Football and human trafficking: urgent action needed to halt exploitation

Football played on dry pitch
Human Trafficking Africa

Every year around 15,000 people are illegally trafficked into Europe having been promised the chance to become professional football players. The problem has worsened in recent years, as leagues from other parts of the world attract investment, meaning footballing opportunities are made increasingly available in Asia and the Middle East. While it is exciting to see new talent emerging in these leagues, human traffickers are presented with more opportunities to profit.

The experience of former Watford midfielder, Al Bangura, made people aware of the horrors many young players from Africa face in their efforts to become professionals. Originally from Sierra Leone, Bangura was trafficked for sex and forced into male prostitution in the UK, having travelled from Guinea with a man who promised to help him achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Personal testimonies highlight the systems traffickers have in place to extract thousands of dollars from the families of young men in return for trials with professional clubs in Europe. In many cases they are abandoned in European cities with no scout or agent waiting for them. In even worse cases they are trafficked for sex or slavery.

Football is only a small cog in the larger machine that is human trafficking, but European clubs are complicit in the system and there’s so much more the sport can do to eradicate it from the game.

In 2014, FC Barcelona were handed a year-long transfer ban and fined $509,000 after FIFA became aware of the improper signing of young players from outside of Europe that had been going on since 2009. It transpired that Barcelona were not alone in their breaches of the rules on minors and many other Spanish clubs had been similarly negligent. This meant children had been allowed to travel to Spain to join football clubs without their parents and without being registered with Spain’s football federation.

While it was right for FIFA to punish Barcelona, it showed just how badly football’s governing body understood player movement, and how prevalent ignoring the rules had become. Football’s governing bodies need to consider the message it sends to traffickers when they see that children can be flown to Europe without parental supervision or proper registration.

Part of the problem is that there is no obvious route into the world of professional football. In the USA, college sport is seen as the chance for young athletes to make the leap from amateur to professional. However, the lack of clarity on how footballers can achieve professional status creates an opportunity for fake agents, academies, scouts and human traffickers to profit.

Covid-19 has only made those who are exploited by traffickers more vulnerable and the need for urgency on the issue is more evident than ever. Up to 20 million jobs could be lost on the African continent due to the pandemic, and trafficking thrives during times of economic instability. It’s also a worrying reality that protecting trafficked footballers who have arrived in Europe may be a very low priority for governments.

While it’s a complex issue, there are clear opportunities for the European footballing community to help prevent the cancer of human trafficking spreading across the game. Clubs need to offer education on the issue of human trafficking and develop an understanding of young players’ relationships with their agents and query the origins of players. Governing bodies need to offer clubs mechanisms to report crimes and improve the laws surrounding the movement of players whilst investigating and punishing those who break their rules more frequently.

Moreover, there is an opportunity for a more global and comprehensive solution to the crisis. Ini-Obong Nkang of Nottingham Trent University has suggested that measures to improve the standard of the leagues around Africa could make young players safer by reducing the attractiveness of a much-desired move to Europe, and as a result, retaining them on the African continent. In turn, he argues that this approach could help to prevent the exploitation of young footballers by dishonest agents, helping to make football a tool for development in Africa.

There are organisations working to prevent sport-related human trafficking such as Mission 89 and It’s a Penalty who educate and propose solutions to the issue of trafficking. However, with the full and active support of European football clubs and governing bodies, much more can still be done to stop the exploitation of young men who fall into the hands of human traffickers.

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