The African footballers stuck on Europe’s periphery
Having recently been crowned the CAF 2019 Player of the Year, Senegalese attacker Sadio Mané represents the pinnacle of what an African talent can achieve in the sport of football. Mané has established himself as a key figure in the Liverpool team since his $43 million transfer in 2016 – at the time a world record for an African player – helping them to the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup titles last year.
While Mané’s story can serve as a shining example to other African hopefuls, the sad reality is his journey is the exception rather than the rule. Opportunistic and unscrupulous agents all too often take advantage of the dreams of naïve and idealistic youngsters hoping for the opportunity to impress scouts at top European clubs. Rather than breaking into the bog leagues and fulfilling their dreams, these players are abandoned to fend for themselves in countries like Georgia, Russia or Turkey.
A ruthless trade
While Africa may have been historically mined for its precious resources such as oil, gold and diamonds, today the continent is being plundered for its athletic talents. Eager to jump at the chance to lift their families out of poverty by playing in one of Europe’s top leagues, thousands of African teenagers are roped in by actors claiming to represent the interests of major clubs. The catch? The minors must stump up cold, hard cash – often as much as $5,000 – for the pleasure.
Unfortunately, the player might be duped into flying into a country other than the one they were led to believe, put up in slum housing at their own expense and fobbed off without even doing a trial in the first place. Even in those cases when a trial does take place, it’s commonly nothing more than a sham to create the pretence of opportunity.
Stranded in Georgia and Russia
During the world cup in Russia, Nigerian hopefuls were lured to Sochi after having paid between $1000 and $3000 for a “fan-visa”, only to be stuck in hostels they had to pay themselves. While they eventually did sign a contract – with a Sochi amateur team – the already meagre pay was withheld.
A similar story unfolded in Georgia, where a number of Cameroonian players got stranded after they were told the country was a steppingstone to the European major leagues and teams. Without a professional player association, the legal means for foreign players in Georgia to improve their situation are slim and despite being given a release forms, the heft fees Georgian teams have to pay for signing foreign players means that they are unlikely to be picked up elsewhere.
Still other players get marooned in countries even farther afield, such as Nepal and Mongolia. After the fact, those players are caught between a rock and a hard place. They generally have little faith in the authorities in their own country and as such are reluctant to involve law enforcement, while their utter poverty means they’d be unable to finance a court case even if they were inclined to do so. Meanwhile, the hopes pinned upon them and the sacrifices made for them in their local villages means they’re desperately keen to avoid the shame of returning home.
Stories of hope
While broken dreams outnumber realised ones by an incredible margin, those who make it will always provide inspiration to others back home. The English Premier League is currently experiencing an abundance of African-born stars, with the three joint winners of last season’s Golden Boot (Mané, Mohammed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) hailing from Senegal, Egypt and Gabon, respectively. Yet more of African descent, such as Chelsea’s Anthony Rüdiger and Tammy Abraham and Tottenham’s Dele Alli and Moussa Sissoko, are proving their worth by excelling amongst England’s elite.
Sissoko’s story in particular could provide a strong blueprint for other hopefuls of African descent to follow, given that his agent is his own uncle, Bakari Sanogo. Sanogo was instrumental in not only sealing Sissoko’s dream move to Spurs, but also encouraging him not to lose faith after an inauspicious start to life at the club. In an environment where making the leap to the European leagues is so often fraught with swimming with sharks, a friendly face and a guiding voice that can be trusted can be all important in avoiding the kind of nightmare scenarios that far too frequently take place.
Authorities must take action
In the meantime, the sport’s governing body FIFA can hardly plead ignorance to the existence of the arrangement, but so far, their response has been underwhelming. In 2001, they introduced Article 19, which states that no player under the age of 18 may sign a contract with a club in a foreign country – but the numerous loopholes in the provisions have been exploited by major clubs to mine Africa for its best young players.
To date, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Real Madrid have all been subject to penalisation for breaking the rules, highlighting how European clubs are at the very least complicit in this highly immoral practice. unknown, even though their target age bracket was in clear contravention of Article 19.
In order to make any meaningful inroads into tackling the problem, FIFA, national governments and the clubs themselves must stop turning a blind eye and turn their attention to countries at Europe’s periphery, where many African players end up indefinitely. Paying African clubs a retainer to allow them to develop the next generation of talent would be a strong step in persuading desperate players to bide their time and not risk everything on fanciful promises, while better regulation of agents would clamp down on the practice at its source.
Image credit: Oleksandr Burlaka/Flickr