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A game with people

In football, human trafficking takes place in increasingly sophisticated ways. And while Europe's big clubs tempt African talents with wealth and fame, the African clubs are decaying.



[football] Football migration has helped to bring African club football into a so-called vicious circle. Over the past four to five years, the best clubs in Nigeria have faced difficult problems due to lower attendance and a general decline in interest in the national league. One possible explanation for the situation is the huge export of Nigerian players to all other nooks and crannies around the world. For example, all the key players in the Nigerian national team play abroad. The usual starting lineup consists of players such as Obafemi Martins (Newcastle, United Kingdom), John Obi Mikel (Chelsea, United Kingdom), Joseph Yobo (Everton, United Kingdom) and Stephen Makinwa (Lazio, Italy). All are world-renowned star players who are stuck in top European clubs. None of the best players in the home country of Nigeria, nor in clubs belonging to the African continent. In 2006, only seven of a total of 60 players were based in the Nigerian elite series within the national team.

Lower interest in national leagues in the African continent means less ticket revenue and sponsorship money, which in turn will force them to give up the best players because they can't afford to keep them. Both local media and international satellite TV choose to focus on the biggest European series and regional tournaments, rather than helping to expose local teams and cups.

Calculating talent factories. Traditionally, young African men have been overrepresented in migration statistics from Africa to Europe. There is a growing trend in Africa that talented soccer players are being contacted and joining talent academies at a very young age. Most academies, such as South African Ajax Cape Town, have different teams segmented by age groups, such as 12-14 years, 14-17 years and an A-stall with players over 17 years. The best players that the club has faith in are eventually promoted to the senior team.

The talent factories offer players opportunities and facilities many would otherwise not have access to, such as enough food, a roof over their heads and expert training guidance. Of course, everything is aimed at a single goal: to train the players so well that they can one day be sold to a European club. This is how the academies make good money on sales, while the player fulfills his dream of playing in Europe.

But it is not just economic motives that tempt African talents to migrate to Europe. Many want to flee the African continent due to social, cultural and political issues such as disrespect for human rights or absent democratic principles. Just as for "regular" migrants, there are many so-called "push" and "pull" factors involved in a migration process. By push and pull factors is meant conditions in the home country that either "push" people out, or incentives in another country that attracts migrants in search of a better life.

Lack of common law. The ongoing tapping of the best players in Europe has left those players choosing to stay in some kind of skills vacuum. African National Series rib for all its top players remains as low-skill leagues without adequate skill levels for young players who want to evolve, considering games in a larger European series. Egypt's national team can illustrate how the escape from African leagues abroad has been in recent years. In 1998, Egypt won the Africa Championship, with only four players based in foreign clubs. In the next playoffs, in the year 2000, there were suddenly eleven players in the squad playing for foreign clubs.

Many of the young players are spotted by talent scouts when they play for the talent academy's team or senior team in one of the African series. If the player has good enough skills, he quickly becomes a favorite object for both agents with contacts in Europe and for European clubs who are always looking for reinforcements. Today, EU countries do not have any common legislation on migration. Some member states tend to limit migration opportunities for unskilled workers to a great extent, while highly educated can easily gain entry.

This affects the opportunities for young players, who are usually too young to have had the opportunity to acquire such qualifications. In order to enter Europe from Africa legally, the migrant usually needs a visa or residence permit, which must be obtained from the home country before departure.

In many cases, migrants are rejected despite being required

valid documentation, because they are suspected of planning to stay in the country after the permit has expired.

Popular in Norway. The strict rules of migration from Africa to Europe have opened up for middlemen, player agents, to take part in the ever-increasing form of sophisticated human trafficking. The agents have contacts in several European clubs and can offer players easier access to migrate to Europe legally. If the agent has contacts in a European club who can send them an invitation, for example at a trial, it is relatively easy to get to and stay in Europe. Such an invitation contains information about the visit, about the relationship between the two parties, the intention behind the visit and financial guarantees, if the sender provides for the recipient while he or she is staying in the country. The invitation is also an agreement between the sender and the state, because it guarantees that the sender will cover the state's expenses if the recipient should break the agreement and stay beyond the specified time and must be returned by force.

This invitation system has become very popular with Norwegian top clubs, all of whom hope to sign young talents they can develop and sell on to make money. An example is the Tippeligaklubben Strømsgodset, which in the autumn of 2006 invited two young Zambians to come for a training stay in Drammen. Before the Zambians were offered trial games, one of the club's talent scouts had seen them play in a junior team tournament at Hamar, where the two young Africans represented the team Edusports. Edusports is a voluntary organization from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, which provides young football players with a form of primary education and training. Strömsgodset had plans to permanently link the two young boys to it, but eventually chose to drop it. Apparently, the reason was that it would be much more expensive than initially anticipated, after several European top clubs (including Real Madrid) showed interest. The fact that they sent players back to Zambia does not change the club's motivation and intentions to bring them to Norway in the first place. It was clear from the beginning that they wanted to develop the two players in the long term, and then sell them in a few years. Before there was talk of permanent affiliation with the club, the two were on trial in Norway for a month, where they lived with a Zambian host family in Oslo. Before arriving in Norway, they were sent the necessary documentation and were guaranteed entry.

After the much-talked-about affair with John Obi Mikel, who played for Lyn before moving to Chelsea, it has become more popular to invite young African talents to try out Norwegian top clubs. African players are generally much cheaper than European players, both from local African clubs and when it comes to salaries. When Mikel was bought by Chelsea, Lyn received a good fortune for the player, who had only played in Norway for a short period.

A quick glance at the player numbers of some of the largest Elite Series clubs gives some indication that it is popular to bring young Africans to Norway. Fire recently joined the young Gambian midfield talent Tijan Jaiteh, following closely his development for a couple of years. Rosenborg has linked two young guys from Ivory Coast, Didier Konan and Abdoulrazak Traoré, with hopes of future re-sale. FFK has secured talented Ismael Beko Fofana from Ivory Coast, while Start has linked up with Anthony Annan from Ghana who predicts a great future. Common to all is that they are young Africans who want to use the Norwegian Tippeliga as a stepping stone to major European leagues.

The club fixes asylum. Not all players migrate legally to Europe. Some people try to get a tryout after crossing the borders illegally, and hope someone will help them get legal stay if they are good enough to get in touch with a club. An example is Albanian Edwin Murati, who got his brother's help smuggled into France. He auditioned for Paris St. Germain (PSG) and contracted with the club. He helped the club to apply for asylum, and later he was granted refugee status. This in turn allowed him to move freely within the Schengen area, without fear of being thrown out. After playing for PSG, he moved to Germany where he played for Fortuna Düsseldorf, before being picked up by the Greek club Iraklis.

The migration statistics do not give an overview of the occupational groups to which the various migrants belong, but probably many players try to get into Europe via the traditional main routes from West Africa to the Canary Islands, Northern Morocco to Spain or from Libya to Italy.

Worrying development. Africa's treasure trove of countless young cheap players with great potential has attracted many serious and less serious players who speculate in pure human trafficking. As long as there is no common legal framework that can protect both the individual players and the African clubs, similar to what we have in many European countries, African football will be very vulnerable and easy to exploit.

After taking a look at this topic, I would like to address the need for such a system, and cooperation to a greater extent between the African Football Associations than the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is able to offer today.

If the national African leagues want to appear more attractive to players, supporters, media and sponsors, it is crucial to prevent the most attractive players from going abroad at a young age. Today, many African clubs are regularly utilized because most of the money is exchanged between foreign clubs, agents and players, without the local clubs taking part in the trade. ■

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