The global trade in young players is reaching disturbing new levels. Neil Wills details some of the cases that have led to European clubs being accused of abuse and then slavery
In June, a 12-year-old, Marco Quotschalla, was sold by Bayer Leverkusen to Cologne for £60,000. Remarkably, it wasn’t even his first transfer, since Cologne had sold him to Leverkusen just a year before. Marco’s signing caused a stir in the German media principally because he is German and there’s a sense that such a thing should not happen to a nice European child. Sadly, much less attention is paid to the thousands of youngsters who are being brought over to Europe from South America and Africa in increasing numbers with promises of big money and stardom.
There are two main methods for corralling up cheap local talent. The first involves an agent arriving somewhere suitably impoverished, holding a trial and selecting the best half dozen boys. These will typically be between ten and 14 years old, though there have been reports of boys as young as six being “spotted”. The parents, hoping their son’s ability will take the family out of poverty, sign a document releasing the child and are paid a token sum, sometimes as meagre as $20.
The second approach is the setting up of football academies. According to Emmanuel Huesu of African Soccer magazine, “youth farms” have sprung up all over the African continent, either fully owned by European clubs or, in the case of Mali, by the former African Footballer of the Year Salif Keita. Where the “farms” are owned or sponsored by European clubs, the best players are sent to the mother club. If they don’t work out, they can always seek to offload them to smaller clubs or simply dump them. It’s a very inexpensive way of maintaining a youth policy. Among others, Feyenoord own a school in Ghana, Inter have one in Argentina and Lyon are said to be investigating the possibilities in Nigeria.
Some smaller European clubs have used the fact that they just happen to be football teams to make some money out of the trafficking of children. One such case concerns Arezzo, an Italian Serie C club. Six boys, all in their early teens, were brought over from Argentina in 1999 with promises of a possible future with the club. Their life became one of training, Italian lessons and more training, occasionally being pitched in with the pros for “friendlies” to enable scouts from bigger clubs to have a look at them.
The six went back to Argentina for the holidays and quite understandably decided they didn’t want to return. The money their families were promised for the time the boys stayed at the club never materialised. In many ways, though, they can count themselves lucky. Saro Pettinato, a member of the Italian parliament and former president of Serie C side Atletica Catania, told the Clarín news website: “Someone rang me and said that his brother-in-law in Argentina could send me boys. Each one cost $5,000. He was not selling me the rights [to their football skills], he was selling me the boys themselves.”
According to George Weah, many children get no further than a trial on European soil. When, inevitably, the vast majority don’t perform to a sufficient standard, they are simply abandoned to survive in a country they don’t know, with no contacts and often not a word of the local language. Unless they come from a developed nation, no one looks out for them. Even then, it can be dicey. Twelve Australian teenagers were taken to Turin in 1998 and 1999 and then “disappeared” – it was only when the Italian consul in Brisbane was alerted to the fact they hadn’t returned that a search was set in motion.
However, every so often an Ariel Huguetti comes along. The Argentinian, at 14, was the subject of a scrap between Barcelona and Real Madrid, who reportedly offered $1 million for him this year. The prospect that there might be more like him out there has prompted companies like Deloitte and Touche to invest in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. D&T director Eduardo de Bonis lays out the game plan: “We’re not looking for a Maradona but ten or 20 decent players who, together, will be worth what Maradona was.” Venture capitalists the Exxel Group have scraped together $40 million in Europe and the US to buy child footballers in South America. They’ve promised their backers a 25 per cent return over four years.
But never fear, for swooping over the horizon comes FIFA, albeit a full ten years after Issa Hayatou, the current president of the African Football Confederation, first blew the whistle on the trade in child footballers. Principles set out by the world body governing the involvement of minors in football were accepted by the European Union in March this year and should come into effect on September 1.
The new regulations state that, for those under the age of 18, international transfers or first registration of players are permitted if “the family of the player moves for reasons not related to football into the country of the new training club” or, within the European Economic Area (the EU plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein), “suitable arrangements are guaranteed for their sporting, training and academic education by the new training club”.
Spot those loopholes. No doubt European lawyers are already advising clubs on how to wriggle through them. For example, how do you prove that a family has not emigrated for reasons other than football? It may be pesky having to arrange some “job” for a parent, but if their offspring is good enough, it’s a small price for the club to pay. Furthermore, the regulations won’t put an end to the succession of boys coming to Europe for trials only to be abandoned.
The largest importers of child footballers are Italy, France and Belgium. However, before we become too self-righteous, we should remember that British clubs have no qualms about importing under-age stars (among others, Mikael Forssell and Carlos Marinelli were both 17 when joining Chelsea and Middlesbrough respectively) and would doubtless be as heavily involved in the Third World as our neighbours if it weren’t for the fact that employment laws here make it almost impossible for non-EU teenagers to obtain work permits.
When prices for home-grown flesh went through the roof, English clubs looked to cheap European imports. All European clubs are doing is following the same principle, only a little further down the age scale. It’s sweat shop economics applied to the business of football.
From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month