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Category Archives: Child Trafficking in Football

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