As darkness begins to descend and the warm sun recedes deep into the thick woodlands that dominate the highways of Northern Ontario, the buoyant atmosphere at the back of our team coach represents a hive of excitement in an otherwise peaceful landscape as we celebrate a job well done and prepare to kick back and enjoy the night ahead. As we dismount the coach heavy legged but in high spirits, there is an unmistakeable sense of accomplishment in the air, vividly evident in the waves of back and forth banter between the players and our rather satisfied coaching staff. Better yet, a subtle swagger has been injected into our stride as we parade the iconic University of Toronto emblem emblazoned on the chest of our track tops as we wait to be seated at the restaurant. We are on the homecoming leg of a long weekend on the road up north, with the occasional cheers to a ‘6 point’ weekend alluding to our impressive performances against the most awe-inspiring of backdrops deep in the Canadian shield. Complete with my captain’s armband, I am on a roll – scoring goals, receiving the plaudits and controlling games as we steamroll anyone who dares to block our path as we seek to retain our much cherished title. Far from the hustle and bustle that is part of daily life in the relative metropolis that is downtown Toronto, it has been a road trip that would compete with any in North America.
As an over-worked waitress patiently lingers at our table amidst the deafening chorus of celebratory chanting, excited laughter and the customary dissection of our winning goal, I am acutely conscious of the fact that I am living in what will one day become the ‘good auld days’. In a brief reflective moment, I can even envisage myself reminiscing with my grandchildren about my playing days here and no doubt with a generous hint of exaggeration, excelling in Canadian soccer! But with the dull echo of a phone ringing in a crowded room, I was about to be awakened to the privilege which defines my current existence in a most humbling manner. As I stared inquisitively at the unknown number displayed on my Blackberry, little did I know that the young man on the other end would have such a profound impact on me and ‘my’ way of being in what had become ‘my’ world. In an attempt to block out the boisterous shenanigans of the guys on both sides of me, I cupped the phone to ear and answered somewhat hesitantly with a ”hello’..?’. Without pause, the young man replied, ‘Hello Mr. Darragh’, before pausing momentarily as he awaited my response with great interest. Still oblivious to the owner of this softly accented voice on the other end, I apologized for the background noise before asking, ‘who is this?’. And just as the waitress somewhat ironically lays a piping hot fresh Hawaiian pizza in front of me, the young man replies with much anticipation, ‘It’s Asamoah the ‘crazy Ghanaian’! You remember me, right?’.
And with that, I genuinely feel the room come to a stand still – frozen in time and space as I struggle to articulate a coherent reply to the young West African man on the other end. As I glance at the small clock striking 8pm in the corner of the restaurant, the possible reasons why Asamoah has called me violently bolt through my mind. And then it hits me… At this moment in my life, I become more aware of my privilege than at any point previously. Here I was sat in the relatively luxurious surroundings of the Canadian countryside reaping the benefits of my expensive education and modest athletic talent before being momentarily catapulted across continents into a tiny unfurnished apartment in the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. Here was a young footballer who knew what it meant to ‘be trafficked’, how it felt to live on the streets, and how the harsh reality of poverty, homesickness and unfulfilled sporting dreams felt at 2am on a Monday morning. Asamoah knew how it felt to have his body become nothing more than a cheap commodity to be bought, sold, bartered over and ultimately discarded when it was no longer deemed as being ‘talented’. I felt sick to my stomach and immediately began questioning whether I had crossed the line.
I had always been very honest with my research subjects about what I could do for them and had never encountered any problems before now. Where did Asamoah even get my cell number I asked myself. Regardless, there was a much bigger issue of my ethics here. How would I address ‘the situation’ I thought to myself before realizing that this was the very problem itself. Before this moment, I had only understood child trafficking as merely a thing – as an abstract global problem detached from the very real human beings who suffered in the process. I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, and of hypocrisy as I cast my mind back to conferences where I was labelled an ‘expert’ on the topic. I was no fuckin’ expert! Quite frankly, I was out of my depth as I sat here fumbling about what to say to the brave boy on the other end of the phone. I had just had a glimpse into a world apart, one where my academic credentials meant nothing to a young footballer who had lived through the unspeakable suffering that I merely babbled on about in front of over-educated audiences at conferences. Where was the courage in that I challenged myself. Had I betrayed the ethical basis of my research and was I merely exacerbating the precarious situation that these African footballers found themselves in? Whatever way I looked at it, I now had a young Ghanaian boy who believed in me, who trusted me and who had few others to turn to as he contemplated his existence on the streets of one of Europe’s major cities.
Back up three short weeks and I was sat in the elegant surroundings of La Place de le Bourse – one of Brussels most picturesque monuments – as I waited for a young Ghanaian footballer I had arranged to meet at 4.15pm. Equipped with my laptop, recording device and a pathetically self-centered desire to achieve ‘my’ goal, I was deeply immersed in a period of fieldwork traveling across Belgium eliciting interviews with football agents, politicians and anti-trafficking agencies as I sought to understand how young footballers from African countries are trafficked into Europe. As I look around surveying closely anyone who appears to be under 20 years old and of West African origin, I ponder where we may conduct the interview if he is willing to talk. Given my commitment to ensuring the boy’s identities are kept concealed, it appears best to let them choose a location in which they feel safe and comfortable talking about their personal experiences. Before long, I spot what I believe is my man – a young Ghanaian footballer by the name of Asamoah – as he crosses the busy afternoon traffic in the city’s center. As I reach in for a firm handshake, I am greeted with an unmistakably friendly smile and a politely delivered, ‘Hello Sir’. With that, I attempt to get straight to the issue at hand but before I can ask Asamoah if he has a location in mind, he suddenly declares in his deep West African manner, ‘I’m starving brother! Lets go to Pizza Hut’. I break into laughter at his honesty and happily agree.
Having made the most of the ‘All you can eat lunch deal’, It isn’t long before myself and Asamoah have consumed our body weight in fresh pizza! Now sprawled across the seats in our corner booth, Asamoah suddenly bemoans what he terms his ‘African disease’. Feeling somewhat alarmed at his mention of disease, I, just like so many white westerners before me, immediately presume that he’s referring to HIV Aids as he gestures in a helpless manner and stares blankly at the remaining bits of pizza crust on his plate. Before I can muster a compassionate reply, he resumes in a frustrated tone, ‘Everyone has it in West Africa… it takes over your life! This disease we have makes us do anything for the game of football. Every boy in Africa wants to play professional football. It is our dream, but it is also our disease. We will do anything for it… anything!’. Realizing that Asamoah views football as being his disease, I decide that I will resist commenting, instead letting him formulate his thoughts on how football has shaped his existence.
Following what feels like an eternity but in reality was probably a few seconds, Asamoah opens up about the clubs he has played for in Europe, angrily suggesting that ‘there are so many evil men… they steal your family’s money, steal your dreams and steal your identity. We paid everything we had to my agent but even that isn’t enough for these greedy people. You may wonder why I am left here living rough, training on my own and trying to find a new team, but what choice do I have. I cannot go home now. I cannot look at my mother and father and tell them I have failed. I must make it work. That’s what I must do now’. Recognizing the steely determination and deep self-belief in his eyes, I cannot help but wish I had the capacity to become a sports agent, to develop an ethical agency which could advise, educate and provide a medium on which young African footballers could safely pursue their dreams of playing in Europe. However, snapping out of my ambitious daydreaming, I helplessly resume listening to Asamoah’s harrowing stories.
Knowing that Asamoah had played for a small club in the lower divisions of Belgian football, I asked him about his experience there. With a shake of his head, he says, ‘I did everything I could… there was just so much dirty dealing. When my agent told me about the club, I was very happy and wanted to play for the team and score goals so that I could get a transfer to England. So I signed a contract even though I couldn’t understand the Dutch language. I was told that my agent would get 7% of my wages but that didn’t happen. They had two contracts, one they gave to me and the real one that went to the Belgian Football League. The real one said that I got 7% of my own contract. I was scammed by the guy. He betrayed me and I tried to complain but the club said they would cancel my contract if I said anything. Then it all went wrong as I got injured after that. I’ve been injured for a year now and have no club anymore. I am training on my own to get a new team when I am healthy again. I have been phoning agents to get a trial with some teams soon. I am still hopeful’. While admiring Asamoah’s optimism, I am now slumped in my seat unable to comprehend how this 19 year-old boy still has the drive to succeed in an industry that has exploited him, scammed him and left his body damaged again and again. Knowing that his body is his only exchangeable currency, I am left fearing for Asamoah’s future as we go our separate ways.
Transporting the story back to the restaurant in rural Canada as I grapple with my own self-guilt, I manage to muster a response to Asamoah, ‘Hey brother! Of course I remember you. How are you doing now?’. Expecting a troubling response, I nudge the guys to let me out from our booth so that I can at least hear him speak. Before I can even get away from the table, I vaguely hear something about a ‘new team’. ‘What..? I couldn’t hear you’ I reply. ‘I got a new team!’ I secured a contract last week with a professional team in Germany’, he repeats in a voice filled with excitement. And with that, I cannot help but fall silent. I am perplexed and unsure what to say. ‘Asamoah, that is… that is great news!’ I reply with a subtle but palpable sense of pessimism. ‘Yes sir it is! This is it now for me. I will go there and make the big time, I am sure!’ he says confidently. And in an expression of undeserved appreciation, Asamoah thanks me for taking an interest in him before suggesting that I come to play in Germany with him soon. As our conversation comes to its conclusion and I sit outside staring onto the peaceful calm of the lake water, I am left feeling somewhat empty. I am clearly delighted for Asamoah but cannot discard the lingering feeling that he is re-entering a world which can crumble around him without a seconds notice. Has Asamoah just returned to make a deal with the devil? Only time will tell… As I return to my seat in that little restaurant, I am only too aware that I am surrounded by close friends, good food and an uneasy feeling that I must do so much more for young guys like Asamoah…