The Pandemic of Football/Soccer Player Trafficking and the Exploitation of Minors
In this week’s blog we return to focus on the wider world of football and to cover a poignant topic that we feel is very important for football fans, professionals and anyone involved in the sport to be aware of. Having travelled to locations such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Brazil and having looked into this specific issue, it is a problem that resonates significantly with Dr Erkut Sogut and one that we feel passionately about.
This blog aims to explain the pandemic of youth exploitation that is rife within modern football and to raise awareness of the issue in order to encourage active campaigns to prevent it being a problem that continues into the future of football. Human trafficking in football and the exploitation of minors is a difficult and sensitive topic to discuss but it is an unavoidable issue and without discussion, the chances of ending the illegal and immoral practice will fade.
Article 19 of the FIFA RSTP
FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) contain a clause that directly addresses the protection of minors. Article 19(1) states that the international transfer of a player under the age of 18 is prohibited unless the circumstances meet the exceptions listed in article 19(2).
The exceptions to the illegality of the international transfer of minors given in article 19(2) are:
- The player’s parents move to a different country for reasons unrelated to football and the player follows them.
- The player is over 16 and the move takes place between two countries that are members of the European Union. Furthermore for this exception, the receiving club must have provided written proof that they have satisfied the criteria and expectations of FIFA to provide education beyond football, football training and an agreeable standard of living including accommodation provision and mentorship.
- The player lives within 50km of the border of the other country.
Importantly, the list of exceptions provided here are not exhaustive and FIFA has stated that exemptions can also be granted for circumstances where the player is a refugee and has moved for humanitarian reasons. The clause extends to and applies to players that have not previously registered with a club and are not a national citizen of the country they are moving to; although this is the demographic that is often exploited as we will look into later. FIFA requires that all youth international transfer cases should pass through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which will judge permission on a case by case basis.
The aim of article 19 of the FIFA RSTP and the enforcement of CAS is to uphold the safety and protection of minors. It is a prevention mechanism that was implemented for the right reasons. Unfortunately, despite its intention, the regulations have so far been unable to prevent the recent surge in ‘football trafficking’ that has become a worryingly prevalent practice in modern football.
What is Football Trafficking?
In short, football trafficking refers to the human trafficking and exploitation of minors from one country to another under the pretence that they will receive lucrative footballing opportunities. The most common materialisation of football trafficking is usually the transfer of players under 18 years of age between third world countries and poorer regions such as Africa or South America to developed and football-rich European countries such as France and Italy.
The literacy rates in the South American and African countries are low and many youth players and their parents are uneducated. Hence, they are unaware of the signs that would indicate they are being exploited. They are often targeted by people who are considered as ‘fake agents’ or other unlicensed and unregulated representatives sometimes referred to as ‘managers’ in African countries. These individuals claim to have legitimate links with football clubs in Europe and will promise a player an opportunity to trial with them and have a successful career in the sport.
The agents are usually employed as part of an underworld organisation in football that has a vast network that profits from exploiting youth footballers in this way. The managers will forge passports, visas, letters and other documents as well as offering gifts such as football boots and clothing in order to gain the trust of the families and build an image of themselves as reputable and legitimate. In some extreme cases, it has been known for agents to photoshop images to show to the player that appears to be them with famous footballers and managers to entice the player and their family further.
For many people in these regions, the temptation of a football career in Europe is often too great to resist. The families often believe that by making the move to Europe in pursuit of the promises the fake agent has made, will mean that the player can send money back to the family and they will escape their life of poverty and struggle. The scam materialises when it comes to moving to Europe and the agent asks the family for money to transport the player for the opportunity. The sad reality is that families may sometimes sell land or use any means possible to raise money, or even the surrounding community will contribute and generate the necessary funds to help the player chase the dream they are being promised. What happens next can vary but there are usually the following possible outcomes:
- The first way that this then materialises is that the player never actually gets anything in return for the money they have paid. They pay the scam agent before they disappear and the player is unable to retrieve the money that themselves, their family and other supporters raised in order to pursue their dream that was sold to them by the so-called agent.
- In other cases, the player will actually be shipped over to Europe by whatever means they were able to afford from the money given to the agent. This can often be thousands of dollars but may be as treacherous as having to cross with refugees and migrants on small and dangerous rafts. Then either:
- Once the player has arrived in Europe, there may be someone waiting for them to ‘look after’ them. It usually quickly becomes apparent that there is either no trial or opportunity or the trials they are given are with teams from lower divisions and any money they ultimately make will be kept by the scam agents rather than benefiting themselves. These associates that meet the player in Europe will usually house the players themselves and have numerous minors living with them who have emigrated from their homes under the same false promises. However, as the associate and the fake agent possess their documents, passports and money, they are able to control them and continue to take money from them. If the player is able to play at a higher level, the original fake agent and the associate will disappear to ensure that their operation is not made public. This is why these individuals are sometimes referred to as ‘ghost agents’. They will often return to Africa or South America and find the next player to be trafficked and to receive money from.
- Wherever the player lands, no one is there to meet them. They will be left completely abandoned and forced to find their own way home. This is usually in countries such as Cyprus, the middle-east, European countries but also the main exit points from Africa such as Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. For those that become stuck, they are minors and this can make it very difficult for them to return home. Lack of finances, language barriers, inability to access communication with their families and embarrassment or shame can be factors that prevent these youth players from being able to return to their home country after this has happened. Many will end up homeless in the new country, will have to seek low paid jobs to try to make a living or may resort to a life of criminality themselves. In some cases, they will lose contact with their families completely and their lives will have been ruined by an agent that has scammed and exploited the player and their family.
- Another terrifying possibility for when the player arrives in Europe is that they will be exploited for various other things rather than low-level football trials. These can often be criminal activities such as being forced into illegal gangs or even into sex slavery and can happen in almost any city in the world.
This is not a small problem as the statistics show, In Africa alone, an average of over 6,000 players are trafficked to Europe every year according to Foot Solidaire. The majority of these are minors, ambitious to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Sadio Mane, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers. They are cruelly misled and lied to by fake agents seeking to make easy money from what they force the families to pay them before they abandon their child in a foreign country. The worldwide number stands at around 15,000 minors trafficked globally every year.
Prevention and Loopholes
Despite article 19 of the FIFA RSTP explicitly prohibiting any activity of the exact nature that I have described in the previous section, the practice continues to be a prevalent issue in modern football. The most high profile case in recent years was that of Atlético Madrid in 2016. The La Liga club was charged with 201 breaches of article 19 in activity that involved 221 minors over the previous seven years. It was revealed that the Spanish footballing giant had created a third party ‘feeder system’ which it believed exploited a loophole in the regulations.
This is something that other clubs have also attempted to do by constructing a third party organisation where minors from Africa, South America or elsewhere are scouted and trained before they are able to legitimately and legally transfer and join the first team. However, the darker side of this is when clubs use these third party organisations to find a way of skirting around the regulations and this unfortunately encourages and facilitates the existence of fake agents and their problematic place within modern football. Atlético Madrid defended themselves by arguing that their conduct had not breached Spanish laws regarding protection of minors but CAS were quick to object and state that European and FIFA law takes precedence and that the club was in clear breach of the regulations. The consequence of this case was a two transfer window ban for Atlético Madrid handed to them by FIFA. This is not the only major punishment that has been handed to a club infringing upon such rules. A club in Italy was also given a two year transfer ban following the importation of 13 underage players from Nigeria between the years of 2013 and 2017.
Perhaps then, the first step in preventing this practice is for the clubs to take a strong stance against the illegal international transfer of minors. One of the reasons why the issue is so embedded into football presently is that clubs inadvertently, and sometimes directly, encourage fake agents to bring players over. A greater understanding of how football creates an incentivising environment for both victims and perpetrators of player trafficking is needed to tackle the problem. For example, the youth talent that comes out of regions such as Africa and South America is indisputably exciting as shown in the graph below this paragraph; hence, many clubs seek to sign these talents as early as possible. The temptation for clubs is that fake agents could be necessary to find the gem coming out of these regions as the next Lionel Messi, Vincius Jr, Sadio Mane or Michael Essien. If clubs were to firmly oppose such immoral activity, there would be less of a market for fake agents and less minors would be exploited and torn away from their families and homelands.
Some clubs and some countries have created several outreach sides that have formed in European cities and locations where a lot of these trafficked minors find themselves. This is part of the campaign to help support the players that are victims of the practice of football trafficking. It allows them to continue to play the sport they love and for a small minority of them, they may still be able to find the contract and opportunity that they originally came for. Often these sides will play pre-season friendlies or training matches against professional sides to give the players the chance to impress and help put their life and their career back on track.
There also ought to be a strict licensing system to ensure that any agents, scouts or managers that do operate in these regions are trustworthy and legitimate. FIFA could implement a system for these agents to make licensing compulsory and associations such as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the South American equivalent, CONMEBOL, can publish the list of names of licensed agents operating in the regions. This means that families and players will be able to research the individual themselves and avoid working with illegitimate agents. Coupled with increased education and awareness campaigns for families and players to be aware of the risks and dangers that these individuals can pose, could lead to further reduction in the frequency of football trafficking. The key is to limit the gap in sporting opportunities, education, football systems and regulations in developing and developed countries to tackle the acceleration of the problem. For example, providing a safe and legal route for young talents from developing countries to play their football in other countries is important but transparency and regulated agent protocol will prevent this being undermined.
Finally, families need to understand that they should not pay agents before a deal has been found. Education may help with this as uneducated families are currently succumbing to the temptation of the lucrative financial status of European football and will pay the agent to send their child there without being aware of the risks of it being a scam. Associations and organisations need to support families and youth players in protecting them from giving away significant sums of money to fake agents who are profiting from their illiteracy and circumstances.
The problem of human trafficking has become embedded in modern football; it is a football pandemic that has to be righted and steps must be taken to prevent it remaining a prevalent issue in the future of the beautiful game. It is a dirty secret of football currently and more needs to be done to heighten the awareness around the topic and to be able to address and tackle it. I hope that this blog is an eye opening insight into an issue that you may not have previously realised was plaguing football.
NOTE: This blog has been released alongside my second novel, REMEMBER MY NAME, which aims to do exactly this; bring the issue of football trafficking into the spotlight. The novel follows the story of a minor in Africa that is trafficked to France in the exact manner I have described and looks into the shocking network and establishment of underworld football trafficking that exists in reality.
If this blog has fueled your interest in this topic and you want to find out more, then this book is available to purchase here: https://geni.us/REMEMBER-MY-NAME