With the realization that I may be running late, I decide its time to sacrifice my last slice of pizza, offer an appreciative smile to the nearby waitress and make a dash for the front entrance of the hotel. It’s the height of summer in Brussels, and as I make my way through its winding cobbled streets it is immediately apparent that this is a city of indulgence – with local beers, fresh waffles and its world famous Belgian chocolate all popular amongst the hordes of tourists lazily enjoying their early afternoon. While renowned for it’s culinary extravagance, the Belgian nation is also fanatical about the game of football – a relationship which has yielded modest success on the field of play. However, deep amongst the streets of its capital city, there are hints of a much darker, less decadent side scattered within the enclaves of young Africans who remain ‘hidden’ here. It is these young Africans, and specifically that of young African footballers who are at the heart of my interest in Belgium, which has for the last decade been a prominent destination country for unscrupulous agents and business men who trade in adolescent West African boys and their misplaced dreams of playing professional football in Europe.
Feeling nervous but deeply purposeful, I am a man on a mission – albeit one that my self-doubt threatens to end before it officially begins. As I sit patiently waiting, thinking, hoping, and ultimately doubting, I can’t help but wonder if this will be the day that I discard the all too comfortable, sheltered skin that is so often developed within the modern university today. And has a network of sports agents, clubs, brokers, business men and intermediaries really breached the very fabric of football in creating a black market for the trade of adolescent West African footballers? It is these questions which frame my thinking at this moment, not to mention that of my everyday existence as I seek to understand the complex underworld through which adolescent bodies are identified, refined, recruited and trafficked from the sandy fields of West Africa into the merciless realm of European football.
Before long, I notice the curious pause and inquisitive glance of a tall, somewhat lanky man who I will refer to as Mr. Dominic Peeters (so as to ensure his identity remains concealed). I quickly signal my presence and following a friendly smile and a firm handshake, I can’t help but discard my pre-conceived assumptions that Mr. Peeters must be a cold and cynical man given the disturbing stories of youth exploitation that he encounters on a daily basis. As I enthusiastically begin to bombard Dominic with my knowledge of the issues at hand, he interrupts only to recommend that we have lunch at a local ‘hidden gem’ – tragically ironic given the subject of our meeting. It isn’t long after the initial back and forth chit chat that I realize that this may well be the beginning of a journey – one that will take me into a world of inhumane greed, exploitation and suffering that is all too often concealed beneath the consumerist spectacle that is European football.
Despite an impatient waiter circling our table with increasing intent, I feel immediately at ease with Dominic as he routinely nods so as to offer his seal of approval as I eagerly unravel the intricacies of my research. It isn’t long before I even begin believing that I may actually be capable of navigating the risk that is implicitly part of any research exploring criminal networks and their illegal dealings. After all, I had now escaped the complacency of academia and there would be no more listening to under-prepared professors lecturing from their cushy tenured thrones for me. I had finally breached the insulated boundaries of the over-privileged, all-knowing university space and escaped into a world of lived experience, of organic knowledge not yet immobilized in time and space by the restrictive rigors of what we all too often term ‘science’. However, despite my fleeting excitement at having finally ‘entered the field’, the stories Dominic tells of abandoned African footballers living across both Belgium and nearby France ensures that my escape is momentary.
Clearly enjoying the local cuisine as he pours himself another glass of wine, Dominic gradually begins to open up, suddenly proclaiming that ‘they’re all at it… everyone is involved! Even politicians don’t want to criticize football as they sit in hospitality boxes at games. You have too many crooked people doing dirty business in football and it goes right to the very highest level. This is what you’re up against Darragh and you must be smart in this game’. Before the harsh reality of his words have a chance to register with me, he continues in an increasingly agitated tone, warning me that ‘the moment you attack the club for dealing in trafficked young players, you attack the fans and they are the problem! If the club find a ‘black diamond’ who is scoring goals for the club, who cares where he came from or how many other children were exploited in the process. People only care about goals and the success of the team’. As he continues to bombard me with the reality of the situation, I am grateful that the interview is recording as I find myself wandering off into thought about what this all means. How can FIFA sit back and turn a blind eye to a hidden trade in young footballers that is this systemic I ask myself? But, as I cast my mind back to the morning headlines attacking the ‘corrupt and sneaky Blatter’ and of ‘corruption crisis’ in football’s ‘big family’, my sense of disbelief quickly dissipates.
With the wine disappearing and only a few morsels of fresh salmon left on Dominic’s plate, I get the feeling that we are approaching the final furlongs of our all too brief meeting. Recognizing the need to extract as much valuable information as possible before he finishes eating, I frantically attempt to collate my thoughts before firing off a final question in Dominic’s direction. ‘So, let me get this straight, from what you’re saying here we have a situation whereby young West African guys are desperate to go play at a pro club in Europe and the agents and business men exploit this by claiming to offer them the chance to go. And through the dirty dealings of agents and clubs not to mention a total absence of any regulatory body, the end result is that the vast majority end up abandoned on route to Europe or left behind in Europe if and when they are unsuccessful, right?’
From Dominic’s confirmatory nodding, I assume that my outburst is relatively accurate. However, as he grabs his jacket and sunglasses, he offers a final damning verdict on the state of play as it is for these young West African boys, ‘When all is said and done Darragh, the reality here is that these African boys and their parents will trust any beggar on the street if they tell them that they can get them to a pro club in Europe… Parents are known to pay these fraudsters a small fortune to take their son over to Europe. I mean we’re not even talking about them selling their children here, they’re actually paying traffickers to take them! With FIFA not able to get their house in order and corruption rampant among the middlemen in football, you have a dirty, dirty business where everyone is trying to come out on top. The kids are just the ones who get lost in the process’. And with that, Mr. Peeters hails himself a cab, delivers yet another stern handshake and wishes me the best of luck in my travels, worryingly concluding that ‘god only knows you’ll need it son’.