Human traffic: Africa's lost boys

Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 9:14am

It has been a starting point for some of the world's top soccer players.

As youngsters, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka all played in the Mondial Montaigu youth tournament in France.

Known as "Mondial Minimes," the 40-year-old competition is contested by under-16 national teams over Easter, with an event also held for club sides.

Leading French clubs Lorient, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes, Montpellier and St Etienne are all involved this year alongside another lesser-known name -- Foot Solidaire.

Its a team that will showcase the very best of Africa's talent, but which also aims to open young African players' eyes to the risks of seeking their fortunes in Europe's top leagues.

The team has been put together by Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS) -- a Paris-based charity which campaigns against the dangers of the trafficking of young players by unscrupulous individuals; be they former players, businessmen, lawyers or unlicensed agents.

"I've heard a lot about less ethical agents bribing parents, and I have no doubt about the methods," one agent, who asked not to be identified, told CNN.

"I know of agents using the parents' ''money weapon' (promising them untold riches), kind of 'selling' the player to an agent or organization.

"How many times was I offered that option? Not only agents though. An agent cannot do anything without a club at end of the line."

The movement of African players to Europe is long established.

European clubs generally regard African players as athletically and technically gifted. Arguably just as importantly, they are relatively cheap to develop, with the added potential that clubs can make a large profit if they are sold in the future.

For the players, the idea of becoming of a professional footballer in Europe holds the promise of a better life for themselves abroad and their families back home -- if they are not discarded by clubs and left to fend for themselves.

Smuggling players

CFS's founder is Cameroonian Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, who has already helped hundreds of youngsters return home after they were left stranded in Europe.

Often they have been brought to Europe on an illegal passport, frequently taken first to eastern Europe, where it is easier to arrange a visa before moving them on to Western countries.

Mbvoumin estimates each year as many as 700 youngsters leave Cameroon alone to seek a professional career.

But if the club doesn't sign the player the youngster is left to his own devices as to how he returns to Africa.

"To bring young players to this tournament is a very good experience for them," the 39-year-old Mbvoumin, who played for a number of lower league French clubs, told CNN, as he explained the reason behind entering in the Montaigu tournament.

"Very few can become professionals and our goal is to explain how hard to become is to do so. It's important to dream, but they must realize how few players there are in the professional world."

At one stage CFS was monitoring nearly 1,000 boys dumped in France.

It believes these youngsters were taken from hundreds of football academies in Africa -- ones that don't recognize basic child protection issues -- by clubs desperate to unearth the next Yaya Toure, Michael Essien or Claude Makelele.

"When I brought players from Africa -- either for trial or on a contract -- I always faced a huge problem: visas," added the anonymous agent, referring to players over the age of 18 rather than minors, as he detailed the complexities of such transfers.

"And I am talking of a period when things were easier, that is, 10 years ago.

"I visited consulates with players trying to get a visa -- and I had to present the proper paperwork such as invitations and return tickets, etc. -- otherwise the player's application would not even be considered."

However the agent said he did once manage "to smuggle" a player out of his home country Cameroon.

"He had already gotten a visa -- the Italian consulate would only grant a tourist visit once a year -- so I had to find a way to get him out again," the agent said.

"Yaounde being a modern airport I decided to fly from Douala, where the lights at the airport were dimmer. It was an amazing experience because in order to get to the plane we passed through four security controls.

"The last one was at the plane's door -- and lights were stronger than in Yaounde -- and I had made a 'change' on his stamped visa. We managed to pass this last obstacle anyway and the player made a reasonable career."

Money, money

Foot Solidaire's team for this year's Montaigu tournament is made up from players from Cameroon. More than 500 players have been assessed since January, before their 25-man squad was selected.

Those players, who have been preparing for the tournament at a training camp in Nantes, came from as many as 100 training centers in Cameroon, which have all signed up to CFS's objectives to protect the young players who are being trained.

Its charter is designed to provide the players with the best possible training environment, and it recognizes world governing body FIFA's regulations as well as the United Nations Convention on Human Rights.

Mbvoumin estimates CFS is working with as many as 2,500 players -- this on a miniscule budget of just over $100,000.

"We don't have salaries and we rely on volunteers," he said. "We have a very important network of partners and we rely on very small donations. But we need help -- our organization has been in existence for 13 years.

"Football can just be business, business and money, money. People forget about education and the protection of young players -- football should not be above the law."

Mbvoumin recently featured in a documentary film called "Soka Afrika" that traced the journey of two African footballers -- South Africa's Kermit Romeo Erasmus and Cameroonian Julien Ndomo Sabo -- as they attempt to fulfil their dreams of playing professional football in Europe.

At the age of 18, Erasmus signed a professional contract with Dutch club Feyenoord, though he is back now in South Africa with Supersport United, where he is the team's captain.

Sabo was trafficked to Africa as teenager after he and his family were promised "riches beyond their imagination," before he was abandoned in Paris.

"Ndomo has been a bit off the radar for the last few weeks," said Sam Potter, managing director and chief executive officer of Masnomis, the production company behind the film.

"But following a series of injury setbacks he and (Spanish club) Deportivo La Coruna -- where he eventually signed in 2010 -- agreed to terminate his contract last year.

"He is still signed up with Octagon sports agency and they are hopeful of finding him another club in Europe for next season."

Potter said Mbvoumin and CFS " work tirelessly on a shoestring budget to provide support and education to vulnerable and exploited young African footballers", despite a lack of interest and funding from the wider football community.

"I have had the privilege of working with Jean-Claude in the making of Soka Afrika and I would say that he is a genuine hero -- working for little reward beyond his love of the game and, more importantly, his deep respect for the human rights of all men, women and children."

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