By Ini-Obong Nkang
Amendments to FIFA regulations, and push-pull factors in African football, mean that young players from the continent are at risk of being trafficked to Europe under false pretences.
Football trafficking is usually carried out by fraudulent intermediaries, formerly referred to as agents, who lure under 18-year-old foreign football players abroad with promises of high salaries at top football clubs. However, the players can find themselves earning below the minimum wage requirements in a foreign country, if they are being paid at all, whilst having their professional mobility controlled by the unscrupulous intermediary.
Football trafficking is often divided into two parts, human trafficking in football and human trafficking through football.
Human trafficking in football comes about when an intermediary takes advantage of their position with the football minor. This happens when the intermediary, after receiving a sum of money to procure a contract or trial with a club for a player, provides a contract of an exploitative nature that would be to the detriment of the minor.
Human trafficking through football transpires in an indirect but more prevalent manner, as the evidence from most human trafficking cases show. Human trafficking through football happens when the promise made by an intermediary of the existence of an interested foreign football club is a charade. As on arrival in the destination country, the intermediary abandons the player, having appropriated his fees from the player and their family prior to the journey.
The Initiation of football trafficking
The problem started, in part, due to the decision made by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in UEFA v. Bosman, and the ensuing amendments to football regulations that were set up to govern the transfer of players between clubs.
The ECJ resolved that the restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed by FIFA’s transfer rules at the time were unjustified. FIFA then amended its regulations and abolished the payment of transfer fees for EU nationals playing within the EU, and moving to another EU football club, on expiration of their employment contract.
Loss of income
Following Bosman, various football stakeholders raised objections to the new rules and the detrimental effects it would have on smaller clubs, due to the loss of income from transfer fees for out-of-contract players. Their claim was that the money leaving the clubs would be going into the pockets of players by way of increased salaries and signing on fees, as opposed to long-term improvements to grassroots football that would aid the production of young local players. Consequently, football clubs were left to find other means of recovering their financial losses, such as through the transfer market.
Increased transfer fees
A clubs’ ability to recoup monetary losses is often predicated on its capacity to purchase players at discounted rates, before selling them on at the highest possible profit margins prior to the player’s contract expiring.
However, the Bosman ruling led to a significant increase in the transfer fees for players who were still under contract, and this made it harder for clubs to acquire top talent within Europe. The clubs therefore sought to obtain players outside the EU at a reduced rate in order to make more profit.
The ‘cheaper’ option (non-EU markets)
A study by the European Commission (EC) noted the increased usage of non-EU, mainly African and South American, football transfer markets by some EU clubs, to “acquire talented players at significantly lower prices than in Europe.”
Most EU clubs were faced with two options to make long-term profits. The clubs could either obtain new talent from clubs with lesser economic resources than them, or they could implement a more advanced youth and grassroots programme, which would aim to develop talented players to join their first team in the future. Confronted with these choices, several teams within Europe chose the former option, as the talent pool provided by the non-EU markets had a higher profit margin potential— regarding income to be received from inflated transfer fees if or when the player is sold— than their EU equivalent.
The non-EU markets were a cheaper and quicker opportunity to discover new talent, compared to revamping a club’s youth system to train local players until they make it professionally and join the first team.
The EC study also noted that, though a majority of the transfers that take place between EU clubs and their African counterparts are legal and official transfers, there are a number of players who fall victim to economic exploitation as a result of their aspirations of playing professional football in Europe.
Limited protection for foreign players
When an EU team is transferring an EU football minor there are often additional regulatory burdens which do not exist when transferring a non-EU player. Article 1(3) Directive 94/33/EC for example, requires that EU minors be given working conditions that suit their age, and specific protection against economic exploitation. Article 19(2)(b) of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP), commonly referred to as “the EU Exception”, offers specific protection as it imposes obligations in respect of football education, academic provisions, and living standards for EU minors.
These obligations were arguably put in place as an insurance measure to guarantee an alternative career for the minor if they were unsuccessful in becoming professional footballers. However, FIFA regulations do not reflect any such fail-safe measures for non-EU minors playing their football in Europe. This imbalanced treatment created an opportunity for EU teams and unscrupulous intermediaries to transfer and treat the African and other non-EU minors differently, with no long-term regard for their welfare and safety from exploitation in a foreign country.
Factors leading to football trafficking
There are further factors which have contributed to the trafficking of African minors. These factors are at times prevalent in the victims’ home country or could be related to the appeal of traveling to the foreign country.
The factors constitute the ‘push-pull dynamics’ of human migration, with the International Organization for Migration explaining this as “an analysis of migration [regular and irregular] which takes into consideration the push factors which drive people to leave their country (such as economic, social, or political problems), against the pull factors attracting them to the country of destination (such as higher demand for labour and better social opportunities).”
These can be divided further into general and football specific factors.
General — Youth unemployment is an issue that is not only prevalent in Africa, but rather is a global issue with wide ranging ramifications. This unemployment pushes young people to migrate to find work when there is a shortage of opportunities available in their home country, or if they lack the requisite skills needed to do the work that is available. With the absence of jobs, there is a subsequent lack of income that could lead to poverty, which is one of the “risk factors” that make youths vulnerable to the ploys of human traffickers looking to exploit them.
There are also instances of age and gender discrimination that take place across Africa, making the circumstances more difficult for the African youths to make a way for themselves. There are reports of unequal access to education, which limits access to skilled occupations, as well as a general lack of awareness of the possible risks involved in irregular migration.
Proximity to a border where the neighbouring country has a thriving labour market is also a factor which could lead to irregular migration or trafficking. For example, West African minors who had travelled to Ghana to enrol in the accredited football academies were subjected to “exploitation within exploitation” as the players were asked to pay sums of money to procure themselves Ghanaian passports, in order to be in the best position to enter the accredited academies.
Football specific — Professional football outside of Africa is generally viewed as a vehicle to elevate and change the life of an individual and his family. This perception is often fuelled by several factors which make it difficult for the youths to envision a career as a professional on the African continent. Some of the relevant factors include the fragile political economy and instability, the high levels of poverty leading to an uncertain football landscape in Africa, the substandard administration of African leagues, the corrupt practices, the limited state investment in the leagues, and the unnecessary governmental interference in matters concerning national Football Associations (FAs).
These factors make playing football in Africa a less appealing option for the youths, as there is often little in the way of financial reward and stability. Furthermore, the factors provide a compelling reason for talented players to seek better opportunities of playing professional football abroad, with the possibility of also receiving significantly higher remuneration in the process.
However, the main difficulty for a number of these youths lies in securing safe passage to the foreign country. Many who use facilitators and middle men to make the trip abroad may not ordinarily qualify for tourist or student visas. This is due to the tightening of EU and US borders, along with the more general “closure of the west”, and the adoption of stricter immigration policies across board.
The increased immigration policy demands have created a perception where African youths believe that it would be very difficult to make the trip abroad via legal channels. This has contributed to a climate where unscrupulous intermediaries can thrive, as they capitalise on the eagerness of the African youths seeking to migrate by any means necessary, to attain better footballing and economic opportunities.
Alternatively, the African youths who are unwilling to be smuggled abroad are left with a deficient football infrastructure and an unstable climate regarding football governance on the continent. This owes largely to the impact of corruption in African football. Some statistics show that 90 out of every 100 dollars meant for the development of grassroots football in Africa, “disappears” into the pockets of private individuals.
Corruption in football is not a problem that is synonymous with the African continent alone but rather stems from the top of the FIFA pyramid. Though, it is the scale in which corruption occurs in African football that is the most worrying and contributory push factor for African youths.
FIFA’s rules on non-interference also hinders the governments of African countries from combating corruption within their respective FAs, as the FIFA rules protect the perpetrators of corrupt practices within the FAs. It has been argued that FIFA’s rules shield the FAs from being the target of any democratic process, as any interference or attempt at overhauling FA officials done by a government — even if conducted with the good intention of imputing good governance — will be viewed as an intrusion by FIFA. Such intrusions are regularly followed by suspensions from footballing competitions, as a punishment for the government which has interfered in the matters which FIFA deems should be under the exclusive jurisdiction of an FA.
When the general and football specific push factors are considered collectively by the African youths and coupled with the increased border controls and stringent visa requirements, it often leads to the triggering of the trafficking or irregular migration process. As the youths seek the help of smugglers and unscrupulous intermediaries to facilitate their trips abroad, and in so doing deem irregular migration, which could end up as a trafficking situation, as a worthwhile risk to take.
There are only a few teams in Africa that have the capacity and financial resources to pay players the kind of salaries that could possibly encourage them to remain and play professionally on the continent. It is considered that Al Ahly and Arab Contractors in Egypt, and Esperance in Tunisia, are the “primary player exporting zones” in Africa which have some pulling ability.
The limited list of appealing destinations for the African youths to ply their trade on the continent owes to the inequalities and economic disparities between the EU teams and leagues, and their African counterparts. These few options are in stark contrast to the numerous destinations that exist in Europe, with teams willing to give the players the opportunities and economic incentives which do not exist anywhere else in football.
However, with the globalisation of the transfer market that has occurred since the Bosman ruling, the recruitment strategies of the top European clubs have often revolved around locating the most talented youth players abroad, and “pulling” said players to Europe. This pulling recruitment method has been criticised as akin to the economic imperialism which existed in colonial times, and also as a part of the neo-colonial exploitation between developed and developing countries which has occurred in the post-colonial era.
Regarding colonial ties, several African players consider that the ease of migrating to a country with a shared colonial history may also be a valid pull factor, as there would be fewer linguistic challenges or cultural barriers for the player to adapt to, whilst also benefitting from the greater economic opportunities that are available in Europe.
The African youths are aware of the increased economic opportunities through the broadcasting media outlets. As the media shows the extravagant lifestyles of the returning football migrants, which reinforces the appeal of going abroad to obtain wealth and socio-economic betterment through football.
This article has discussed the occurrences that led up to the initiation of football trafficking and explained how unscrupulous intermediaries are capitalising on the dreams of young African footballers because of the current football landscape. The exploitation is driven by the financial benefits the intermediary stands to make by signing a player to a professional club and aligns with the increased economic and financial opportunities made available in world football due to the continuous commercialisation. Conversely, this has resulted in players being viewed as commodities with varying degrees of value attributed to them. The African and other non-EU football minors are the ones treated with less regard and who regularly suffer the adverse effects of such a situation. This, coupled with their willingness to be put into precarious positions in the first place (albeit through false promises), makes their exploitation an easier process for the unscrupulous intermediaries and football teams.
Nevertheless, owing to the variety of factors highlighted in this article which push the minors into the hands of the unscrupulous persons, and the other determinants that pull them towards aspiring for a career in Europe, the time is right for the football world to consider more long-term solutions to the problem. These solutions should consider infrastructural developments, which would safeguard the minors from exploitation by diminishing the impact of the football specific push-factors. This will simultaneously make professional football on the continent a more appealing option for the youths. It is feasible that then, the players would be less likely to view being smuggled or trafficked abroad as a risk “worth taking”.
Ini-Obong Nkang is a Sports Law PhD Candidate at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University. He is interested in curbing football trafficking by using football as a tool for the sustainable development of African countries.
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