It is a painful memory for William. He would rather not remember his time in Volendam (The Netherlands). He is ashamed. And yet he feels it is important to tell his story. William lives in the north of Cameroon, in a remote village near the troubled Nigerian border. It is a rocky desert area, one of the poorer parts of a country, where more than fifty percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
I talk to him on the telephone. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully. William is a football player, although these days he doesn’t play much anymore. His most important goal is to pay off the debts that his family incurred for his trip to the Netherlands in June 2007. One year earlier William was scouted by a local football ‘agent’, as they are known in Cameroon. William was playing in the second division, dreaming of a contract with a European club. It is either this, or winning the lottery. There are not many other ways to become rich in this part of the world.
When training on the scuffed field just outside the village, he would often see men hanging around watching the football players. Some had connections abroad. One day, William tells me, he was approached by a Cameroonian man named Antoine Ginen. He said he had contacts with FC Volendam. William had never even heard of FC Volendam. But the important thing was that Volendam was in Europe. He was happy, not just for himself but for his entire family. Because they would share the wealth. Like they would share the costs: 3500 euros for the brokerage – three times the average annual wages. For this amount, William was promised a permanent contract and an income. Not a bad investment. Various family members contributed their savings. With an extra loan, William finally managed to scrape the amount together. There was a big party the night before he left. The entire village came to see him off and wish him all the best on his journey to a golden future.
A contract in Europe, the ultimate dream. Sometimes it pans out, usually it does not. It is the success stories that we hear about. But what happens to the African football players who don’t make it? In West African countries like Ghana, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, everyone knows someone – a cousin, a brother, a neighbourhood boy – who became the victim of a football agent or someone pretending to be one. They take advantage of the pipe dreams of young football players and promise them a contract with a foreign professional club. The boys are usually poor and unschooled and have no idea what they are getting themselves into. Some are still minors. The agent often asks for financial compensation. An amount between one and five thousand euros. The family goes deep into debt. Once in Europe (or Asia), the agent does not make good on his promise. In some cases, a player is just allowed a try-out, and is then left to his fate. In other cases, the agent has lied about his connections altogether and the club knows nothing about anything.
According to the football associations , the trade in young football players has largely been curbed by stricter regulations. However, based on dozens of interviews with victimised football players, agents, “middlemen”, representatives of players’ associations and the FIFA, both in West Africa and in the Netherlands, we conclude that this is not the case at all.
Jean-Claud Mbvoumin, founder of Association Foot Solidaire, an organisation devoted to stranded football players, estimates that even today some fifteen thousand young African football players a year are being lured from their country under false pretences, ending up in Europe or Asia illegally. Our investigation reveals that clubs and agents come up with all sorts of constructions to bypass existing regulations and to bring players into Europe without the knowledge of the monitoring bodies.
There was no contract waiting for William on his arrival in Volendam. He was allowed to train with the players, he tells me. Not with the regular players, though. He had to train separately. Once in a while, on an evening off, the club would organise an outing, but usually William would spend his evenings in his scantily furnished room. There were two other boys like him. They too were being tried out. One was from Cameroon, the other from South Africa. After months of uncertainty the verdict was returned: none of them had won a contract. The rooms that the club had organised for them had to be vacated. William called his agent, but he no longer answered the phone. He appealed to the club for help, whereupon the management told him that FC Volendam was not responsible for how he should proceed from here. This is the way William tells it, anyway; a spokesman for FC Volendam states that the club does not recognize Wiliam’s interpretation of the events.
‘Many football players are illiterate; they have no idea what they have signed or that they are being cheated’
William was at his wits’ end. Then the players decided to send out an SOS to the African community in Volendam. A Cameroonian man tried to help, but he only had room for two to offer. Until this day, William does not know what happened to the third football player. It took William a couple of months to borrow enough money from his family to be able to buy a ticket home. In April 2008, he flew back to Cameroon. He reported his agent to the police. With no result.
William is lucky that he was able to return home. Many of the players who do not make it are forced to stay in Europe. A large number of them live on the streets. There are no precise figures, but it is certain that it involves thousands, of which a large part are minors. A few years ago, Association Foot Solidaire reported being in contact with some eight hundred football players in Paris alone, all of them abandoned by their clubs or agents, and trying to survive on the streets. England, it is estimated, illegally houses some five hundred stranded football players.
In Tiko, a village in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, football is the number one sport. On a field near the small village centre, the village boys gather daily to play football. Around the field are palm trees and a few wooden huts. In the distance one can see Mount Cameroon, the highest mountain in the country, covered in mist. If anyone spots a “white man” at the field, they all put their best foot forward. Because, who knows what will happen? Their biggest idol is Eyong Enoh, a football player from Tiko, who has made it all the way to Ajax, Amsterdam. His portrait is everywhere, often between the photos of Nelson Mandela and the Cameroonian president. One of the boys tells me that he named his son Enoh, after the great football hero. His nephew is called Eyong.
Ngembus Burnley is the founder of Volunteer Cameroon, a small NGO devoted to the youth of the village. Unemployment is high and there are not much future prospects. This makes the boys on the football field more vulnerable to football agents. “As soon as they hear the word Europe, they can’t think clearly anymore. An agent can tell them anything. It is also difficult to judge whether someone is reliable. If a football player has had a bad experience with an agent, he won’t say anything to others. For shame or because he doesn’t want to become known as a snitch.”
Lydia Monono’s son Frances has been in Europe illegally for years. She knows that he is having a very difficult time and is visibly emotional. And yet, she does not want him to come back to Tiko. “Finding work here would be impossible for him, and we can’t support him. I encourage him to stay in Europe. That’s where the opportunities are. I pray that he will soon find work that pays a good salary. As a football player or something else.”
“In Tiko, I played in the first division,” Frances tells me over the telephone. “I was scouted by an agent who promised me a contract with a Romanian club. The try-out went well, and they offered me a contract. But my agent wanted more money. I begged him to sign the contract. I just wanted to play football and, for me, this was a golden opportunity. I could make a career for myself. But my vote was not heard in the negotiations. The club finally withdrew.”
Following his family’s advice, Francis set about to find a team on his own. Without success: “I’ve been wandering through Europe for four years. Now I live in Paris. Sometimes I can sleep on someone’s couch, but usually I sleep on the street. I have no work and no money. The winters are especially hard. And yet, I don’t want to go back to Cameroon. People there don’t understand. They think that once you are in Europe, it is easy to become rich. It’s hard to explain. I would be seen as a big failure.”
It often happens that a contract goes wrong because the agent wants more money than the club will pay. Maurice was abandoned in Amsterdam after a trial period with Ajax. We meet in a kind of lounge café in the chaotic Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. A Nigerian sitcom blares at top volume on the TV. Maurice has put on an orange football shirt, especially for the interview. Quietly and somewhat shyly, he tells his story. From the early age of thirteen, Maurice had been taken under the wing of a Nigerian who saw great talent in him. To buy his loyalty, Maurice was given presents, football shoes and, every now and then, money. In the summer of 2004, when he was seventeen, it was time to collect on the investment, and off they went, to Europe, to find a lucrative contract. “We wandered through all of Europe,” says Maurice, “first to Spain, for which I had a visa, then to France where I could try-out for RC Lens. Nothing came of it. Then we went to Ajax. My parents knew nothing about this. They thought that I was only going to Spain. They were not told about it.”
He was allowed to train with Ajax for a month. The training went well. But then he suddenly had to move to a different hotel. His agent was angry because Ajax did not want to agree to all of his demands. Once he was settled in his new hotel, Maurice could no longer reach his agent. “I had no money and didn’t dare go out alone. I spent more than a week, terrified in my room. Luckily, the receptionist was of African descent. She made sure that I was not thrown out on the street. I had no money to pay the bill. She found out my return ticket was still valid and paid for my transport to Schiphol. That is how I finally got home. Without her help, I don’t know what would have happened. I’d rather not think about it.”
It is not easy to arrange a contract for a player from outside the European Union. Especially if he is a minor. In the last few years, the FIFA and the UEFA have tightened the regulations in order to prevent the trade in players. Maarten Fontein, Ajax’s former director and more recently director of ADO Den Haag, is a friendly middle-aged man who has been active in the football world for years. Through his job at the European Club Association (ECA), he is involved in the organisation of international transfers. “If you look at the statistics, the number of African and South American players in the European matches is very high,” he finds. Abuse was obvious in the past. “It often happened that a club would bring in twenty or thirty young boys, in the hope that one of them might succeed,” says Fontein. “Normally they were give a two or three months trial period. Usually, a club would then indicate that they weren’t interested. And what happens with a kid like that, no one knows. One thing is sure, they don’t want to go back home.”
Thus, the UEFA and ECA decided to ban international transfers of juniors under the age of eighteen. This is only allowed in certain exceptional situations. To reinforce this measure, in 2009 the FIFA set up a committee to check international junior transfers: the Transfer Matching System (TMS). Fontein: “Each junior transfer is now done through a computerised system. The club that contacts the boy must examine all of the parents’ papers. The football association in the country of origin must be able to hand over these papers. They are checked and assessed by twelve judges worldwide. I am one of them; up until now, I have rejected 25 percent of junior transfers. Usually, because the boy’s background was not clear. This is a testimony to the necessity for this monitoring body.”
The TMS does not only apply to junior transfers. All international transfers are now carried out through a digital database, with the clubs and football associations of both countries submitting all the relevant details regarding the player and the transfer. In this way, the FIFA can maintain an overview of the transfers and a player cannot be sold “through the backdoor”.
Has this solved the problems? According to David Mayebi, there is still a long way to go. The chairperson of the National Syndicate for Cameroon Football, a partner organisation of the international interest group for professional football players FIFPro (International Federation of Professional Footballers), acknowledges that regulations have improved but that there are still many loopholes. “The Cameroonian football association is required by the FIFA to check all details before a player is allowed to go abroad. But corruption is a big problem in our football association,” he says on the terrace of a luxury hotel in Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital city. “Everything is for sale. The federation still allows football players to leave without knowing where the boys will end up. The association is not primarily thinking of the interests of the football player.”
Jake Marsh is a researcher at the International Centre for Sport Security, an organisation that operates as a watchdog for the integrity of the sport, and investigates, among other things, the trade in African players. During a telephone interview, he stated that he is happy with the Transfer Matching System, but that there are still ways of getting around it. For instance, it does not apply to trial periods: “Say you are an agent, and you want a sixteen-year-old to be tried out at a European club. This is outside the remit of the TMS. Nobody is responsible for the supervision of the players that are being tried out. A player’s only official registration is with the airline company where he purchased a ticket and the embassy where he signed for a visa.”
According to Jake Marsh, “remarkably little research has gone into this. There are almost no figures or statistics anywhere to be found. That’s because when you want to address this situation, you touch upon the issue of human trafficking. And because that is a crime, it’s something for governments to address. In fact, it’s an international political problem. But for the politicians it belongs in the realm of sports, and so it’s the FIFA’s responsibility. Both assume a passive attitude, and as a result little or nothing is being done.”
Roberto Branco Martins, lawyer and director of the Dutch association for player agents Pro Agent, is sometimes approached by foreign agents who call to say that they have a real talent, but no Dutch passport. “How can we get around this?” they ask. “I never get into this. I am a lawyer and cannot give advice that is in conflict with the law. ”
” The problem is that the clubs that are willing to talk to ths kind of person. But they have a responsibility too. Today, again, I was approached by some academy in Nigeria wanting to collaborate with a Dutch club. Dutch clubs have an obligation to investigate the credentials of the people they work with. And clearly this doesn’t happen as often as it should.”
On a dusty field between sand-coloured blocks of flats in Accra (Ghana) the Barcelona Soccer Academy holds its training sessions. The local football academy has no connection at all with the Spanish club, but the name appeals to the imagination. The coach is Michael Kwame Boamah, a man in his twenties, dressed in a colourful tracksuit. He stands in the middle of the field. Around him groups of young boys, varying in age from nine to seventeen, run after the ball. Chickens scratch in the dirt nearby. “We fund the academy by selling the players,” Michael says. “Last year a number of scouts came from Belgium. They gave us new balls and football shirts. They were particularly interested in the younger players, starting at age thirteen. I expect them to return soon. Then they will take some boys along for a test. Hopefully, we can sell some of them.” The young players are enthusiastic, in any case. Twelve-year-old Prince Bwatin does not need much time to think about his greatest dream: “Playing for FC Barcelona.”
This type of local football academy fills a key position in scouting African players for European clubs. There are even European clubs that have started their own academy in Africa: the Feyenoord Academy in Accra and the Tamale Utrecht Football Academy in the Ghanaian city of Tamale. At these large academies, the football players are given good professional coaching and they attend school. But things are not organised this well everywhere. As of recently, all football academies in Ghana must register with the football federation, but this is difficult to check. According to previous estimates, in Accra alone there are five hundred illegal football academies. Usually this kind of academy is no more than a football field somewhere along the side of the road. It is at these locations that European and African scouts, the dodgy agents and the “middlemen” pick out the talented players, in the hope that they can sell them. In an interview with Reuters in 2013, Jean-Claud Mbvoumin, the founder of Association Foot Solidaire, said this is the Transfer Matching System’s main weakness. “The TMS only looks at the registered clubs and academies, while eighty percent of the academies are still not registered. The TMS, therefore, cannot supervise this.”
Accra is crawling with men who hope to get rich by selling a football player. In many cases the football players have signed a contract through which they literally become the property of their agent. It is a lucrative business. Blessing owns a number of football players as well. He is an imposing figure. He wears a white suit, gold jewellery and Ray Ban sunglasses. Blessing is willing to show the field where his football players train. In a shiny black SUV, we drive to a suburb of Accra. We get out at a blackened piece of ground adjacent to a mountain of garbage. Blessing sees himself as a welfare officer. “Look at the conditions that these boys have to play football in. It’s terrible. I offer them a chance at a better future. Here, as a football player, they will never earn more than 150 euros a month. And that is tops. On the way back, Blessing makes an offer: “You write about football. With your contacts in the Netherlands and my football players, we could do good business. Think about it. You could make a lot of money.”
‘Sometimes new boys come to the field. You can see right away that they are in trouble. It’s something about their posture.’
Anthony Baffou is the founder of the Professional Footballer Association of Ghana, associated with the international players’ union FIFPro. In his little office under the football stadium in Accra, he tells me that it is important to increase the players’ resilience through better schooling: “It often happens that when a player is sold, the agent keeps a part of the salary. Normally, an agent receives a five to ten percent commission of the transfer sum. But there are many agents who have an additional contract with their players, claiming a part of or even all of the player’s salary. Many football players are illiterate; they have no idea what they have signed or that they are being cheated. They are simply happy to play football. There are agents who have their players play for years with a European club without paying them. I get many of these cases. This is why the FIFA has been working on introducing the “Books and Boots” programme. By focussing on educating the players, we can make sure that they at least know how to read their contract, and not just sign it.”
Joe Debrah, football journalist in Accra and trainer of his own team, tells me that the scouts want their players as young as possible: “Most of them are scouts from South Africa, Spain, Italy and Portugal. If they come here, they organise a tournament to select the best players. They are looking for boys between twelve and fifteen. If they are exceptionally talented, they take them with them to Europe.”
The junior tournaments in Europe are a popular place for clubs to pick up new talent. An example in The Netherlands is the Kwaku Festival. But the Scandinavian countries are an especially important gateway. A big European junior tournament is the Danish Dana Cup. “The large number of African football players present makes the Dana Cup the ultimate place to be for scouts and agents,” says journalist Debrah. “You see, if they see someone they like there, the player is already in Europe and has a Schengen visa. And then there are always agents who try to use a backdoor. They approach a player in the locker rooms and try to convince him that they can arrange a contract for him. These agents are often middlemen without a licence. Collaborating with other, more established agents, they try to place players with a club. If a club is seriously interested, they send the player back to his own country to settle the transfer through the official channels. But the danger is that a dishonest agent cannot sell the player directly. He will try to do so in various European countries such as Norway, Sweden, Belgium or Cyprus until the visa expires. The agent will then abandon the player. The federation is by no means always aware of such cases.”
Jacob Klins Martin, a Ghanaian players’ agent, works from Ghana. He is regularly approached by European agents looking for African players. In The Netherlands he works with Goal 4U Sports Management BV. He mainly does business in Sweden, Denmark and Italy. “If a club wants a player to come over, they’ll send an official invitation. This is needed to arrange a visa with the embassy. If the invitation comes directly from the club, the club will provide a return ticket and lodgings for the player. But often the club does not want to send the invitation. In that case, a private individual, usually an agent, sends the invitation in a personal capacity. That is a tricky situation. Because the club has not sent the invitation, they are not responsible for the player’s return.”
“Usually these European agents want money from the player concerned or from their African agents before they send the invitation,” Martin says. “This makes it difficult to assess their intentions. It is possible that this little bit of money is all they want and that they won’t show up when the player arrives at the airport.” Martin shows me an invitation from an Italian agent asking him to transfer five hundred euros. “See, there is no mention of a club in this invitation. And he doesn’t pick up when I call him. It is possible that he won’t even show his face.” Despite the risk for the player, there is no reason for Martin to turn this deal down: “If it does become a deal, I can make lots of money with this. I can’t afford to miss out on this.”
And the there are the fake agents. They usually present themselves as an official agent carrying a FIFA licence, and they approach football players via social media. They work with fake invitations from European football clubs and make football players believe that they can arrange a test with one of them. In exchange, they ask for a lot of money. This happened so often in the UK that the Manchester City club now warns potential victims of this.
Thierry Onono is a victim of one of these fake agents. He too wears a football shirt especially for the interview. We sit outside at a busy pub in Douala (Cameroon). Every now and then a lizard dashes past. He frowns when he starts to tell his story. He was approached by an agent in 2009. Not through social media but at his team in Accra. “After the training session, a Ghanaian man came to see me. He said that I had talent and could earn lots of money, so I was immediately interested in what he had to say. He could arrange a team for me in the Netherlands. I was not the only one. He had picked up boys from various teams in Ghana to form a new team. At the one team he had found a defender and at another a striker, etc. There were fourteen of us in total. We each had to pay him five thousand euros. I borrowed from family members. I have a poor family, but everyone contributed something. The idea was, of course, that I would become rich and be able to do something for them in return. The agent bought the tickets and arranged for the visa. He knew someone who worked at the embassy.” (The Dutch embassy in Africa cannot confirm this.)
“When we left for Amsterdam, he said that the plane was full and that was why he was not coming with us. He would take the next flight and told us to wait for him at Schiphol. When we arrived in Amsterdam, there was no one to pick us up. We had no idea where to go, we didn’t even know how to find the exit. If you arrive in a country where you have never been before, it’s not easy. We slept at the airport that night. The next day we continued to wait but our agent didn’t arrive. I didn’t have a return ticket and I didn’t have the money to buy one. I thought, I can’t go back like this, my family gave me all that money…. Like the others, I decided to stay in Amsterdam. I ended up in a neighbourhood where there were a lot of Ghanaians. There I met a boy who had gone through the same thing. He decided to help me. He knew how difficult my situation was. I could sleep on his couch. I tried to find a club, but I didn’t succeed. I only played football with some boys on the street. I heard lots of stories of the same kind there. I realised that if I stayed in the Netherlands illegally, I could never play football again. My visa had almost expired and the boys there advised me to return home. I had to borrow money from my family again for a ticket. That was the hardest part.”
Figures from the KNVB (the Dutch football association) show that the number of players from outside the EU in the Dutch league has decreased in recent years. In the 2010-2011 season there were 24. In the 2014-2015 season there were only twelve. According to Will van Megen, head of legal affairs for the FIFPro, this decrease is mainly due to the economic crisis: “Clubs simply have less money to spend. They cannot pay the top salaries.”
National football associations use different guidelines on a national level for foreign players. In comparison to other European countries, for Dutch professional clubs it is difficult to sign a player from outside the EU. The work permit needed to sign a non-EU national requires that the player be paid a salary of at least €414,000 if he is twenty years or older. For eighteen and nineteen-year-olds, it is €207,000. In addition, the player must be able to demonstrate that he has played high-quality competition matches before.
But these regulations only apply to transfers. For a test period, a player is not permitted to receive a salary, and a tourist visa suffices. A club is always interested in testing a player. Who knows? There may be an undiscovered talent that can be resold for a huge profit.
As early as in 1999, it became clear that clubs are not always sticklers for rules and regulations. The labour inspection office found players from outside the EU without a valid residence permit at six Dutch professional clubs. A number of them had tourist visas and a number of them had no papers at all.
A case involving FC Utrecht offers proof that clubs deal with the rules in inventive and creative ways. In 2011 the club contacted Roberto Junior Fernandez Torres, a player from Paraguay. FC Utrecht felt that the legally required salary for a non-EU player was too high and invented a construction to reduce this to a level acceptable for the club. Unbeknownst to Torres, his player agent agreed that, in return for a sponsorship contract, he would supplement the salary up to the level of the legally required amount. In this way, FC Utrecht complied with the requirements on paper but, as the KNVB arbitration committee judged, in reality it was a sham construction. Van Megen of the FIFPro thinks one can assume that this occurs more often: “Usually this kind of construction is not a single event.”
On a small football field in the Amsterdam borough Bijlmer everyone knows exactly what I am talking about when I ask about stranded football players. Despite the more stringent regulations by the FIFA and the KNVB, this is not a phenomenon of the past. Most boys know someone with first-hand experience, or else they have heard about it.
It is 10:30 on a Sunday morning. Each week, boys from African, mostly from Ghanaian origin, play football here. A number of them play football for fun, a few have higher ambitions. Or had. They wear coloured vests. Orange and yellow. The regular spectators consist of friendly elderly men who sit beside the field and discuss their week. The colourful, loud and cheerful company contrasts with the desolation of the location. To the left is a car park surrounded by fencing. To the right, asphalt and a number of grey blocks of flats.
Stephan, one of the football players, tells me: “Sometimes new boys come to the field. You can see right away that they are in trouble. It’s something about their posture. They are usually offered food and help by the other boys. We never ask what has happened. That’s too painful. They are ashamed. The African community is strong. If we see someone like that, we help. The church often helps as well.”
He himself was abandoned by his agent in Egypt. He was supposed to sign a contract with a club there. It all went wrong, and then his agent suddenly disappeared. He wandered the streets for months. The Ghanaian Azis, a former football player himself, regularly encounters new (potential) victims. “Last year I saw a number of Ghanaian football players who had done a test for PSV. No one got a contract. They were then brought to Belgium. What if they don’t make it there? Now they are completely dependent on the benevolence of their manager. That is a huge risk.”
Coach Odo, a smiling Nigerian in his fifties, trains his team of Nigerian football players on FC Amsterdam’s field. From the fields you look out onto Amsterdam Arena’s imposing structure. Coach Odo’s players are all somewhat older. A little further down young children play. A Surinamese man is busy taking notes in a book. He turns out to be a scout for Vitesse (a club in Arnhem). “Before, players were being dumped in Amsterdam all the time. This doesn’t happen so much now. But it still happens,” says Odo. “Not so long ago, I ran into a group of Nigerian football players stranded in the Netherlands with no money or lodgings. They were very talented guys and they had been playing at a high level in Nigeria. They were very young, too, not even twenty. They stayed here for eight months, while the Nigerian community took care of them. Now one of them plays football in Qatar. I don’t know what happened to the rest. I fear the worst. I always advise these boys to go back home.”
The names of a number of football players have been made anonymous to prevent any possible damage to their further football career.
This investigation was partially funded by the Fund for Special Journalistic Projects and Free Press Unlimited’s Postcode Lottery Fund