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After he was tricked into believing he was good enough for a career in football, Jay-Jay was trafficked from Guinea to London at the age of 17 only to be forced into prostitution.
There’s a familiar pattern. For a life-changing opportunity of the bright lights of Europe’s famous stadiums with big rewards, they pay a recruiter around $5000, sometimes more. It’s difficult not to go through with the trip when a hopeful African player has to contend with poverty at home.
They are victims of an underworld which preys on dreams and poverty, and which the football world struggles to control.
In a Europe where migration has become a big issue, those who demand tighter borders appear happy to suspend their principles when it comes to migration in football. What’s found in a lot of the debate about migration is that some migrants are more acceptable than others.
A migrant footballer playing at Wembley is fine, but it seems a migrant plumber fixing the toilets at the same stadium is not.
They are not fleeing for their lives and they have the talent to offer for which they may one day be lucratively rewarded.
There’s a strong chance that the kids are involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong and just wants to get out. They’re not naive. If they don’t sign at a club when they arrive, they can get a job on the black market doing something cash in hand.
There’s no denying that there are victims who think they’re moving for football and are siphoned off into criminal practices.
FIFA should say, no exemptions, don’t move children under 18 from their country. You’d still have scouts and agents playing the underworld system in Africa to get visas, passports and birth certificates faked, but a huge swath of the problem would be cut.
Trafficking persons remain the fastest growing crime in the world. Creating pathways for the safe development and movement of young players searching for an opportunity in professional football is important for the sport and our society.
In recent years two migration routes have evolved. A more formal structure involves governing bodies such as FIFA, UEFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), working with European clubs and registered academies in Africa to identify potential talent.
The more common route has been for the many children who do not reach such academies to try and make their own passage, after being approached by unscrupulous fixers. Also, small, unlicensed academies have sprouted up across the region, often run by people posing as agents.
A concern is growing that the formal academy system enables European clubs and speculators to take ownership of Africa-based academies to sidestep certain regulations, example, the ban on the international transfer of minors, and profit from the sale of African talent to rich, typically European, clubs.
It is no coincidence that the trade has been strongest between European nations and their colonies. African colonies are recognised as being rich in natural resources, raw material, and cheap labour. In effect, the process is a mining of just another of Africa’s raw materials, in this case, football talent.
It’s a struggle for FIFA and other sporting agencies to turn rhetoric into enduring meaningful action. They want to encourage kids to play football, play the beautiful game, but don’t understand how they are being exploited. In an environment where you either make it or you don’t, and most don’t, we need to look after the 98 per cent who don’t make it.
If the protection of minors is a top priority for FIFA with rules such as Article 19 and its tweaks, then its bureaucracy needs to be rebuilt to work towards its goals with speed or efficacy. At the moment, it’s like a parent waiting until his kid’s hand is medium-rare on the stove before getting off the couch to do something about it.
There are lucrative pickings for those who prey on dreams. Slave owners are good at smelling out vulnerabilities and luring people into traps. If there was enough money in the Africa leagues there wouldn’t be the pull factor. Instead, kids are drawn to Europe where they think the streets are paved with gold.
To prevent this occurring, poverty needs to be reduced, but securing world peace or finding a cure for all cancer has proved challenging. The whole subject has the same ingredients as trafficking, it’s just that in this case, the story is football.
Football in Australia does not offer the glamour, stature and riches of Europe but the sport and the Australian lifestyle are not immune.
The issue needs more organisations delivering the message about what is going on.