Andy Brassell looks at an organisation, run by a former international, that seeks to protect young players in Africa

While the football world at large queued up to applaud RC Lens’ stand against Chelsea after the Londoners were punished over the Gaël Kakuta affair, one voice from across the channel notably dissented. Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini may have mentioned Kakuta as a victim of “child slavery” and “child trafficking”, but Jean-Claude Mbvoumin knows the full meaning of those terms and the often neglected problem that they represent in the game.

Mbvoumin runs Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), an NGO based in Paris, which he founded in 2000. A Cameroon international who was a journeyman pro in the French lower leagues, Mbvoumin was one of the lucky ones, with a professional contract and good people around him – while his career may not have been the height of dizzy glamour, far worse awaits young hopefuls who fall through the cracks. A CFS survey conducted in 2007 estimated that 7,000 young Africans were living on the streets in France after failed attempts to get signed by a professional club. CFS aims to “prevent the trafficking and exploitation of young footballers”, while supporting and helping the victims.

CFS was ahead of its time, with its Bamako Declaration of December 2000 pledging to work towards the banning of transfers “for commercial reasons” before the age of 18. FIFA didn’t take a public position on associated issues, such as the international transfers of under-18s, until halfway through 2001.

CFS’s breakthrough was in 2007, when the European Parliament’s Report on the Future of Professional Football called on clubs to invest – ideologically and financially – in upholding “good practice in the discovery, recruitment and welcome of young foreign players” and in preventing abuse of these responsibilities in “vulnerable” countries. Shortly after, the European Commission’s White Paper on Sport pushed for clubs’ training programmes to include education to help young players deal with life post-football. In June 2008, CFS received FIFA’s official endorsement at a meeting in Zürich.

While these link-ups and recognition add welcome momentum to CFS’s campaigning, the 35-year-old Mbvoumin knows that the problem is getting more acute. The success in Europe of high-profile players such as Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o and Kolo Touré has further fuelled families’ ambitions of sending their young prodigies abroad in pursuit of success and untold riches. “Many children here don’t want to return,” Mbvoumin told a BBC documentary in 2008. “They say: if I go back my parents will kill me because I don’t bring them money or big cars.” Hence more and more parents gamble their children’s futures, bailing them out of education and their safety for the long shot of hitting the jackpot. “It’s important to dream,” Mbvoumin said, “but the dreams about football now are not realistic.”

Though France (along with Belgium) is probably the most visible point of entry into Europe for aspiring African players, the problem is widespread in the post-globalisation age. Raffaele Poli, a Swiss academic, presented a study in 2008 on the career-long movements of African footballers in Europe. Poli examined 600 players who played in the top European leagues during 2002.

According to his study just 13 per cent had progressed “upwards” four years on, while a third had completely disappeared from professional football. This study doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know already: getting to the top in football is hard, establishing oneself is harder and many don’t manage it. But what it does point out is the need to make sure young players drifting out of the game have support and direction, especially those not just from Africa, but from eastern Europe and all developing countries.

While most feel that the Premier League’s forthcoming quota system is a good thing, it’s hard to see how it will do anything in the short term but increase the flow of underage players arriving from overseas, as clubs strive to get them in the “homegrown” bracket by the time they’re 16. Mbvoumin rightly sees the issue as a humanitarian one as much as a football one. Football has, he says, “a specific nature and total autonomy of action. This is not realistic if you look at the issues it faces today – money-laundering, human trafficking, exploitation of underage players, violence and racism. Today, a sport alone does not have the means to solve these problems by its own rules.” Mbvoumin and CFS are going to have a hard job in convincing the football authorities that this is the case.

From WSC 273 November 2009

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday