Following a generous helping of freshly prepared oatmeal and the customary thrust of a morning espresso, Jean-Marie Dedecker is ready to take on whatever the day dares to throw at him. After donning his most cherished winter jacket, he adjusts his tailored suit so that it accentuates the surviving remnants of a body that was once the very embodiment of athletic power in Belgian judo. Just shy of his sixtieth year, Mr. Dedecker remains at the pinnacle of his chosen profession in Belgian politics, translating his insatiable work ethic and globally-revered persona into the chambers of the Belgian Parliament. With a reputation that precedes him, this is a man who has for the past decade consistently demonstrated the moral courage to speak up in the name of social justice. Indeed, his unwavering conviction in his own moral compass has been vividly evident at every turn in a quite remarkable career to date. This is a man who once smuggled an undercover journalist into a maximum security prison to interview a sex criminal who had not been brought to trial in six years and who Dedecker thought may have been the subject of a high-level cover up. However, with one hesitant knock at the door of his home on that cold winter morning in November 2001, Jean-Marie Dedecker was unwittingly about to embark on a journey into football’s underground economy that would put his very existence in question.
With a glance at his watch and grabbing his keys so as to facilitate his release from whoever awaited him, Jean-Marie prizes the door open with the intensity of a man who is clearly only beginning his mission for the day. Just as he prepares to deliver his most sincere apologies and make a dash for the car, he is abruptly halted – not by a sudden change of heart, but by the unexpected sight of two African boys on his doorstep with an unmistakably nervous expression etched on their young faces. Clearly startled by their presence, a curious Jean-Marie asks, ‘And what can I do for you two boys on this cold morning?‘. Glaring at each other hesitantly as if both are hoping that the other will pluck up the courage to offer a response, it is apparent to Jean-Marie that these boys are most likely part of the growing legion of West African immigrants who have fled poverty, war and ethnic conflict in their homelands for the perceived prosperity of former colonial powers such as Belgium and France. Sensing the possible restrictions of a language barrier alongside their vividly apparent nervousness, Jean-Marie elects for a softer approach as he asks the boys about the whereabouts of their parents. Without another second’s hesitation, the younger of the two boys says with the distinctive authority of a deep West African accent, ‘Sir, we are not here with our parents… They are back home in Nigeria. We are football players and we have been abused. We have come here with our agent to play but he has left us with no contracts, no money and no home. We were told that you are the man who helps people abused in sports‘. Still somewhat uncertain of why the boys have turned up on his doorstep, Jean-Marie finds himself unable to brush off their vulnerability and reluctantly invites them inside. It isn’t long before he is awoken to the existence of an exploitative trade in adolescent footballers from West African nations such as Nigeria, Ghana and the Cote D’Ivoire.
Sitting attentively in the elegant decor of his dining room, Jean-Marie listens to, and soon begins recording every detail of the boys story. Learning that his new friends go by Kofi and Ato, it isn’t long before Jean-Marie is overcome by his own rage as the boys tell stories of false promises, dirty businessmen and their recent abandonment. Emerging as the chief spokesperson for the boys, 16 year-old Kofi soon opens up about his experiences, explaining that his parents paid a businessman in Nigeria over $2’000 to facilitate his journey to play professional football at a big club in Belgium. Looking on in disbelief, Jean-Marie is silent as Kofi suggests that even his passport was falsified so as to make him younger and thus, even more appealing to major European clubs whose search for talent has gradually transcended all geographical and even ethical boundaries. Clearly yearning for his family and the sights and sounds of West Africa, tears stream down Ato’s face as he describes how he can’t return home – even if he found the money. He says, ‘My father has sold all our cattle to pay the businessman. He has put all his faith in me and he believed that I wouldn’t let him down. I can never return home to tell him I’ve failed. I will stay here now‘.
And so as Kofi and Ato continued to unravel the details of their demise within what FIFA President, Sepp Blatter routinely describes as ‘football’s big family‘, Jean-Marie Dedecker was preparing himself for a journey of his own. This is a journey which would span 5 years of his life and lead to him spearheading the fight against a trafficking network which connects vulnerable populations of aspiring footballers across Africa, unscrupulous agents selling false dreams, and a host of intermediaries, European clubs, and corrupt officials who quietly take their cut. However, his travails through the underbelly of European football would not be free of peril, as widespread condemnation, insurmountable governmental resistance to his investigations and even a serious threat to his life were soon to follow. Despite such adversity, Dedecker’s investigation amassed a body of evidence spanning 442 cases in trafficking of Nigerian footballers in Belgium alone – a figure which remains our solitary statistical evidence to this day. However, a pivotal question remained unanswered surrounding Dedeckers investigation in my mind – why did he not continue to pursue his investigations to prosecution? Why was it that his investigations didn’t lead to widespread policy reform to address the trafficking problem and why didn’t FIFA take his claims seriously enough to instigate a major investigation of their own? Such questions would remain unanswered in my thinking for several years as I navigated my way through the early stages of my doctoral work.
Fast forward a decade to August 2011 and the modest coastal setting of Ostende as I disembark a train which has transported me from the luxurious sights of Brussels and down along the picturesque summer coastline of Belgium’s Flanders region. Struggling to find my bearings as I shuffle through the afternoon crowds of tourists savoring what is left of the thriving summer season, I have traveled to Belgium in the hope of meeting Jean-Marie Dedecker – a man who I am confident may possess important answers to questions which define my daily existence as I grapple with the frustrations of my doctoral research. A decade on from that morning visit from young Kofi and Ato, Jean-Marie Dedecker remains the black sheep of the political class in Belgium, his outspoken nature even earning him his own political party, Lijst Dedecker and a record breaking assent into the Belgian Senate. However, despite his personal accolades and national prestige, I am eager to understand whether Mr. Dedecker remains invested in fighting the escalating trade in adolescent West African footballers which continues to exude all the signs which would render it as a serious form of child trafficking. As I hesitantly pay for my ridiculously expensive cab ride to the head office of Lijst Dedecker, I cannot hide my sense of anticipation at meeting a man who has been the inspiration behind my doctoral research. Indeed, as I knock on the stained glass window unmistakably emblazoned with the party logo, I am confident that today will mark the point at which my investigation would really begin.
With a warm smile and a polite ‘Bonjour Monsieur’, I am greeted by a petite blonde lady named Christine who quickly realizes that English is my preferred tongue and says, ‘you must be the young Irishman that Jean-Marie is expecting’. With a confirmatory nod, Christine accompanies me into the main office where I immediately spot Mr. Dedecker seated behind a central main desk as he intensely reads the contents of a letter. Following a momentary raise of his eyes, he is straight to his feet and on route to meet me before I reach him at the other end of the room. Somewhat startled at his sheer physical presence, I offer my finest attempt at a firm handshake but still come away grimacing in pain as my knuckles are forcibly united momentarily. As I have a seat on the other side of his desk and politely decline offers of tea and coffee, Mr.Dedecker suddenly proclaims, ‘The trafficking of West African footballers… What a dirty dirty business you’ve got yourself interested in young man‘.
Knowing that my time with Jean-Marie was both limited and precious, I decide to get straight to the point, asking about the purported threats to his life which he received during his investigation. Chuckling briefly as he recalls the events surrounding the incident, Jean-Marie says, ‘I was several months into my investigations and had built up a lot of cases and made noise about it in the media here in Belgium. It made national news as you can imagine. So I decided that I had to take my investigations to Nigeria. I had decided to meet my contact there (name omitted) as they had confirmed that there was corruption at high levels of the embassy which was fueling the falsifying of passports. And so I agreed to go investigate an Academy there that was supplying the children that these agents were bringing over here. Of course they were all taking a cut of the money, even a high ranking minister in the Nigerian government!‘ As Jean-Marie continues, I stay true to my knowledge of interviewing, being careful to remain attentive but quiet as he unravels the intricacies of this most exploitative of industries. He continues, ‘I had everything booked for Nigeria and then the night before I was due to fly, I was here at home when the phone rang. All the person said was that ‘if you dare arrive in the airport in Lagos, we will slit your throat’. I did not say a thing. I knew it was the end of the road for my investigations. Even for me, that was enough. I have had some serious confrontations all over the world, and for me, I even don’t mind a good fist fight. But this was different. This was a matter of life and death’.
And with that, I was sat across from Jean-Marie a little lost for words as I pondered the seriousness of this industry. Before long, Jean-Marie offered me some of his considerable wisdom, stating that ‘it’s not about football at all… this is about money, plain and simple. When they are involved in trafficking drugs and prostitutes, they will also get involved with trafficking young footballers if they think it will be worth their while. It’s these criminal rings who work in these dirty cases and they make a lot of money off the game of football now. They don’t care whether its smuggling birds, trafficking money or trafficking young boys, it’s all the same‘.
As I struggle to absorb Jean-Marie’s revelations, he shuffles around underneath his desk and soon produces a large box filled with files and reports. He smiles and says, ‘knock yourself out, son‘. As I begin reading and documenting the details of the files, I ask Jean-Marie whether he had any cases that were successfully prosecuted. With a frustrated frown, he says, ‘Nothing, not even one… the case of the two boys, Kofi and Ato was the most famous case as we had absolutely all the proof we needed. I had even got a confession from each of the corrupt agents involved, everything. The proof of the alteration of the boys passports, the proof of the fraudulent contracts. So we knew if we didn’t win that case, we could never win anything. Taking these cases to court cost me a lot of money and was a very slow process with solicitors etc. And we lost. We lost after we did everything. What was the simple reason..? We lost our case because after all the evidence presented, the judge asked the boys whether they were forced – physically forced to come to Europe and they said no. Because they were willing to come to Europe to play football, their complete exploitation was not a form of human trafficking. So you must be physically abducted and brought here before it will be regarded as human trafficking‘. And with that, a look of defeat was evident in Jean-Marie’s face that told me all I needed to know. Here was a man who had done everything to force through prosecutions and challenge the practice of child trafficking in football through the legal route. It was clear to me at this moment that I was now equipped with vital knowledge – knowledge that must be utilized to ensure that Jean-Marie’s incredible work would not be in vain.
The remainder of my time with Jean-Marie was spent diligently going through his seemingly endless trail of documents, evidence and email chains as he excitedly sat at my side offering his utmost assistance – a gesture I believe he provided as a way of equipping me with everything I needed to build on his remarkable foundations. As I prepared to leave Belgium and end my brief stint on the trail of evidence in Belgium, I was left in no illusion as to the challenges of researching a clandestine practice which will remain so until such time as we realize that the contemporary sporting scape is devoid of an ethical foundation which has long been eroded by the encroachment of an economic logic which has slowly but surely altered what sport will mean for the next generation. In challenging one to think about the current state of what many still think of as being our ‘beautiful game’, I leave you with the closing remarks of Mr. Jean-Marie Dedecker, who strongly believes that the corridors of FIFA hold the answers to our present challenges, suggesting that ‘with FIFA, the case is always closed before it begins. This is an organization who always face inward so as to prevent anyone seeing what really goes on. Why would they wish to do anything about child trafficking? They are living in luxury and all they are concerned with is maintaining their place there. When you are a FIFA delegate, you have 5-star hotels, eat in the world’s best restaurants, and one day they ask themselves, what else matters? The quest is merely to be re-elected… It’s all part of the system of corruption which drives our football world‘.