Every four years, I look forward to the World Cup. It's the one time where my small country, Portugal, commands a little respect on the world stage. But this World Cup is different... I know too much.
Over the last six months, I've been investigating a particularly heartbreaking scandal for a Current TV documentary called Soccer's Lost Boys, airing next Wednesday. The story took me from the dirt soccer pitches of Ghana to the migrant ghettos of Morocco and finally, to black market soccer games in Paris.
It's estimated that 20,000 young West African players are currently stranded throughout Europe--trafficked there by predatory agents who snatch them off the fields of Ghana and Senegal and Cameroon promising contracts with big European teams and then abandon them when those tryouts either don't materialize or don't go well.
Jean Claude Mbvoumin, one of the few advocates trying to help these kids through his small Paris-based organization Foot Solidaire, told me that 70 percent of the tryouts that took place in France last year were "uninvited," meaning that--like door-to-door salesmen--these agents just show up with a player--or three or 10--from parts unknown, hoping to get them in front of coaches. Not surprisingly, this approach leads far more often to heartbreak and suffering than to the fame and fortune promised these youngsters.
If you're reading this in the US, you may not be aware of what big industry soccer has become. Money on par with the salaries in the NFL, NBA and MLB are being paid to players from around the globe to play for teams in the UK, France, Italy, Spain. Soccer, or "football" as the rest of the world knows it, is the most global of sports and these days, there's perhaps no bigger market for promising new players than Africa.
Over the last decade there's been a surge in the number of Africans playing at big European clubs. To take the top English league for example, in 1989 it had only four players from Africa, all of them white Africans. In 2009, the league had 60 African-born players, nearly all of them blacks from West Africa. A handful, like Didier Drogba from the Ivory Coast or Michael Essien from Ghana, have risen to become global super stars and fabulously wealthy in the process. These rags-to-riches stories now serve as inspiration for thousands of young African boys who see soccer as their way out.
But the same desperation that drives many young Africans to pile 70 people in a fishing boat meant for seven to make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe, also makes them easy targets for unscrupulous agents, conmen and other unsavory characters. At the embassy of the Ivory Coast in Rabat, Morocco, the consular general pulled out a thick blue book--like an accountant's ledger--filled with the names and faces of young footballers who had been scammed and abandoned in Morocco. I stood in shock as page after page of young African faces stared back at me. My initial worries that we might be stretching some isolated, anecdotal cases of player trafficking into something bigger vanished on the spot. This problem was real--and real nasty.
I like to think of this story as an African Hoop Dreams, although a similar story could be told from South America or even Eastern Europe. Anywhere in the world where a passion of football is paired with the desperation of poverty, the conditions are ripe for the exploitation of young talent. As South Africa hosts the World Cup--the first African nation to do so--it's important that people realize that the growing popularity of European leagues around the globe has come at a cost.
The reason that FIFA, the governing body of the sport, has decided to hold the World Cup in Africa for the first time has nothing to do with the beauty of safari Africa--featured so prominently in ESPN's promo package--with its epic vistas and silhouetted giraffes. The passion for soccer in Africa lives in less picturesque places, like the war-torn Ivory Coast and the coastal slums of Accra. The World Cup is being held in Africa because the future of soccer is very much entwined with the future of the developing world.
The trafficking of young African players may be news to soccer's many millions of fans, but it's an open secret among those who oversee the sport. A few years ago, Sepp Blatter, FIFA's president, even accused top European clubs of "social and economic rape" in their search for new talent in Africa. But despite those harsh words, little has actually been done.
Now that FIFA is raking in billions of dollars in TV rights and sponsorships from the Cup in Africa, perhaps it's time to give a little back. The most popular sport in the world shouldn't be turning its back on thousands of its own.
Soccer's Lost Boys premieres on Current TV Wednesday, June 16 at 10/9c. For more go to current.com/vanguard.
Follow Mariana van Zeller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarianaVZ