

The key to succeeding in the battle is information, says Mbvoumin. The need to educate the players and families that may fall prey to immoral agents is now foremost on Foot Solidaire’s agenda. “When we interview the children who have come to us we realised that the families are not informed. They know nothing about professional football in Europe, about regulations on migration of people or the necessary requirements in order to obtain permits or visas.”

One vital aspect of the fight is to establish concrete programmes in these countries, a boots-on-the-ground campaign that raises awareness and informs families of the dangers surrounding football. “It’s important to have prevention on the ground in Africa; sporting, professional and educational opportunities at ground level. If not, the problem will continue to increase,” Mbvoumin says.

A further problem is the lack of deterrent faced by those who entice the young footballers and defraud their parents. The usually soft-spoken 40-year-old’s voice becomes animated when the question of punishment is raised.

“There is no punishment. Families have no information on how to prosecute. They have a fear to go to the authorities as the agents have good relations with the police. Sometimes these people work in the Sports Ministry or at the Football Association; they have important positions in the country.”


First vs Third


The corruption that fuels this illegal industry is something that Sonny Karlsson, Sporting Director at Swedish top flight side BK Häcken, knows exists. He has been on numerous scouting missions to West and Central Africa. The club has recruited several African players over the past four years, largely from the illustrious Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, an establishment that prides itself on nurturing a player’s education just as much as their footballing skills.

But sometimes, as Karlsson explains, it is harder for the clubs to ascertain an agent’s true credentials as the whole structure of football is so different in Africa.

“Sometimes you don’t know with the African guys if they’re agents or not. They say they are agents, but you don’t know if they are. Normally they work with somebody, so if you’re not a FIFA agent yourself you work with somebody who is. If you’re a rich African guy who buys players for himself you use the FIFA agent to do the business for you.”

Karlsson’s phone bleeps telling him yet another email has come through. He casually glances over at his computer to see who it’s from before returning to his explanation of the contrast between two worlds.

“Here in Sweden it costs a lot of money to become a FIFA agent. You have to go to school to learn about the law, but out there they’ve never been to school to be an agent. Not a chance. They just buy a license from somebody in the Ghana F.A or the Nigerian F.A.”

Someone else with first-hand experience of African football is Sweden’s most successful agent, Patrick Mörk. He has been working in Ghana for over 15 years, with an impressive clientele including AC Milan’s Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari and the country’s all-time international top-scorer, Asamoah Gyan.

“Anyone that’s been to Africa has seen there are millions of people who are doing everything to come to Europe, some even go across the Mediterranean in boats and risk drowning. I think the desperation among people has surely led to a situation that if there is a decent young talent dreaming of becoming a professional in Europe, it could be exploited by unlicensed agents.”

He also finds it frustrating that the work of the illegal agents has somewhat tarnished the reputation of legitimate, licensed agents working in the region. “It’s very unfortunate that it’s been connected to the real agent business working in Africa. You almost have to say to people, ‘Yeah, I work with African players to Europe, but I’m a good guy!’”

Yet none of the observations that the clubs make, the obstacles that the agents face or the regulations that FIFA have set in place help boys like Fabrice left homeless and penniless thousands of miles from family and friends.

Fabrice is only too happy to attest to the role of organisations such as Foot Solidaire in making a difference to these boys’ lives. “Jean-Claude has helped me so very much, he is a great man,” he says. “They are why I am here today.”

Now 20, Fabrice is still in Paris, in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, living with “around 10” other young men of his age in a small flat paid for by Foot Solidaire. His stammer, which he has managed to contain relatively well for the duration of our conversation, becomes more pronounced and intrusive as we talk about how he now struggles to survive.

“Some days are good and some days are bad. I don’t have a job, but I manage to find work sometimes, usually on building sites. I can’t get a real job though as I shouldn’t be here and I don’t want to get caught as I don’t know what will happen to me.”

One thing the teenager does know is that he doesn’t want to, or maybe can’t, return home.

“Sometimes when I speak with my mum she wants me to come back, other times not, but I can’t go home. I don’t want to go back until I have achieved my dream of becoming a professional footballer. I know it will be hard as I am getting old, but I am a man so I will try.”

Fabrice requested anonymity due to the fear of being caught and deported by the French authorities.

By James Milford. Follow @JamesMilford

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