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Author Archives: Darragh McGee

About Darragh McGee

I am currently a doctoral candidate studying for my PhD in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto. In 2009, I departed Irish shores and became part of a vast and expansive Irish disapora which reaches all corners of the North American continent. Before arriving in the multicultural metropolis that is Toronto, Canada, I received my Masters Degree in the Sociology of Sport from Loughborough University (UK). My central areas of investigation pertain to the study of sport and physical cultures; most notably the intersections between human rights, advocacy and sport, the relationship between sport, national identity & diaspora communities, children & high performance sport, corruption & exploitation in sporting structures and sport & social inequality. My current research investigates the nexus between the phenomenon of trafficking, child labor and the realm of sport, with a specific focus on the process wherein adolescent West African boys are identified, recruited, and all too often trafficked under the auspices of a professional football career in Europe. In seeking to understand the exploitative network underpinning the illegal movement of young footballers, my academic inquiry encompasses extended periods of fieldwork across the European and African continents. Previously, my research accomplishments have explored the socio-cultural and political significance of football on the island of Ireland, highlighting the precarious status of young athletes amidst the ethno-sectarian conflict which continues to influence the Northern Irish sporting landscape. I am principally dedicated to the production of critically oriented, empirically grounded studies of sport subcultures, advocating the need for qualitatively based ethnographic modes of inquiry. In crossing boundaries between athlete, activist and academic, I advocate the importance of an ‘investigative’ orientation to sociological inquiry which seeks to probe beyond the consumerist ideology of contemporary sport to pursue accountability, sustainability and equality across the athletic spectrum. In possessing a research sensibility which is interventionist, policy driven and politically committed, my motivation in establishing this blog is to transfer potentially valuable knowledge beyond the confines of the university setting.

The Dog Day’s Are Over! Trust Me…

Let it keep, the moment on a muggy late afternoon in late May 2012 as I inhaled deeply, glanced down at my left knee, and fought off any remaining doubts still residing in the innermost corners of my psyche. Rewind, see me in full stride, arms pumping vigorously, left leg driving me on as I bolt around the final stretch of a dilapidated athletic track in the blast-furnace heat of late April in Accra, Ghana. Keep going; see my tentative progression to the point of running as I laboured along a dirt road bordering a luscious mango plantation teeming with ripened mangoes as the sun rose over the green canvassed mountains. See me battling my way through gruelling strength routines at sunrise and sunset each day in early March as I rebuilt the structural integrity of my lower limbs. Keep rewinding, see me gingerly climb aboard the US Airways flight departing from the biting cold of late February in Toronto. Finally, rewind to December 2011, and to the peaceful serenity of Massey College on a crisp winter morning as I grimaced in pain at the mere thought of moving my immobilized left leg – still firmly clad in heavy duty bandages – off its stable position on the bed. I would repeat the same routine each morning, staring blankly at the washroom door in the far corner of the room, preparing myself for the drama that would ensue as I shuffled, staggered, hobbled, and limped my way across the soft carpeted floor. Such a petty undertaking represented more of a herculean challenge during the immediate post-surgery stage, where my days were filled with lessons on crutching technique, me drifting in and out of a drug induced slumber, and the unrelenting routine of applying ice to my ‘newly repaired’ left knee.

In looking back from afar, these really should have been the darkest days in my recovery. There was the throbbing pain emanating from the surgical incision points above and below my left patella, the immobilization of spending entire days amidst the puffed up pillows on my bed, and the sense of helplessness which had besieged my daily existence. But I didn’t want for anything. Despite being hundreds of miles from my family in Ireland, I was overwhelmed by abundant supplies of love, care and support. The unwavering generosity of the Fraser family is a testament to that truth as I began my rehabilitation in the midst of their loving family. There was rarely a dull moment in the Fraser household, where one’s chances of survival depend largely upon the possession of a sharp wit, a fondness for sarcasm and an appreciation of the sanctity of family life. Then there are my therapists, Jacqui and Marcel, whose compassion and emotional support ensured my spirits never lagged. Indeed, my daily visits to Marcel’s self-proclaimed ‘healing zone’ became a cherished source of amusement and bemusement in equal measure. As a duo, they are a force to be reckoned with! From Marcel’s vast experience, to Jacqui’s infectious enthusiasm and unyielding belief in me, I was literally in the best hands in the business. And then there was Saba, in whom I’d openly confided about the full extent of my fears, the depth of my heartbreak and the nagging doubts that threatened to shatter a self-belief which had rarely been tested to this point previously. From her eagerly anticipated daily visits, the lazy afternoons spent watching movies together, to all those lonely late night excursions to satisfy my latest ethnic food cravings, Saba never once faltered. It has often been posed to me that as human beings, we learn most about ourselves and those around us during moments of hardship, suffering, or personal anguish. I certainly emerged from those early weeks with a new understanding of how kindness and compassion for others makes us distinctly human. Thankfully, the unrelenting monotony which characterised the hours, days and weeks in my immediate post-surgery period would soon recede, allowing me to focus my energies on the challenges that lay ahead. The first step would be the quest to walk again. Underpinning everything, however, would be the need to trust again.

Trust. It makes the world go around. It defines us as human beings, enables us, inhibits us, and forms the bedrock of our relationships with others. It is the social glue which structures and governs human interaction and its deficiency or absence so often leads to the breakdown of those relationships, communities, societies and even nations. It is this same notion of trust that has presided over my recovery process with supreme authority, acting as an internal barometer of my physical and mental state, always in flux and finely attuned to the ebb and flow of my rehabilitation process. As I seek to walk the fine line between pushing my body to the limit in the name of rehabilitation and the potentially disastrous possibility of re-traumatising my left knee, it is this shifting sense of trust that guides my judgement at all times. So often, it has revealed itself as that subconscious voice confirming or dismissing the possibility of one more rep, one more lap, or indeed with me, the wisdom of a second or third daily trip to the gym! In the early days, there were countless moments when I became overwhelmed by the risk of performing a new exercise – an occasion which was usually met by a peculiar blend of sensitivity and muted laughter by the therapists as they watched me wrestling with the idea of progressively complex movements, increasing weights and the need to believe in myself; in my knee.

My bi-weekly progress assessments usually unfolded with a similar pattern. I would demonstrate my total mastery of the previous exercises, before a standoff would ensue as I dramatically refused to perform the ‘crazy’ progressions outlined by Marcel. Sat nearby, Jacqui was always on hand to offer gentle encouragement, no doubt while fighting back an outburst at laughter at the sheer hilarity of my objections. As absurd as it sounds, I revelled in the drama of those moments, which provided me with a sense of belonging, of being with ‘my team’ – Jacqui and Marcel – who were ‘in this’ with me as we plotted the next chapter in my journey. Such a feeling of companionship, however short-lived it may have been, nevertheless afforded me a fleeting escape from the isolation and seclusion of long hours spent alone in the gym, on the stationary bike or in the ‘wee hours’ of darkness as I lay awake following the latest onset of night terrors – the most common of which involved my left knee crumbling into a pile of ash as I performed a one-legged squat! Before long, however, I would begin to notice seedlings of progress. The swelling receded around the incision points. I detected a hint of muscularity in my left quadriceps as it flickered on and off like a faulty lightbulb, and soon my crutches became redundant as the severity of my limp regressed to a point where I no longer had to experience the demoralising sight of pensioners float by me as I shuffled along the sidewalk. A few weeks passed by, I was walking, albeit with a gait which failed to conceal the fragility of my confidence, or the presence of a slight micro-bend in my knee – a safeguard against the lateral knee pain I had been experiencing on full extension. Gradually, I began to blend in again, opting to leave my crutches at home in the hope that no one would inquire about the condition of my knee, about whether or not I would be returning to play, or how sorry they were that I wasn’t on hand to lead the Varsity Blues at the National Championships. I craved the normality of old, to be free from all the sympathy, the commiseration etched on the faces of well-wishers as they saw me crutching my way through the campus, and the luxury of relaxing amongst friends minus the whispering winds about ACL tears and typical recovery rates.

Despite such niggling issues, my recovery was progressing at quite a rate – a fact that can be largely attributed to a Christmas season in which a compulsory serving of ‘rehab’ was on the daily menu! My mum has always been incredibly supportive of my footballing exploits and while I may have harboured romanticised thoughts of a luxurious festive season spent enjoying home cooking, the idea was soon shattered. ‘Darragh, its 9am son!’ she announced bearing an unmistakeable message as I smothered my body in the blankets and hoped my silence would buy a few extra minutes in the warmth. A brief silence would ensue. I would occasionally be lured into a false sense of hope before the clunking sound of footsteps on the mahogany stairway meant that we had reached the next stage. ‘Darragh, son… Aren’t you going to the gym this morning?’. Knowing the silent treatment was not an option a second time, it was time to unwrap myself, shake off the drowsiness and get myself downstairs. Day after day, a similar interaction played out, at one point even leading to a breakdown in maternal diplomacy! Alongside my sister, Ambre – who conveniently has an honours degree in Physiotherapy – I had a ‘new team’ for the Christmas period and this one certainly didn’t tip toe around the issues at stake. ‘Well it’s up to you, son. If you don’t want to be back in time for next season, it won’t bother me’ mum declared as she probably winked to my sister. Either way, I had heard enough. I was dressed, in the car and over the hills by the time these words had left my mother’s tongue! Over the course of my three weeks in the hills of Donegal, a day didn’t pass in which I failed to complete something resembling a rehabilitative session. By the time the festive period had passed and a prosperous New Year begun, I sensed myself gaining momentum. And so, I said my goodbye’s, departed home shores and returned to Toronto a man who had fully accepted his mission. Indeed, as bizarre as it sounds, I might even admit to enjoying the challenge, had it not been for the persistent niggling doubts about the bigger picture, the quest to play again and of course, my imminent departure for research fieldwork in West Africa.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Injury Journal

 

Tales from the Field: Village Life in Eastern Ghana

Sunset at the Right to Dream Academy

Elevating my drenched torso an inch of the mattress, I repeatedly flapped at a fly who appeared determined to torment me through the night, refusing to give up on the prospect of settling on my sweat-sodden neckline. It had been a night in which sleep proved to be an elusive luxury as I grappled with the intense heat, the unrelenting chorus of foreign sounds reverberating around the permeable structure of my tiny ‘hut’, and that feeling of self-doubt that often characterises one’s first night in unchartered territory. Considering myself quite a seasoned traveller, I have been reasonably adept when it comes to packing up my life and being plunged into the raw existential uncertainty that accompanies relocation across continental borders. Indeed, so efficient had been my adjustment to life in North America that I had recently begun to question what it is that drives me to so often swap the warmth of the familiar for this perpetual state of unknown. What is it that I am searching for within these unexplored spaces and how can I rationalise this thirst for understanding and meaning within a particular locale only to eject myself at the moment such familiarity appears to be achieved. As I lay silently studying my new surroundings in the heart of a remote village in eastern Ghana – my senses heightened by each creek, hiss and shriek – such deeply philosophical thoughts assumed a diminished level of immediate importance.

My morning alarm clock

Daybreak in the village

Daybreak was greeted by what sounded like an army of roosters perched outside my window with a megaphone as a chorus of ‘cuck-a-doodle-dooooooo’s bombarded the innermost chambers of my eardrums. I squinted at the clockface of my newly acquired Ghanaian phone as blinding rods of morning sunlight peered into my empty room – populated as it was only by a crestfallen bedframe, its aged mattress and my crammed suitcase in the corner.

It was 5.20am on Monday morning and from the indistinct chatter emanating from beyond the confines of my new ‘home’, it seemed that the local villagers had already emerged from their traditional mud huts – each finely crafted from a mix of modern construction materials counterbalanced by the use of indigenous thatched roofing and carved wooden supports. As I stretched a clean t-shirt over the sweaty residue which had generously coated my upper body and donned the first of my impressive repertoire of shorts, I thought much about how the day ahead would unfold. It would be a day in which I would commence my doctoral fieldwork at the Right to Dream Academy hidden deep in the wilderness of eastern Ghana – two hours detached from the relative metropolis of the capital city, Accra and a world apart from the luxurious surroundings of downtown Toronto.

My daily visitors

I had touched down at the Kotoka Airport in Accra three days earlier, allowing me to find my bearings while exploring the sights and sounds of the University of Ghana and its immediate locale on the outskirts of Accra. Whilst vividly apparent across the African continent, one cannot help but be struck by the level of disparity here – between an infinitely wealthy minority and an underclass whose very existence is plagued by grave poverty. In Accra itself, such disparity appeared particularly acute, where enclaves of western privilege occasionally threaten to permeate the chaotic inner sanctum of the nation’s capital, at times even casting a super-imposed facade of prosperity on the underlying layers of unspeakable hardship.

Opening my creaking wooden door and stepping out into the morning sunshine, I was about to experience the kind of traditional African village which is so often immortalised in storybook representations, but which exists unbeknown to the majority of the global population. The isolated rural location of the village, its rich traditional culture, and the surviving remnants of ancestral rituals making it a fascinating prospect for any budding anthropologist. Greeting me before I could even turn the key in my door was a herd of goats, lazily wallowing in the morning rays having slept only a stone’s throw from my bed during the night. Nearby, a vibrantly coloured lizard – his torso split between electric yellow and a cascading shade of grey – attentively watching my every move as he enjoyed the mild heat of the morning sun. I chuckled to myself as I imagined my father’s glee at the prospect of me roughing it in a rural African village with god only knows what kind of wildlife on my doorstep!

Two baby goats trying their luck!

But, before the wry smile could extend across my face, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of small boy – his dark skin hinting at his Ghanaian lineage while his lack of stature indicating that he was yet to undergo a real growth spurt. He remained perfectly still in front me, his inquisitive stare fixated on me as I came to a halt. And then, just as I uttered the words ‘hello there’, the boy whose name I would later learn to be ‘Fabu’ burst into tears, abandoned his belongings and scurried off amongst the maze of huts which dominate the village topography. ‘Welcome to Africa’, I thought as I attempted to comfort myself after such a distressing welcome from my new neighbours.

Despite the hysteria of our initial meeting, little Fabu would soon become a source of much enjoyment and comfort for me as he meticulously timed his early morning wake up to coincide with me passing his hut. Each day without fail, I can bank on Fabu being alive and kicking, excitedly jumping up and down shouting ‘Obroni! Obroni! Obroni!’ – ‘white westerner’ to you and me – and intimating with two hands that he wanted to play the ‘sky rocket’ – an improvised game in which I would propel him from his lowly grounded position to soaring high above my shoulders as he wriggled hysterically at the sheer altitude of his flight!

Little 'Fabu' awaiting my daily arrival

Such is the simplicity of life in rural Ghana that the innocent pleasures of interactive ‘play’ – a much diminished concept in Western societies – continues to enrich the lives of the children who have taught me so much about the relative nature of happiness over these past few weeks. Indeed, life in this corner of West Africa has remained largely unshackled by consumerism and the onslaught of alienating technologies, retaining in the process a distinctly human element, where entertainment, socialising and personal expression are still grounded in shared interaction, in collective gatherings and in mutual forms of enjoyment.

As I continued my gentle descent through the village towards the Right to Dream Academy school – itself an isolated exemplar of contemporary construction in the heart of eastern Ghana’s green leafy landscape – it became clear that the presence of my whiteness was by no means a routine sight for the local people. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel parallels with Mogli from the classic Disney movie, The Jungle Book as I sheepishly nodded at an elderly man whose curious gaze penetrated deep into my sense of being, my whiteness being an inescapable prism of immediate difference. In the weeks to follow, my growing familiarity with the local tribe, and particularly my willingness to embrace aspects of their life and language would earn me much respect, generosity and stimulate no shortage of comical moments as I butchered repeated attempts to replicate their customary method of transporting things suspended perilously on one’s head! But as I reached the Right to Dream Academy, I was unwittingly about to embark on a journey which, even in the space a few short weeks, has challenged me to peel back the layers of my own life and have my understanding of human nature, kindness, and achievement redefined by a group of adolescent West African boys – ‘adolescent’ being an adequate descriptor for these boys from a legal categorization only.

My route through the village

The Right to Dream Academy itself is a football academy and school in eastern Ghana having been established in 2001 by Englishman, Tom Vernon. Whilst I find it difficult to define the mission of Right to Dream in any succinct manner, the primary motivation is to offer 5-year residential scholarships to 15 talented West African footballers each year, providing educational and athletic tutelage designed to prepare graduates for a career in professional football, to secure academic scholarships to study in the US and England, and ultimately, to nurture future role models for the African continent. With over 30 graduates currently pursuing university degrees all over the world, and a growing profile of professional footballers playing their trade in European leagues, such a lofty ambition doesn’t appear beyond this inspiring little academy in Eastern Ghana.

Student residence at Right to Dream Academy

Walking into the communal, open air dining room, I was greeted by a resounding choir of chattering as the academy’s sixty-five young scholars devoured a breakfast of porridge and bananas. I immediately catch a glimpse of the cultural richness of this space, with the national flags of all academy graduates draping proudly from the rafters. The student body here is dominated naturally by Ghana but includes boys from neighbouring countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and DRC Congo. Feeling famished, I decide to discard my initial hesitation and join a scarcely populated table on the outskirts of the group, introducing myself to a collection of boys – ranging from a baby-faced boy around ten years old to fully developed teenagers complete with scruffy goatees. Receiving a collective ‘welcome sir’ and warm smiles all round, it isn’t long before I am at ease among the boys, with each of whom I share a mutual passion for football and an understanding of the daily challenges which accompany one’s desire to achieve excellence both on the pitch and in the classroom.

As I scoff down the surprisingly tasty porridge complimented by the sweetest bananas I’ve had the pleasure of tasting, the boys take it in turns to interrogate the underlying motivations of my presence at Right to Dream. Their inquiries delved deep into ‘the nature of my mission in Ghana’, about culture in Ireland, and whether I could play football – a question which inevitably aroused a tempered reaction as I continue my recovery from knee surgery. As my bond with the boys grows, I find myself increasingly in awe of their outlook on life, their unwavering kindness, and their contagious thirst for life which drives them onwards from the moment they begin morning practice at 6.30am to their evening prayer at 9pm. Needless to say I have found kindred spirits here as I engage with so many young Ghanaians who share my love of the game, who understand the integral positioning of football in my own life, and who spur me on each morning and afternoon to push myself to the limits as I pursue my own educational and sporting goals.

Game time at the Academy

As the morning sun reached its height in the sky and the boys polish off their generous helpings of porridge, a tangible shift in the atmosphere could be felt, as school bags, chattering about homework and a new urgency swept through the communal dining area. It was time to become scholars again! By the time the school bell rang at 10am, tranquility had descended across the campus – the authoritative tone of a teaching voice occasionally breaking through the calm of the late morning air. It wouldn’t be long before my own teaching repertoire would be challenged as I acquired the lofty task of teaching English to five french-speaking Ivorian boys – each of whom has developed rapidly since we commenced our assault on the English language only a few weeks back. But my teaching debut wouldn’t begin until I experienced a traditional lunch menu of spicy waakye with boiled eggs – a thoroughly Ghanaian delicacy which I have grown to immensely enjoy. In addition to waakye, my exposure to traditional fare has included kenke, kontomire with boiled yam, and last but by no means least, the delicious jollof rice with tilapia – a locally sourced fish whose many bones make for a laborious dining experience!

My morning break sabotaged!

Heavy legged from my hearty lunch, I was soon sat straight across from three Ivorian students – Diomande, Fofana and Modibo – whose prodigious footballing talents are befitting of a player twice their tender age of eleven years old. Resurrecting my patchy grasp of the French language, it isn’t long before we are conversing fluidly, the boys putting me at ease as we make a pact to mutually develop our English and French language skills. As we enter our third study week now, I am greeted with fluent English and mischievous smiles as the ‘Cote D’Ivoire gang’ roll up to brighten my afternoon as we grapple with the nuances of verbs, pronunciation and even the occasional breakdown in diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Cote D’Ivoire!

English class with the 'Cote D'Ivoire Gang'

While I possess a deeply personal appreciation of their athletic talents, I nevertheless can’t help but be inspired by the courage and bravery of these boys in general – so many of whom have persevered and thrived in spite of traumatic childhood experiences and seemingly insurmountable barriers to their achievement in education and professional football. Their maturity is incomparable to that of their European and North American counterparts, with my conceptual understanding of ‘childhood’ undergoing a radical shift as I observe the levels of self-discipline, courage and focus demonstrated by the ‘Right to Dream boys’ on a daily basis.

As the sun descended beneath the tree line on my first day at Right to Dream and I wearily typed up my field notes in the refreshing evening breeze, I mistakenly concluded that it was bedtime. That was until a staff member asked if I would be at ‘Fabu’s’ later. ‘Fabu’s?’ I replied inquisitively, wondering if this was the latest appointment which had slipped my mind. ‘Yeah Fabu’s Irish bar! he replied excitedly. ‘What!? I exclaimed while screwing up my face in dismissal of such a bizarre idea. Yeah sure, an Irish bar in a rural village in Eastern Ghana that doesn’t even have a shop or restaurant I thought to myself. ‘Come with me… you’ll see’ he replied as we abandoned the lights of the school and turned to our torches as we navigated the path through the improvised dirt road into the village. Within seconds, the unmistakable sound of live football and the chattering of a few staff members breached the air as we reached ‘Fergal’s Irish Bar’. Naturally gobsmacked, I could do little but laugh at the unlikely interconnectedness of my Irish roots and this remote corner of eastern Ghana. The proprietor, Fabu is chief of pitch maintenance at the Right to Dream Academy and established the little pub following a loan from Right to Dream a few years back. Needless to say Fabu now operates a thriving local business offering an impressive array of much sought after commodities, including alcohol, soft drinks, milkshakes and even chocolate biscuits!

An evening backdrop at Right to Dream

Fergal's Irish bar in the village

Within a few minutes, the comedic value of Fabu’s is considerably enriched as I’m briefed about the possible arrival of Enoch – an eccentric middle aged village man whose daily wanderings are thought to include the occasional alcoholic beverage. With the mythical twist that should accompany any village fable, Enoch’s bizarre and at times, ludicrous behaviour is said to have originated during his time in Nigeria where the locals say he murdered and ate a man – thus rationally explaining the split in his personalities before and after the sun goes down! Rather more worryingly, I would later learn that Enoch is in fact in charge of safely transporting us across the nearby river – itself shrouded in mysterious tales of crocodiles lurking beneath the water’s surface.

In the dim fairy lights of Fabu’s bar – the very tableau of serenity against the chirring insects, the silver moon suspended above the trees and the cooling touch of the evening breeze, I couldn’t help but feel deeply liberated from all things western, even in spite of such talk about mysterious locals and deadly local predators! As I sat pondering my location deep in eastern Ghana, my first day at Right to Dream, and my new home in the village, a cold drink at Fabu’s Irish bar seemed a fitting end to a day which promised much for my doctoral research, and more importantly, for my contribution to the future development of the Right to Dream Academy.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2012 in Research Fieldwork

 

Into the Corridors of Power: A Boy’s Tale

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‘.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2011 in Child Trafficking in Football

 

Disposable Bodies: Legacies of a Colonial Past?

Standing in the comfortable surroundings of a bustling Starbucks branch in the heart of downtown Toronto, I impatiently await the anticipated caffeine rush from a double espresso shot that promises to extend my productivity into the wee hours of a surprisingly mild night in early October. Laden with my over-worked, somewhat scruffy laptop bag, a few tattered books on child trafficking and the unmistakeably fatigued complexion that only accompanies a student-athlete at this time of year, I am uncharacteristically detached from the flurry of excited interaction and indulgent consumption which are all customary in this most North American of social spaces. Despite my wearied state, my subconscious nevertheless receives its customary bombardment from the infamous Starbucks symbol dotted amongst the elegant decor of the room. My attachment is broken only by the sight of a nearby coffee stand emblazoned with the words, ‘ethically sourced coffee’ alongside carefully crafted images of ’empowered’ West African farmers.

Setting my books on the counter as I await my coffee, I begin to unravel the parallels between the ‘ethically sourced coffee’ on the stand to my right and the disturbing image of a trafficked West African child on the cover of my book. Connecting the dots like any diligent scholar, I ponder the historical colonization of the African continent, it’s coveted raw materials and perhaps most importantly, its people. I contemplate the exploitation of South Africa in the quest for gold, of West Africa for cocoa and coffee, and as an image of Leonardo Di Caprio and the Hollywood blockbuster, Blood Diamond enters my mind, I recall the continuing destruction of the continent in the search for ‘conflict diamonds’. But, ultimately my thoughts are dominated by the single most devastating period in Africa’s history, in which the continents people were displaced from their homelands and subjected to the inhumane captivity of what has become known as transatlantic slavery. Despite my presence in a modern world which is framed around discourses of human rights, equality and social justice, it is apparent to me that that there are still living effects, seething and lingering, of a ‘pre-modern’ age which is all too often resigned to the last burning embers of a colonial past.

In thinking about the landscape of Ghana today, my mind inevitably bolts to an image of local children defying the orders of their elders as they get together to play football, blissfully unaware of their presence in the shadows cast by the many slave castles which still dominate the nation’s coastline. I can’t help but feel that their seemingly inconspicuous engagement with the game of football bears a more troubling semblance with the exploitation of the past in which a growing network of traffickers, agents, and powerful European clubs await the arrival of the next African ‘gem’. Indeed, the words of a recent interview with a rogue sports agent come to mind, in which he said without as much as a morsel of humankind that ‘football slavery exists across Africa. But Africa has long been exploited for diamonds, for gold, coffee, and even for its people, so why should child footballers be any different?‘. As shocking as they appear, his words certainly hold a grain of truth at our current juncture. But can it really be the case that a western-driven, capitalist greed has created a market economy in which living, breathing human beings are merely another ‘object of transaction’ much like coffee.

In exuding all the privilege which accompanies my current position in this world, it isn’t long before my now overdue coffee is reinstated at the summit of my thoughts and I re-emerge from my momentary period of abstract thought. Attempting to avoid the bitter aftertaste which accompanies a double espresso shot, I throw it back in one before turning and making a dash for the exit. Feeling instantly rejuvenated, I notice a middle-aged, African-American man fixated on a copy of Lawrence Hill’s famous publication, The Book of Negroes – a book which has had a profound impact on my own understanding of transatlantic slavery and the oppressive realities of black suffering from the 16th century onwards. Before the caffeine has even managed to pulse through my bloodstream, I am on route to his table and with all the enthusiasm expected of a doctoral student in relation to his cherished literature, I confidently sit myself down on the adjoining table. Eager to sound knowledgeable, I decide that a question would be the best way to break the ice, asking him what he thinks of Hill’s writing style before quickly blurting out the topic of my research so as to increase my chances of a response. However, clearly unamused by my untimely interruption, my new friend raises his eyes only for a split second before resuming his reading in a manner which tells me all I need to know. Being only too familiar with the unspeakable journey of the West African girl at the heart of the book’s narrative, I decide that its probably best that I leave this man and his book in peace.

However, just as I make a move for the exit, I feel a tug on my coat and before I can turn, the gentleman says, ‘Look son, anyone asking me about Hill’s writing style has missed the very heart of this book… This is a book that symbolizes three hundred years of my people’s death, suffering and subordination so his choice of writing style doesn’t really enter the equation for me. For a boy that claims to be fighting the exploitation of young Africans today, I would like to presume that you’d be a little more knowledgeable on the subject of slavery‘. Feeling shell-shocked at his frankness, I am momentarily left searching for words… any words at all to at least offer a response! However, determined to salvage my integrity which suddenly feels in doubt, I offer a haste reply, ‘Sir, I’m sorry if you’ve misunderstood my intentions, I only wanted to say how important the book has been to my research‘. And with that, a sweeping smile extends across his face in an expression of self-satisfaction that can only mean that he has rather enjoyed making me feel uncomfortable.

Still chuckling as I approach his table, he pulls across a chair and introduces himself as Kwame – a second generation Canadian whose father departed Ghanaian shores to work in Europe before eventually settling in Toronto in the early 1950’s. Informing me that he retains close ties with his family in Ghana, Kwame proudly declares himself as part of a relatively affluent Ghanaian population who have had the opportunity to establish a lifestyle that their ancestors could only have dreamed of. I immediately identify with Kwame’s story, recognizing my own privileged position as part of an Irish diaspora who have benefited from the toil and graft of our grandparents who lived through similar experiences of colonization, famine and sectarian violence. Seeking to re-direct our conversation to the young Ghanaian footballers at the heart of my academic endeavor, I somewhat cautiously ask Kwame whether he is familiar with the process through which child trafficking occurs in West African football.

Pausing briefly, he continues to sip on his cold coffee before offering the kind of organic insight that could only come from a man who has lived and breathed the very real challenges which face the young footballers in question here. In his deceivingly Canadian accent, Kwame says, ‘you must think about the power of history here. History does not just stay in the past but seeps its way deep into the very structure of the present. The slavery and black suffering which Lawrence Hill speaks of in this book did not end with the abolition of slavery but lives on today as the same powers continue to rape and pillage everything we have. It doesn’t matter whether its diamonds or young footballers, Africa has always been just a source of raw materials, with living human bodies being no more valuable than any other commodity‘. Before I can wrap my head around his wise words, Kwame bursts into life again, proclaiming that ‘time moves on but the poverty and exploitation will never cease to exist across the West Africa. This is what drives the dreams of young footballers and their families! The reality is that if a slave ship landed on West African shores tomorrow, even the horrors of the past would not stop thousands boarding so long as it was destined for Europe… throw in their deep love for football and you have a situation where there will be only one loser‘. In his uniquely abrupt manner, Kwame extends me his best wishes and subtly encourages me to be on my way.

As I settle back into the comfort of my warmly lit apartment overlooking the sparkling city lights of Toronto, I immediately begin inscribing every detail of my interaction with Kwame before the fruits of my caffeine-induced thought dissipate into little particles of memory. However, my attention is deflected to an international game between Belgium and Kazakhstan which has just started on my over-sized television in the corner of the room. Displaying the starting line up for the Belgians, I am awakened to a fact which has previously eluded me. After a few minutes of digging online, I confirm my suspicions that this is a recently rejuvenated Belgian nation spearheaded by no fewer than seven players of African descent, including emerging talents such as Romelu Lukaku, (Congolese), Marouane Fellaini (Morrocco), Vincent Kompany (Congolese), Nacer Chadli (Morocco), Axel Witsel (Martinique), Moussa Dembele (Mali) and Vadis Odidja-Ofoe (Ghana). As my journey into the interwoven nature of past and present colonial links enters its final hurdle before I retire to bed, I am increasingly convinced that as so often is the case, the often trivialized realm of sport may well offer an unrivaled lens through which to understand the subtle ways in which remnants of history have seeped into the very fabric of the present. As I think about the numbers of young west African footballers who have been left abandoned in former powers such as Belgium, France and Portugal, it seems that the colonial meanderings of the past may well have retained their insidious, self-serving dominance in the present.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in Child Trafficking in Football

 

A World Apart: An Imperfect Offering

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…

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Child Trafficking in Football

 

Entering the field: Child Trafficking in Football

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’.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2011 in Child Trafficking in Football

 

The journey begins…

Picture the scene… its 5am in the departure terminal of Brussels Airport on a summer morning which threatens to burst into light at any moment as the sun is summoned from its brief slumber. Still grappling with the early morning wake up and the stodgy taste of my warm coffee, I am slouched over my laptop attempting to update my fieldwork notes when I notice a rather more sprightly middle-aged man directly across from me who appears fixated on my every move. Recognizing his vividly apparent enthusiasm, I get the sneaking suspicion he is preparing for the kind of interactive interrogation only experienced in an empty airport terminal before dawn. True to my suspicion, it isn’t long before he leans forward and asks in an eager but polite manner, ‘Are you one of those crazy online blogger journalists who are always tweeting and writing stories from your travels?

I couldn’t help but break into laughter at his sudden attempt at initiating conversation before informing him that I was returning from a period of fieldwork in Belgium for doctoral research. Knowing only too well that I’ve now opened the floodgates for his impending curiosity, he quickly responds by asking about my doctoral research. And so I set off on the arduous journey of introducing my PhD project as succinctly as I can muster, explaining that my work seeks to understand the process through which young West African boys are trafficked into European countries in the hope of playing professional football. With a much more frowned but engaged expression, he says, ‘child trafficking in footballers you say…  Can’t say I’ve heard of it’. He pauses briefly, and clearly reaching the climax of his fleeting interest in me, he jumps to his feet, grabs his luggage and says, ‘you should be one of those bloggers… I’d definitely read about that!’

And so with the persuasive thrust that only a complete stranger can deliver, here I am commencing a maiden voyage into the realm of the ‘crazy blogger’. While I may struggle to live up to such a billing, I hope that this blog can become a space in which I will share my thoughts and experiences as I continue to pursue success on the soccer field, commence my PhD fieldwork and prepare to depart North America for Western Africa. While I wish to avoid defining a thematic focus for my writing, it will in all likelihood range from a platform on which I discuss my academic adventures and breakthroughs in research, to a diary where I will detail the mundane realities of everyday life in West Africa for friends and family back ‘home’ – both in Ireland and increasingly in my adopted home, Toronto. Regardless of the subject matter, I warmly invite you to engage with the material, initiate discussion and share a laugh over the stories told as I enter the realm of the ‘crazy blogger’…

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Child Trafficking in Football