The Dark Side of the Beautiful Game: Football’s African Slave Trade

For many young African footballers who migrate to Europe, their challenge is not to break into the starting XI, but to find something to eat, somewhere to sleep. This is the sad truth of one form of the modern African slave trade.

Modern Slavery in Football, African Agents European Clubs
Art by Charbak Dipta

At the age of 15, a boy from Accra in Ghana left his home and family in pursuit of greatness. An agent asked his parents for their fake death certificates so a club could sign their kid. The agent took all the money he had, his passport, his birth certificate, and the return plane ticket upon arriving in Paris. The kid was eventually forced into prostitution by the same agent. And this is not the saddest story. There are thousands of children who have suffered as a result of this slave trade.

For the better part of the last three decades, there has been a grave humanitarian crisis in African football. Though there are several reasons that worked together in this outcome, veteran coach Claude LeRoy said, it is because of Africa’s poor academy system, where some agents are slave merchants. In a 2018 interview with BBC Sports, Leroy, who led Cameroon to the African Cup of Nations title in 1998, said, “The only target of these agents is to sell players for a little bit of money. I’m fighting against this kind of people for more than 20 years.” 

Some reports claim that more than 15,000 trafficked players enter Europe every year. Inspired by the glamour of the continent’s top leagues and cajoled by agents who tell them they can be the next big star, these children from Africa leave their families for the football pitches of England, Spain, France, and Germany to make their fortune. However, their dreams quickly become nightmares. Instead of promised on-field battles for the big European clubs, they are faced with a fight for survival. The challenge is not to break into the starting XI, but to find something to eat, somewhere to sleep. 

After having spent and risked so much just to get there, the young aspirants find themselves alone in a foreign land whose language they may not understand. When their visa expires, they are stranded and willing to work any job to make ends meet. Many begin illegally working in manufacturing or peddling counterfeit goods to tourists. They are defenceless and frequently subjected to extortion by criminal gangs. Unintentionally, they have become football’s filthy little secret. Victims of football’s version of human trafficking; a slave trade that breaks up families, ships children to foreign cities and abandons them, all for the quest for money. 

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights released a report in 2009 warning that a “modern slave trade” is being created with young African players. According to a report by the Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), a charity set up to counter football trafficking, there were more than 7,000 cases in France alone in nine years from 2005. The charity also calculates that agents pocket anywhere between £2,000 and £6,500 for each child they send to a fictitious trial.

While the phenomenon of football migration from Africa to Europe has existed for the best part of a century, only in the past two decades has it developed into a major movement. Strong performances by African teams in the world youth championships of the late 1980s and early 1990s awoke the world to the emerging talent in the continent. This was accelerated by EU rules on free movement that lifted the quotas on the number of overseas players a club could play or employ.  

In 2003, FIFA introduced Article 19, a law that made it illegal for players under the age of 18 to be transferred across international borders. In 2009, FIFA revealed that half a million players under the age of 18 were still being sold to clubs. Even the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t put an end to this shady business. Footballers from Africa are still being trafficked into Europe. 

To understand why this trade might help the rich European football clubs who are no strangers to eschewing the rules set by governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA we need to look at the ruling by the European Court of Justice in a 1995 legal dispute. The lawsuit resulted in new rules prohibiting the payment of transfer fees for European Union (EU) nationals who play within the EU and then transfer to another team based in the EU when their employment contract expires. The laws were altered because prior regulations were deemed to be restrictive of EU citizens’ freedom of movement rights.

This shift resulted in a loss of revenue for several EU teams, as they no longer received transfer fees for out-of-contract players who were now free to go to other EU clubs. Clubs began to see the transfer market as the greatest way to recuperate their player acquisition costs. Especially if they were able to buy players at a bargain and then resell them for a profit before their contract expired. Transfer costs for players who are still under contract have increased as a result of the new restrictions. As a result of this increase, European clubs have begun to acquire new players from teams outside the EU that have less financial means.

The need for money has prompted super-rich European teams to reprise one of history’s most heinous trades. Football fields have taken the place of the plantation fields. The majority of the boys are brought from Africa because they are considered to be cheaper, faster, stronger, more agile; they are paraded in front of predominantly white masters – scouts, managers, coaches –  who pick the most suitable one. 

There are two kinds of trafficking that could trick a young footballer from Africa. First, the agent arranges a trial in Europe for the player, only to jettison the child without a passport, visa, money or any means to return home when the club is not interested. The second, an agent asks the family to raid their life savings so he can buy the player airfare for trials with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. As soon as the boy leaves the departure gate the agent disappears. 

This lawlessness of the agents in Africa, especially West Africa, is a clear reflection of the dismal infrastructure and governance at the academy level. There is a three-tier system; at the bottom lie the ‘roadside academies’, which are not recognised by the FA and are called ‘illegal’. Any trade made by these academies on players cannot be checked by the respective FAs. Small clubs come in the middle-tier; they are recognised clubs with a single agenda of producing young players to sell to Europe. At the top are academies with serious financial muscle provided by European clubs and corporate sponsors.

This has led to a raft of academies arguing that the European-style academy system in Africa is responsible for a new wave of neo-colonial exploration. These neo-colonialists don’t care about tradition or culture; instead, they participate in social and economic exploitation by stripping Africa of its greatest players.

The accounts of these boys only come forward if they’re contacted by charitable organizations like Foot Solidaire, which was founded by former Cameroon international Jean-Claude Mbvoumin. 

Instead of becoming the next Sadio Mané or Thomas Partey, they fall victim to one of the grimmest trades in human history. The migrant boats you read about being abandoned off the coast of a European nation or sinking and leaving their passengers in a watery grave carry wishful footballers from Africa. If you look past the mothers carrying their newborns in images, you may spot migrant children wearing phoney shirts of a big European football club.  

For those interested in this dark side of the beautiful game, the superbly researched book “The Lost Boys – Inside Football’s Slave Trade” by investigative sports writer Ed Hawkins looks at the issue in more detail and is one of the most captivating investigative works on football in the recent years.

Saikat Chakraborty

Saikat is a political correspondent by day and a football head by night based in Kolkata, India. He supports AFC Mohun Bagan and Arsenal. Other than politics and football, he likes movies, music, socio-cultural studies and non-fiction books.