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Shattered Dreams- The Predicament of human trafficking in the football universe

Submitted by-Satyam Parmar


Slavery is an ancient stigma which has tarnished the glorious history of various societies and civilizations throughout the world. Slavery in simple terms refers to the phenomenon of one person owning another person like a property. The League of Nations Slavery Convention of 25 September 1926 gave a definition of slavery which in substance is one of the most widely followed definitions. Article 1(1) of the Convention defined slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”. Consequently, in the light of this definition, global humanitarian bodies, with United Nations being their beacon, have built illustrative lists of acts under the purview of slavery. However, such lists are not and cannot be exhaustive. Human trafficking in football is one such issue.

Human trafficking is a genus of modern day slavery. Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime expounds that there are three basic elements to human trafficking. Firstly, there is an ‘act’ of moving persons from one place to another. Secondly, the ‘means’ used for this act is a ruse involving abhorrent, illicit and unapproved methods such as deception, coercion, fraud etc. Thirdly, the ‘purpose’ of such trafficking is exploitation of the humans being transported from one place to another.

Trafficking of persons in the football industry is an issue which has attracted limelight in the last decade. Dubious football agents and football academies feed the desirous and hungry minds of young, mostly destitute footballers with mesmerizing dreams of a stellar career in renowned football clubs. They use the stories of success of players such as Didier Drogba, Toure brothers, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to enable them to further appeal to the emotions of these innocent and ignorant but ambitious footballers. It is an issue of global concern. The underdeveloped countries in Africa serve as rich feeder systems of desperate football aspirants for these ruthless conmen. The exorbitant amount of talent in the South American nations like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay also make them a viable market for duping young football players. The profusion of talent elevates the level of competition and it is an arduous task to procure a place in a professional football team. These mediocre players are cunningly convinced by the conmen that they will have promising future elsewhere. The players who are hell-bent on making a name in the football world pay the dubious agents heavily to get them inducted in famous football clubs. The next thing these players know is that their agent has disappeared into thin air while they have been abandoned in an unknown place. Such deserted players are popularly called soccer slaves.


Soccer Slaves comprise of football players who have been subjected to conditions of modern day slavery, such as trafficking, the reason for which can be directly or indirectly traced to the sport of football.

Trafficking of young players

A uniform pattern can be identified in this form of soccer slavery. A person purporting to be a talent scout or football agent identifies a regional talent and offers him a golden ticket to big football clubs. The player generally belongs to an area which is poverty stricken and where there is lack of opportunity and infrastructure. The agent in return of his favour demands a huge sum of money which generally ranges from 3000 to 5000 Euros. The indigent families of these players sell their belongings, properties or take out loans to arrange for the agent’s

fees and transportation of the player to the destination country. The innocent families hope that the player’s success would help in addressing their hardships once and for all. But once the player arrives in the destination country, terrible incidents follow. The agent may abandon the player at the airport itself if the agent fee has been paid. Another scenario would be where the player is received by the agent and taken to various clubs for trials. The contract offered by a club however is exploitative from the player’s point of view. The agent also co-operates with the clubs and vanishes with his commission. Generally the clubs where the footballer tries out are not even remotely close in fame and stature as are promised to him by the agent. The third possibility is where the player is unable to impress any club as such, despite the trials. The agent in this case also abandons the player after taking his money and sometimes his documents too, which the player gives him for safekeeping. Consequently, such players are left penniless in an unknown land with guilt and dejection. These players generally are out on tourist visas which lapse after a short duration. The forces of guilt and lack of money prevents them from returning to their homeland. Eventually, most of these players resort to illegal and unscrupulous means to secure their livelihood.

Africa serves as the biggest market for soccer slaves. International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro) has taken note of this problem and is working to ameliorate the pathetic conditions of soccer slaves and emancipate them from such trickery. A recent investigation carried out by Immigration (SEF) in Portugal’s Central region concluded that the presence of 157 footballers from other countries was illegitimate in the country. Out of the total of 157 players, 105 were Africans. All such players were notified to leave the country. Three amateur football players were arrested for disregarding prior notification to leave the country voluntarily. Inspections were carried out in 60 clubs and public limited sports companies. 25 infraction proceedings were filed against clubs with athletes in these conditions. These clubs were fined between 50 to 250 thousand Euros.

Joaquim Evangelista, the President of the Portuguese football players’ union, says that human trafficking in football is a reality, with organised networks operating in this area. “They bring young people into the country and put them in clubs offering to act as rented wombs for these agents. If players are successful, profits are made from the transfer. If they are not and are notified by Immigration to return home, they have to pay their own tickets and are abandoned.>

Alexandre Rambo is the perfect example of the manner in which this trade works. Alexandre is a Brazilian football player whose Brazilian agent came into contact with another agent. This new agent convinced Alexandre’s agent that Alexandre would be given a trial in FC Porto, a globally famous Portuguese football club. When Alexandre reached Portugal he was taken to some other club, accommodated in a hotel and deserted by the agent. The agent had gradually stopped responding to Alexandre’s calls. Eventually, Alexandre was somehow able to contact his Brazilian agent who managed to arrange Alexandre’s return to Brazil. But this was arranged only after two months of Alexandre’s penniless stay in Lisbon.

In 2005, Jean Marie Dedecker, a Belgian Senator unravelled the exploitation of African players in Belgium. He studied 442 cases of exploitation of young Nigerian football players in Belgium. He gave an insight into the gravity of the issue by citing the number of illegal football agents in Belgium. The number of illegal football agents was 170 which was over five times the number of 30 legally active agents. Dedecker claimed that the size of the scandal was huge. He did not hesitate from stating that former Belgian players were also involved in this malpractice. The veracity of the findings of Dedecker can be further justified by the fact that he received death threats when he embarked upon this journey to relieve exploited African players in Belgium.

Culture Foot Solidaire is a non-governmental organization which works for the emancipation of the beautiful game from the shackles of human trafficking organised by fake agents. This venture was established by a former Cameroon international, Jean-Claude Mbvoumin. The organization is backed by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and is present in France and Switzerland. The primary objective of this Organization is to prevent the trafficking of African youth to Europe by fake agents. The Organization intends to terminate the practice of European clubs and agents viewing African children as objects. The Organization adopts a practical approach towards the problem. It tries to prevent the trafficking of players by spreading awareness among young African footballers. Secondly, if the players have already left Africa and are found in a precarious condition, Foot Culture Solidare lends a helping hand to them. Mbvoumin rightly says that the young African footballers must realise the fact that their chances of making it to professional football are very slim. Foot Culture Solidaire has thus developed an all round development project for young Africans. This project concentrates on imparting other skills to young African footballers that are not related to football so that they have other options to earn an honest living, just in case the dream of becoming a professional football player does not materialize. Furthermore, lack of education, infrastructure, opportunities, organized systems for development of football and prevalence of poverty in Africa are recognized as major causes for migration by young football players. The average age at which an African migrates from his country for the purpose of playing football is merely 18.6 years.

The Culture Foot Solidaire recognized the following protections that are available to minors against trafficking.

The International Convention on Children’s Rights (UN 1989) is ratified by 193 states in the world. It condemns child exploitation. Article 32 of the Convention lays down that the states must recognize the rights of a child and take effective measures to discourage and eradicate economic exploitation of children. The children should not engage in hazardous works or activities which inflicts or is likely to inflict any harm on the health and all-round personality development of the children.

The Palermo Protocol (2002) aims on supplementing the UN Convention. It is the first universal instrument covering all aspects of trafficking. It defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”. The Palermo Protocol endeavours to accomplish the “3 P’s” paradigm: Prevention of trafficking, Protection of victims and Prosecution of traffickers.

The European Parliament resolution on the future of professional football in Europe (March 2007) and the White Paper on Sport (July 2007) which were presented by the European Commission, emphasised the necessity to battle illegal transfers of minors to foreign nations.

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Human Trafficking, which became effective from 1st February, 2008 is the first European convention in this area which primarily focuses to prevent the victims from trafficking and simultaneously protect their fundamental human rights. It acknowledges that human trafficking is a heinous crime which results into a human right violation and aims to make the member nations legally bound to the provisions of the convention. The Convention intends to establish a sui generis mechanism to control and implement the obligations assented by the member nations.

The Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) based on Article 5 of the FIFA statutes of 19th October, 2003 deals with the transfer of minor football players in Article 19, Chapter 6. Sub-section (1) of the Article clearly denies the transfer of any player who is below 18 years of age. Sub-section (2)(a) of the Article provides an exception and allows a minor’s international transfer only if his parents have moved to the country for reasons not linked to football.


The following suggestions are recommended to deal with the issue of soccer slavery:

The research bodies and authorities that investigate trafficking must recognise that trafficking in football is a grave and unique issue. Generally, the research bodies presume that trafficking is for the purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labour. This abates their attention towards the illicit practice of trafficking of young African footballers.

Football is a global sport. Therefore, the issues associated to it also need to be dealt with on a global level. The Governments of as many countries as possible must be roped in this campaign against human trafficking in football.

FIFA has denied any responsibility for trafficking in football citing lack of power as a defence. FIFA, being the international governing body of the sport of football must acknowledge its responsibility and duty with respect to human trafficking in football. FIFA must dedicate its services wholeheartedly in order to check soccer slavery. It can derecognize clubs and agents that participate in illegal trafficking of young football players. It should also fund tailor-made projects to terminate football related human trafficking.

FIFA should collaborate with the respective national government authorities to delineate criminal sanctions combined with professional bans against people engaged in illicit human trafficking in the football world.

Infrastructure and opportunities for participation in professional football must be developed in African nations.

There is a dire need to change the outlook of Africans with respect to football. FIFA should work to popularise football in the continent of Africa as a sport and not as a shortcut to fame and money.

Awareness programs should be regularly conducted to apprise the denizens of Africa about the predicament of soccer slavery. The young professional African players and their coaches must be taught to recognise and verify an authentic agent or talent scout.

The Belgian senator, Dedecker has recommended a tax on transfer fees which shall be utilized in supporting the exploited African players. Severe immigration laws can also be an effective tool to prevent soccer slavery.

Poverty stricken African footballers should be provided with educational facilities in addition to proper football training. This shall help in their personality growth and they shall have additional career options at their disposal. Consequently, if they fail in achieving a career in football, they can resort to their educational qualifications to gain employment in other sectors. This shall also rule out criminal world as the last resort for failed African footballers.


The issue of soccer slaves is an embarrassment to the football industry as well as to the modern society. We boast of man’s development while a primitive abominable social evil like slavery still manages to survive. Objectifying people and treating them like a property is not a trait of an ideal modern society. Every person has a basic right to live with dignity. Depriving a person from his basic right of freedom is unjust and must be punished heavily. Despite Culture Foot Solidaire working for the rights of young footballers, the problem does not seem to be nearing its end. The protection available to young African footballers is insufficient. The problem needs to be curbed with a stringent hand to expedite the annihilation of soccer slavery. The nations, national sports federations and international sports federations across the world must join forces to erase this blot from the face of the beautiful game and preserve the impeccable beauty of football.


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