Saturday, June 05, 2010

Europe's Thirst for Young African Footballers


By Christoph Biermann and Maik Grossekathöfer

William Daniels / Panos Pictures

Part 5: Broken Dreams and Greedy Agents

There are many possibilities for African players who want to go to Europe, but no certainties. Jean-Claude Mbvoumin knows this. He is familiar with Karaboué's odyssey, because he helped him register with the welfare agency. In fact, he is familiar with hundreds of other cases like Karaboué's, cases that consistently involve broken dreams, greedy agents and the complicity of clubs.

Mbvoumin, 42, has a sharp chin, is clean-shaven and keeps his hair cropped close to his head. He is from Cameroon, where he played on the national team eight times. He has been living in France for 16 years. Ten years ago he founded the non-governmental organisation Foot Solidaire, which assists the victims of the trade in African players.

"Once, at the Cameroonian embassy, I saw an entire team of 14-year-olds, all boys, who had been abandoned by their agent," he says. "That was the impulse to do something." He talks quickly, probably because he doesn't want to lose any time in getting his message out.

'Africa Will Explode'

This month, Mbvoumin launched another campaign against child trafficking in football, a program supported by the African Union and France's national Olympic committee. But the money they provide still isn't enough. Foot Solidaire doesn't even have its own office, and Mbvoumin works from home.

He is convinced that he will have even more work on his hands after the World Cup. "Africa will explode," he says. "Even more people will want to go to Europe because of football."

To address the problem early, he is about to embark on a trip through the continent, giving talks in Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast and handing out brochures in Ghana and Cameroon. He wants to explain to young players and their parents that Europe is not paradise. He wants them to know that there are agents who take advantage of players, just as human traffickers do with refugees, and he wants them to understand that a trial training period doesn't automatically lead to a contract, and that they shouldn't sign anything that they don't understand.

Mbvoumin faces an uphill battle. About one in two sub-Saharan Africans lives on less than $1 a day, and the flow of young football players hoping to reach Europe isn't subsiding. The clubs, for their part, are becoming more and more ruthless in scouring Africa for the next season's jewels.

'Neocolonial Exploitation'

Since 2001, when FIFA expanded its transfer rules to include an article on the "protection of minors," an age limit of 18 has applied to players being transferred to another country -- unless, that is, the parents accompany the player.

But the clubs are constantly trying to circumvent the rules. For example, the Danish first division club FC Midtjylland tried to add six Nigerians to its lineup, all of them 16 or 17 years old, by bringing them into the country as guest students.

"The human trafficking trade changes every time the rules are changed," says Mbvoumin. The football academies in Africa are the biggest problem at the moment, he says, because the children are given false promises, because foreigners take advantage of their poverty and because the players are exploited as if they were raw materials.

For Paul Darby, a British expert on the sociology of sports, it is the more professional projects that involve collaboration with European clubs or Western investors that are an example of "neocolonial exploitation." Their only objective, Darby says, is the "procurement, refinement and export of natural resources, in this case, footballers."

Part 6: 'For African Children, Football Is Everything'

Sitting at a laptop in his office in the Blue House in Bamako, Jean-Marc Guillou fumes when asked about his critics. "I am doing more for African football than FIFA. It's good that an organization like Foot Solidaire exists, but why do such dramas happen in the first place? Because FIFA doesn't give African children a chance." His voice almost cracks, he is so angry. "For African children, football is everything. If I didn't exist, Arthur Boka might be selling shoes by the side of the road," he says, referring to the Ivorian defender who plays for VfB Stuttgart.

It has become more difficult in recent years to export African players to Europe, with the embassies of many Western European countries no longer issuing visas as easily as they did in the past. Nevertheless, Guillou is expanding his operation. He is building an extension to the Bamako academy that will include another six rooms, with a total of 24 beds, as well as a restaurant with a rooftop terrace.

In two or three years, when the first Mali graduates are of age, Guillou plans to invest in another club in Europe. A second-division club in France would be good, he says. "Preferably in Île-de-France," he adds, because the region surrounding Paris is so centrally located, and therefore accessible for agents and scouts. He feels confident that he will find a club, because, as he says: "I don't show up with money like some Russian billionaire. I come with good players that will cost the club nothing and are worth a lot of money."

He opens a file on his computer. It is a forecast for the future development of his business. "I assume that of all the students in all the academies who were born in 1992, five will make it to Europe. Of those born in 1993: three. In 1994: four. In 1995: 29."

Imitating Their Role Models

Amadou Kéita was born in 1995. He is just taking out the garbage from his room, which he shares with three other students. This month, it's Amadou's turn to make sure that the room is clean and that all of his roommates hand over their mobile phones to the janitor on time. Calls are only allowed between 6 and 9 p.m. The purpose of the task is to teach the residents to take responsibility and lead the others like a team captain.

"I don't care if Monsieur Guillou makes money with me," says Kéita. "He is a friend, a second father. I want him to make me as famous as (Argentine footballer) Lionel Messi." Then he turns around quickly and walks over to his fellow students.

They are sitting in front of the television, their hair still wet from showering, watching the Champions League. Whenever they see a footballer playing well, the children jump up, cheer and imitate the movements of their role models.

The boys are wearing jerseys with bright colors that stand out in the dim light, for clubs like Real Madrid, AS Roma and Manchester United.

Amadou has his red-and-black striped AC Milan jersey on again. It's as if he hoped that by wearing the clothing of his hero, he could somehow acquire his strengths. As if this were a way to become a new person. A professional footballer in Europe.

Maybe.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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