According to a BBC investigation, this past February, 23 underage footballers from Africa were imported from their respective countries to play in Laos. The investigation claims that Champasak United, the club in question, had planned to develop the players and then capitalize on their sale or trade. IDSEA Champasak Asia African Football Academy is the unregistered academy partnered with the club in Laos. The players are mostly from Liberia, but also Sierra Leone and Ghana. Some of the players in question were even as young as 14 years old.
FIFA regulations restrict recruitment of players under 18 years old to clubs or academies.
Multiple players have reported that the work conditions were rigorous and their living quarters were overcrowded. Players stayed in dimly lit rooms and slept on old worn out mattresses.
One of the players, Kesselly Kamara of Liberia stated, “It’s hard to live in a place with no windows. It made sleeping very difficult, because you are thinking about your life.”
The faux contracts the players signed claimed to provide a monthly salary of $200, living accommodations and three meals per day. These provisions were not provided as frequently as promised or in most cases, not at all.
Pressure from FIFA released 17 of the players from their contracts. However, six players have decided to remain at the academy and take their chances.
Since Liberia does not have a football academy of their own, the young players were desperate to develop their skills. Often promised a celebrity status and financial riches, young players are eager to begin their careers and provide for their families. This is unfortunately the case in many African countries.
The former Captain of Champasak United, Alex Karmo, is a Liberian himself who has since left the club. From the perspective of a young Liberian player, the absence of their own academy coupled with the recruitment and promises of a fellow countrymen would make an easy decision. These agents can make anywhere between $3,000-10,000 per player.
It would, however, be a serious oversight to assume that this practice occurs only in these West African countries or on the African continent.
“Today we have criminal activists threatening world football and the young players, so it’s important to work together. Fifa will have to be on top of this battle,” says Jean-Claude Mbvounim. Mbvounim is the founder of “Foot Solidaire”, an anti-trafficking organization advocating for young players in Africa.
The organization estimates that as many as 15,000 young African footballers as young as ten years old are trafficked out of and within the continent. He states that one of the main difficulties is simply determining and distinguishing what is professional, amateur and recreational levels.
Foot Solidaire currently offers advocacy services to young players in Africa and is beginning to operate in the same function in France. It is planned to be known as the “European Network Foot Solidaire” and expand to other countries in Europe such as Spain, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Italy.
The efforts of his organization have certainly gained traction and publicity internationally. In April of last year, perennial powerhouse FC Barcelona was found by FIFA to have violated rules regarding players under 18 and were in turn sanctioned and fined. While the severity of cases involving underage players cannot always be compared, the fundamental principle of protecting the young footballers reigns paramount.
– The Borgen Project
Sources: BBC 1, Friday Magazine, BBC 2, Play the Game