ANALYSIS Kilili Nthiw’a
A little more than a decade ago in May of 2007, a boat, a leaking fishing trawler abandoned by its skipper, washed up on the shore of La Tejita beach in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. Surprisingly, the boat was loaded with 130 young men of African origin, some of whom had hypothermia and were badly dehydrated. Of these young men, a good number were teenagers who believed they were on their way to play for Marseille or Real Madrid.[i] This is just a small fraction of the young African males who make the illegal, and often dangerous trips, across either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic in the name of bettering their lives, and those of their kin back in Africa, through football.[ii]
By way of estimation, since 2005 there have been more than 1,000 cases of football related irregular migration in Paris alone and approximately 7,000 across France, majority of whom migrated through the aquatic channels. These figures are from the organisation Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), which is based in Paris and was founded in 2001 by Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroonian international player. CFS aims to support young African players allegedly trafficked or unsuccessful in their trials with European football clubs.[iii]
I seek, in this entry, to introduce the concept of irregular migration of African football minors through football trafficking, interrogate the inadequacy of the current legal and policy framework governing the transfer of football minors and re-ignite concern for what is a failed regulatory framework for failure in identifying the underlying societal, elementary, and ultimately, causative problem in an effort to suggest an alternative remedy to the irregular migration of African football minors.
The African Problem noticed by FIFA Leadership
Since the turn of the century and with the coming in to force of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players,[iv] European clubs have developed a growing, nay, insatiable appetite for young players predominantly from Africa, who are thought of, not only being desperate of securing European football contracts, but also as a source of cheap football labour. The Regulations referred to above abolished transfer fees for out-of-contract players and changed the transfer regime in football, forcing small European clubs to invest in youth as they could no longer guarantee contractual stability for their senior players, who would run down their contracts and later move for free, denying their clubs income in the form of transfer fees.
This meant that the young players, often under the age of 18 years, are recruited, integrated into the academies of European football clubs and offered semi-professional contracts in the hope that, with time, they will turn out to be reliable first team players, thereby obviating expenditure on player recruitment. Another incentive is that the clubs could later sell the players at mammoth fees thereby raking in huge profits on players formerly acquired at minimal costs or for free.
In his speech at a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, FIFA president, Gianni Infantino remarked thus:
“If we think about rest of world,” he continued, “and the vast majority of Europe, then we have to think about what football brings…. We need to include them. “We need to find ways to include the whole world to give hope to Africans so that they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find maybe a better life but, more probably, death in the sea…[v] (interpolation mine).
The above remark depicts the nuances and nature of African football, disorganized and lacking in structure, which is what forces the football minors from the continent, who ostensibly think they are gifted enough to make it in Europe, to leave their homes in pursuit of upward social mobility through football.
Trafficking in Football and Trafficking Through Football
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines irregular migration as the movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the State of origin, transit or destination.[vi] Additionally, having migrated regularly, if a regular migrant overstays their visa, they fall into the category of an irregular migrant, pending the regularisation of their migrant status, the situation that is more common with African football minors who travel regularly, as most of them only have, utmost, a one month visa in the form of a tourist visa.[vii] Once the same expires and they’re abandoned by the agents they choose to remain in Europe.
In ordinary parlance, a football agent, often unlicensed, identifies a young African footballer at a football match, either physically or remotely after which they approach the player and promise them trials and a subsequent contract at one of the youth systems of a European club. Relying on previous successes by African footballers in Europe, the opportunity is ordinarily perceived too good to turn down. Such endeavours including possible fraudulent acquisitions of passports and visas are funded by the minors and their kin, in cases where the migration is regular, with the agents collecting the money and thereafter travelling with them (minors) to Europe.
Either of two things ordinarily happen upon arrival in Europe. The first one is that the minor sometimes gets a trial and a subsequent contract, which is ordinarily an insecure one with unfavourable financial terms and which does not guarantee continuity or contractual stability meaning that the minor might soon fall into unemployment. The other option is that the minors may not get trials or contracts at all and are instead left to their own devices, abandoned in hotels with unpaid bills.
The migratory process above meets the conditions of human trafficking as outlined in the Palermo Convention[viii] and its Trafficking protocol; in that it features an act such as the recruitment and transportation of persons, which is followed by the methods used to enforce those act(s), such as threat, the use of force, fraud, coercion, or other abuses of power or of a position of vulnerability. In the case of the migratory process above, there is the use of coercion by the football agents who abuse their power without regard to the minors who are in a position of vulnerability, who are desperate to get to European clubs. It then relates to a motive, that is, to obtain financial gains through exploitation.[ix] The former case described in the preceding paragraph is one of Trafficking in Football while the latter case is one of Trafficking Through Football, with both terms conflated under the term “football trafficking”[x]a form of irregular migration.
Football Migrants or Migrant Footballers?
Some African football minors reckon that they can attain upward social mobility in life by merely moving to Europe, whether or not they are going to secure football contracts therein. For them, they would rather be in Europe as irregular migrants than be in Africa. There is therefore the distinction between a football migrant who moves using football as a decoy and may never actually play football and the migrant footballer who moves in search of upward social mobility through football, keen on securing trials and subsequent contracts. [xi]
The Inadequacy of the Regulatory Framework for Transfer of Football Minors:
Poli (2010)[xii] argues that the rationale of the migration of African football minors to Europe is two-pronged. One reason is that the highly organised and developed structure of European football acts as a bait to the African football minors while the other one is the claim that the underdevelopment of African football or its ‘culture of mediocrity’ pushes African players to ply their trade outside of the continent.
To begin with, the international transfer and first registration of minors is prohibited unless either of the five exclusive conditions are met.[xiii] These conditions are (i) a player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for non-football-related reasons; (ii) the transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union or European Economic Area, the player is aged between 16 and 18, and the receiving club ensures the player is provided with a football education equivalent to the national standard alongside optimum living standards; and (iii) the player lives no further than 50 km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50 km of that border (iv) the player flees his country of origin for humanitarian reasons, specifically related to his life or freedom being threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group, or political opinion, without his parents and is therefore at least temporarily permitted to reside in the country of arrival, (v) the player is a student and moves without his parents to another country temporarily for academic reasons in order to undertake an exchange programme.
Unfortunately, none of the five reasons seem to take care of the unique plight and situation of the African football minor, whose sole dream is to attain upward social mobility in life through football migration. The Europeandream as it’s colloquially referred to, is invariably extinguished almost immediately with the minor’s arrival in Europe.
It is documented that out of the African football minors who migrate to Europe for football, only less than ten percent break through European clubs as professional footballers.[xiv] It is therefore argued that the current regulatory framework falls short of appreciating the nature of African football minors and takes a Eurocentric approach and solution to the problem. One way that may be ideal in the protection of football minors from Africa is through improving the foundations of the professional game in Africa.
Conclusively, it is not in doubt that the irregular migration of African football minors has occasioned the breakdown of families and societies back in Africa. Most of the minors who are abandoned by unscrupulous football agents in Europe say that they do not wish to return to Africa owing to the element of shame, seeing that they left with huge resources from their kin. Accordingly, they would rather become irregular immigrants in Europe. Ultimately, the case is for the adoption by the relevant authorities of an African centric approach and remedies to the problem of the irregular migration of African football minors.
The Culture Foot Solidaire for instance has proposed and developed what they call an “Ethical Transfer Charter” which seeks to reduce the cases of irregular migration of football minors through promoting ethical transfers. This charter would require clubs that are signatories thereto to undertake to sign only those minors that have been “ethically sourced” and therefore denying unscrupulous football agents the chance to defraud the minors.[xv]
Additionally, increased funding to African countries through the FIFA Goal Project[xvi] could improve the structure of football. This could translate into a decrease in the number of minors travelling abroad for football reasons, instead choosing to remain home. The last approach would be to organise colloquia to sensitize minors and other football stakeholders in Africa on the not so sure path to glamour through European football, and the need to make choices wisely.
[i] https://www.theguardian.com/football/2008/jan/06/newsstory.sport4 accessed 19 April 2022.
[iv] Edition 2001.
[v] https://www.dw.com/en/infantino-change-world-cup-cycle-so-that-africans-dont-have-to-cross-mediterranean/a-60562497 , speech made to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 26 January 2022 accessed 19 April 2022.
[vi] https://www.iom.int/key-migration-terms#:~:text=Irregular%20migration%2 accessed 19 April 2022.
[viii] The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000.
[ix] James Esson “Better Off at Home? Rethinking Responses to Trafficked West African Footballers in Europe”, (2015) Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41:3, 512-530.
[xii] Poli, R., “The Migrations of African Football Players to Europe: Human Trafficking and Neocolonialism in Question.” Available at <http://www.
ayers_01.pdf> accessed 19 April 2022.
[xiii] Article 19(2) of the FIFA Rules on the Status and Transfer of Players.