Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Ball and Chains"

The BBC carries a report of a documentary called "Ball and Chains" on African football players in Europe and their particular exploitation .

Every year hundreds of young African players come to Europe in the hope of striking it rich, following in the footsteps of stars such as Chelsea's Didier Drogba or Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o. But for the handful who make it, far more fail. And yet they keep coming. The few successful examples are skewing the perceptions of young Africans, and in many cases encouraging them to abandon their education.

Raffaele Poli, a Swiss academic, has studied the career paths of African footballers in Europe.
He looked at 600 players who played in the top European leagues in 2002.
Four years later, only 13% had progressed upwards. A third had simply disappeared from professional football.

Many clubs have made a business out of importing cheap African talent and then selling it on to wealthier European clubs. In the global football business, though, the talent is at the mercy of unscrupulous agents and clubs. Dirk de Vos of the Belgian football players' union showed us a contract between a club and an African player.
Or rather, two contracts.
One, properly printed, gave the player the correct minimum wage and benefits, and was lodged with the football federation. The other, hand-written, showed the true salary - less than a quarter of the official figure.
"They have no choice but to sign the second contract," says de Vos.

Other players we met had simply been abandoned on the streets by their agents when they failed a trial, or had their contract terminated.

Scams and false paperwork are common. In Ghent a young Nigerian player was recruited at the age of 15. Too young to play officially, his agent had taken his passport to the Nigerian embassy in Brussels, where he had paid to have it "amended" to make him appear older.
A Cameroonian player for Bayern Munich turned out to be travelling on a passport that actually belonged to a French woman.
"You can bribe anyone," says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin a former Cameroonian international player, who now runs a support group for abandoned footballers in Paris.

"It's important to dream," says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, "but the dreams about football now are not realistic."

The Guardian also reports soccers exploitaion of African football talent . In the slums of Jamestown, outside the Ghanaian capital, Accra , a weather-beaten billboard poster shows Michael Essien holding out a ball dotted with black stars, his country's national symbol, the Ghana and Chelsea midfielder beckons fans to 'Be Proud' . There are an estimated 500 illegal football academies operating in Accra alone. Thousands more are spread across Ghana. Many are run by the roadside; most have no proper training facilities . According to the Confederation of African Football, the sport's governing body in the continent, all such institutions must be registered with the local government or football association. The reality in Ghana and neighbouring Ivory Coast is that the greater the success of West African players in Europe, the more unaccredited academies spring up. Most demand fees from the children's parents and extended families, who often take them out of normal schooling to allow them to concentrate on football full-time. Since having a professional footballer in the family would be the financial equivalent of a lottery win, many reckon the risk to their child's education worth taking.

Coaches, as well as European and Arab middlemen, haggle over the best players, signing some as young as seven on tightly binding pre-contracts - effectively buying them from their families - with the hope of making thousands of dollars selling the boys on to clubs in Europe. In other cases, they extort the cost of passage from their families. Many take the deeds on houses and even family jewellery in return for their services. This process of exploitation is raising alarm among West Africa-based NGOs including Save the Children and Caritas.

Tony Baffoe, the former Ghana captain, now an ambassador for this year's African Nations Cup, admits that 'the trafficking of children to play football is a reality we must all face'

In West Africa serious money is being invested by European giants such as the Dutch clubs Ajax and Feyenoord, who both operate academies in Ghana. Just one top-class player every five years would cover the running costs of these accredited academies . French clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco also maintain scouting networks in the region. Manchester United have bought a controlling interest in Fortune FC, a South African second-division side.

The exploitation of young footballers has even been called a new 'slave trade' and is leaving a tragic legacy of homeless young footballing hopefuls across Europe.

'This football-related trafficking and the widespread creation of so-called schools of excellence is an area of huge growing concern for Save The Children,' says Heather Kerr, the charity's Ivory Coast country manager.

Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, football's world governing body, accused Europe's richest clubs of 'despicable' behaviour and engaging in 'social and economic rape' as they scour the developing world for talent.

Marie-George Buffet, a former French Sports Minister, recently claimed that many French-run academies, both in France and in Africa, were corrupt and run by unlicensed agents who needed controlling.

Professor Pierre Lanfranchi, an expert in the development of football worldwide and a consultant to Fifa. He says corruption in Africa, with poorly run national governing bodies, makes it easy for European clubs to cherry-pick the best young players and that there are no foundations to the professional game in Africa

Culture Foot Solidaire is a charity set up to help African teenagers trafficked or sent to Europe for football trials, then abandoned. Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, the president of the charity said:-
"One-month visas are easy to get with bribes in Africa, but after they fail their trials they stay on. They have nothing to go back to. These kids are as young as 14, they end up on the streets, worse off and in more danger than they could ever be at home." There is now a huge business to be made from football, says Mbvoumin, and it feeds on people's dreams of a better life for their family. "...vulnerable people are lured into a kind of debt slavery in the expectation of a better life. These brokers are getting $3,000 per child and offering to smuggle them out on the promise that they will sign for a big club. So many boys have gone missing in this way... "

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