A hard-hitting book, “Magic system: African footballers and the modern slave trade” tells the story of the newest type of human trade: that of African footballers who are ready to do anything in the hope of getting to Europe.
In their book, “Magic System: African footballers and the modern slave trade,” the journalists Christophe Gleizes and Barthélémy Gaillard explain how the dream of becoming a professional footballer in Europe is pushing thousands of young boys to set off on a dangerous adventure of migration. Along the way, the journalists recount that they often fall in to the hands of chancers and swindlers with no scruples who pretend to be football agents but actually operate like human traffickers. The journalists spent over a year traveling across West and Central Africa in order to gather testimony for their book. One of the journalists, Christophe Gleize spoke to InfoMigrants about their investigation.
InfoMigrants: Every year 6,000 African minors attempt to become professional footballers in Europe. Can you start by describing why they dream of becoming footballers?
Christophe Gleizes: Not all these 6,000 have the same
motivations of course. That’s why we have tried to categorize them in three
kinds of prototypes. The first is the talented player, the second we call the
average player and the third category is the untalented player, the “zero”. The
talented player is of course the exception. He will be picked up very young,
pre-adolescent, by the best European clubs and will have access to the best
football academies in his own country. His career can quickly take off and
climb very steeply because lots of people will be interested in him precisely
because they stand to earn huge amounts from him.
Then there is the average player, which is the majority of the players we are talking about. They are not usually footballers who have migrated, but rather migrants who play football. That means that they see football as their way to reach Europe. But given that the competition is so strong there is not much chance of being spotted. For most of this category of footballer all the methods we outline in the book are used, especially falsifying their ages. You need to understand that about 90 percent of African players will lie about their age in order to make themselves more attractive on the market and in order to get into the local academies. If someone is actually 19, if they say they are 15 then they will be much more attractive.
Finally there is the untalented player the “zero.” He plays just like you or I but he will be ready to risk everything, come what may, in the hope that he can get to Europe or somewhere else and will be able to survive doing odd jobs. What I found united all three categories of players is the strength of their dream. It is this belief which always pushes them that bit further in order to achieve that dream.
IM: So some do live the dream but then often, as you say in the book, that dream is destined to “easily break into little pieces at the sight of a few notes.” There you are talking about fake agents who try and recruit these young people. How far would you say they should be seen as traffickers?
CG: They are totally traffickers; because they send these
kids along tried and tested unofficial routes which are nevertheless well oiled
and full of useful contacts, just like diplomatic networks, so that they can
easily obtain visas. It works similarly everywhere but each route will have its
own specificities. In the book we speak about a young man from Guinée-Bissau.
Even before he arrived in Portugal, he had been granted Portuguese citizenship for instance.
IM: So in that case was it the authorities in Guinée-Bissau who were complicit in making sure he got the necessary papers?
CG: The authorities are sometimes complicit, sometimes lax, and sometimes they simply have the wool pulled over their eyes. You can’t put everyone in the same boat. But for example in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) you will find a kind of parallel universe of offices alongside the Congolese football federation. There is the bureau which fights to combat the falsification of players ages, a kind of identity trafficking. In this office you will always be able to find a ‘black sheep’ who will make sure you get the documents you need. If you are granted a visa in the embassy, that is not to say that the whole embassy is corrupt, but that one person, who was able to get all the paperwork through, was.
IM: How do these fake agents approach young people?
CG: In every African country there are scouts who work for an agent. They are tasked with combing their local areas and scouting out the best possibilities. We heard about one Spanish agent, based in Madrid, who worked with a French-Malian HGV driver who managed to rip off five children.
So that is how it works. You arrive in the area, you dress well, shrug on a good jacket and you carry some false headed notepaper with maybe the Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain crests on them. You go over to speak to five small players, and you fire up their dreams. You tell them that they could be the next Cristiano Ronaldo and that they will take Europe by storm. It seems even 16-year-olds are still impressed by that kind of talk.
IM: But then they need to get money to start the whole process off…
CG: It is often the parents who start seeing dollar signs in front of their eyes. They are often the ones who will push this decision and they are often blinded by the sight of money. I’m not making generalizations here. In Mali for example, they say that having a footballer in the family is like owning an oil well. So if they are told their child is good, parents are excited by the prospect of future earnings and they are ready to gather together significant amounts of money in order to get their child to Europe where they can start earning. Parents will remortgage their house or sell land or ask everyone in the village to lend them money in order to pay the sums demanded by the agent. We’re talking about 2,000 or 3,000 euros. This is the kind of money which is someone’s entire life savings. It puts enormous pressure on the children too because everyone will know them in their village or local area and an enormous amount of people will be counting on them. If the player does succeed, then the agent will earn a percentage of his transfer fee, for example a million euros in Greece, then the player might be transferred to Belgium for 3 million etc. The player’s value is built on the transfer fees and they criss-cross continents in search of more money.
IM: But what happens to those who don’t succeed or never manage to get into the big clubs?
CG: Football is a very competitive game. There are plenty who try and very few who are actually anointed. Those who don’t succeed are just abandoned in appalling conditions or are left to eke out a miserable existence. Some ‘agents’ will just disappear, pure and simple. Some of them will confiscate passports and identity cards from young players. Some will keep them on ‘standby’ and provide accommodation in insalubrious places whilst they hawk them around football clubs in the hope they will get in to one or other of the clubs for a trial. Portugal is really well known for this kind of situation where young players can be permanently on “standby" waiting for trials.
IM: Some arrive with a visa but others will arrive illegally…
CG: Visas are difficult to obtain. Many of the players will follow the classic migrant route in the hope of being able to play in trials once they get to Europe. For example, the region around Paris, L’Ile-de- France is one of the biggest hunting grounds for talent scouts in the footballing world. If you manage to play for a small club in Ile-de-France then you have a good chance of being spotted if you are good. There are also certain grounds in Brussels where migrants will meet up and play, knowing that there could be scouts coming to their matches.
IM: In your book you also talk about the situation for young players in Casablanca; some of them are also playing at certain grounds in the hope of being spotted. Is the Maghreb then sometimes the target of the journey for players?
CG: Well let’s just say that the blinkers often come off their eyes by the time they get to Morocco. It is one stage on the journey and a kind of holding place before they get to Europe. The Moroccan case is very particular.
IM: Can you tell us a bit more about this situation?
CG: Well if you are a young guy from Ivory Coast for example, Morocco is one of the few countries which will grant you a three month visa. In Morocco, the level of local football could be compared to the kinds of structures that they have in Latin America. Players receive salaries, there is a possibility of growth and to participate in both European and African competitions. But once their visa expires then the players then become illegal immigrants.
IM: Do fake agents use the internet to recruit?
CG: Absolutely. They often have a Facebook page or an internet site which might be more or less professionally done. There you will find a contact number. The Facebook page will probably show some idyllic images, false photos, and will tell you that if you pay say 4,000 euros you can take part in three months of training with the best coaches in the world. It is false publicity. Even the most useless ‘Zero’ player can take part if his family is able to raise that kind of money. What he might face in reality is a series of traps instead of training. Most likely he will be asked to share dirty living conditions with 15 other people with no possibility of getting his money back.
IM: You also say that for many, Europe is a destination with no return journey…
CG: Yes, for those who are ripped off or don’t succeed. Just to give you an idea, I would say that around 70 percent of players don’t succeed, perhaps more. I am talking about people who have been pushed to their limits and for whom it is totally impossible to return because they have been ruined and cheated and betrayed. Being betrayed by someone is already huge for these youngsters at 16 and can have a very damaging effect on them. In spite of everything, many of them will continue to be transported by their hopes of a better life. They hope that they have enough talent to get them out of the dire situation in which they find themselves. So they refuse to give up and it is at this moment that they are easy prey for criminal networks.
IM: Europe is not the only destination…
CG: Europe is their kind of Eldorado. It is a bit like hoping to make it in Hollywood. But if you get offered Bollywood you might accept a job there and then end up playing in Asia. One of the big transit points for these young players is north Africa. If they don’t make it to Europe there are all manner of different destinations which open up. The destination will depend on the skill of the player.
IM: A coach at a club in Kinshasa said that he doesn’t have the means to keep his players at home. Why?
CG: This is a huge problem which is down to the incompetence of many local football agents and their corruption. But you have to understand that this disorganized state is also tolerated and in some ways encouraged, in a round-about way, by the European clubs. In Abijdjan in Ivory Coast, you have 400 “dustbin” academies that are academies in name only, but are the entry point for this whole journey. Most of these so-called academies just trade in misery, but sometimes they are also backed by professional clubs or have agents attached. European clubs need to stop thinking of Africa as a supermarket where they can help themselves from the shelves without paying the bill.
IM: So what can be done?
CG: They need to allow the local footballing structures to develop and to sign up to the football economy. For that to happen, European clubs need to start paying retainers to local clubs who are essentially training and growing their future talent for them. That money would offer players maybe 500, 600 or 700 euros. That is nothing compared to a salary of the big footballers like Neymar. But that would stop some of these players making snap decisions to try their luck in Europe. That would help them bring in money for their families and then to leave with the correct papers and a transfer properly signed, instead of setting off on these risky journeys which often take them nowhere.
IM: In your book, Saer Seck the President of the Senegalese football league, says that African footballers are the best salesmen for that European dream. Do you think these big African stars who have made it have a responsibility towards younger players to tell them about the problems they could face and do you think they could make them more aware?
CG: I would agree that they need to talk about this issue a bit more and encourage young people not to just up and leave on these journeys. As far as I know, they really haven’t spoken out loudly on this subject at all. Practically it would be like saying: “Look at me, with all my riches, my wife, my car that I’m constantly posting on social media, definitely don’t do what I did because you will never get there.” You can see why it would never work. And even if they did say something, these young people believe so firmly in their dream that it is mind-blowing. I found it hard to believe just how convinced they were in the possibility of success, even when they weren’t brilliant players. They are ready to do anything in order to succeed and will endure any sacrifice necessary.
IM: You talk about the organization Samilia which does try and make young people aware of the dangers…
Yes, there is one really interesting part in the book where one of the members of this organization asks a group of young people, who amongst them is hoping to get to Europe? Every single one of them raises their hands. Then they try and explain to them the kinds of problems they will face, that perhaps only one out of the whole group might succeed and that the others will end up in Libyan prisons or being cheated time and time again. And even after hearing that, do you know what these young people do? They look at each other and they ask which one of them might manage to succeed. And the one who does succeed will be the next perfect salesman beamed out on televisions every weekend, the new brand ambassador for the European dream.
The book: Magique système, l’esclavage moderne des footballeurs africains, is available in French. It is published by: Éditions Marabout.
Translated from French by Emma Wallis. The article was published in French on September 12, 2019.