It is January 2014.
Among a group of about 30 young boys, some as young as 12, are Ebuka Ogbuehi and Joel Izeh from Lagos. They are about to board a boat at Calabar seaport in southeast Nigeria, going to neighbouring Cameroon. With them are two football coaches — one known to the boys as their coach, Emma (pronounced Ima) — along with a nurse, a dry cleaner and Mr Eric Fred Toumi: a football agent.
Some weeks before, all of the boys’ families paid Mr Toumi N300,000 (US$1,500): the cost, he said, of enrolling them into his football academy in Cameroon where they will take part in trials for European clubs, while getting secondary school education.
Joel, 25, explains:
“The agent was brought to our team by our coach [Emma]. When the man came the first time he picked those he would pick (sic) and he travelled [away].
“The second time when he came, that was when he picked me. So he asked us to pay some money.”
Eric Toumi boasted of links with clubs in Croatia, Italy, Russia and Germany, promising them trials with Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and German club Borussia Dortmund. We contacted both the Italian and Croatian football federations: neither organisation had Eric Toumi on their records.
“We were promised a lot of stuff,” says Ebuka, 20.
The families of 30 young boys paid up believing their son was about to become the next football sensation. They didn’t anticipate the suffering they would endure over the following twelve months.
The 1,149km journey from Lagos, Nigeria, to their football camp in Mbanga, a small town in western region of Cameroon, five hours from the capital Yaounde, took them almost three months. Why? Because for the first two months, they were still in Lagos.
“We stopped at Badagry. We stayed at a friend’s place for about a couple of months before heading to Cameroon,” said Ebuka, who described how they slept on cardboard boxes during their stay.
At Calabar seaport, Joel recalls a woman warning the under 14s to “Go back. But we players we are always eager they did not listen.”
When the boys finally make it to Cameroon they are confronted by Cameroonian immigration: some of the boys do not have passports. But the agent, Joel says, came to “sort all those things out.”
Arriving at the camp, it was obvious to Ebuka that things were not quite what they were promised. For one thing, it was nothing like the luxury training facility that they had expected. Instead, it was “in the bush, it was nowhere. It was not encouraging”.
They shared toilets with the school next door.
At the camp were other boys: some from Benue, Cameroon and Congo. There were also other boys from their club in Lagos, who had arrived at Mbanga six months earlier. They were shocked at the arrival of their teammates despite “calling our coach to tell us not to come,”Ebuka explains.
“They warned us that we shouldn’t come, that there is not good, but you know now people that are trying to make it in life will do anything; we are having faith (sic), hope that we would make it; stuff like that, so I had to go.”
Two days after their arrival, things looked promising. They travelled to a tournament in the coastal city, Limbe, in the southwest region of Cameroon. But the boys did not fare well: they lost their matches because, Ebuka says, they had barely eaten that day. They were declared unfit by the agent, and returned to Mbanga for training.
Then, after two months, things changed.
“They don’t allow us to come out of the camp [and] we hardly feed (sic)”, said Joel.
Eric Toumi was nowhere to be found.
“The cook there started complaining that he is not going to cook; that he hasn’t been paid up to six months salary. Even the previous cook came … he took all the pot (sic), everything,” adds Ebuka.
Coach Emma disappeared too.
The young boys were left to fend for themselves, and resolved to begging at night; stealing corn, potatoes, yam and cassava from nearby farms in order to survive.
Meanwhile, unknown to Ebuka and Joel, Eric Toumi was still collecting money from their families back in Lagos. The overall payout from Ebuka’s family was well over N400,000 (US$2,000).
“People blame us,” adds Ebuka’s mum, Lovinia Ogbuehi. “You just give your children go Cameroon, who is this man? We don’t know him. That is why we didn’t go to the police, because people blame us.”
According to a 2013 study conducted by Paris-based charity Foot Solidaire, about 15,000 young boys travel to Europe and other countries from West Africa each year.
Some travel by air, mostly to Eastern Europe, using short-stay visas. Others walk across the Sahara Desert to countries like Tunisia and Morocco and take dangerous boat journeys to various parts of Europe.
Once in Europe, they are abandoned after parting with their family’s life savings. Of those who are lucky enough to make it to the trials, the ones that fail are abandoned by the agents who no longer see their economic value.
They are left with no money, too ashamed to let their families back at home know the truth. They overstay their visa and become destitute on the streets of Europe.
With this staggeringly high number of trafficked children, it is surprising that Foot Solidaire is the only organisation in the whole of Europe specifically set up to help.
“Since 15 years we are working on this issue of fighting against trafficking,” says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, the founder of Foot Solidaire and a former international footballer. The organisation tries “to help all these African young players” on the streets of Paris with food, shelter, and psychological help.
The organisation says that the average age of these trafficked players is 16. “When they don’t have passports, we try to assist,” says Mr Mbvoumin.
Fraudulent agents like Eric Toumi are breaking several laws. Not in the least, article 32 of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations on November 20, 1989 which stipulates that
“The States recognize the right of the child to be protected from the economic exploitation and not to be compels with any work comprising of the risks or likely to compromise its education or to harm its health or its development physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social”.
Similarly, the Protocol of Palermo, adopted on 15 November 2002, declared that the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons”.
Legislation aimed specifically at protecting young people in sport includes the European Parliament resolution of 29 March 2007 on the future of professional football in Europe; and in 2001 the international governing body for football Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), introduced the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players of FIFA. The RSTP, with some exemptions, prohibits the international transfer of minors under 18 years.
Despite these regulations, some clubs still “recruit in Africa, some players at 14”, says Mr Mbvoumin, who believes that FIFA and national football associations need to do more to keep clubs informed about their regulations that protect minors.
Vitus Derungs, a Swiss Attorney at Law and member of Foot Solidaire, in a recent newsletter for the World Sport Law Report, wrote:
“The recent ban imposed on Spanish club Barcelona by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee has brought to light, once more, the issue of player trafficking. The regulations that govern the transfer of underage football players, may have helped curb the illegal inflow of youngsters from Africa and South America, but they fall short of completely preventing player trafficking.”
The reality is that of the 15,000 young African players travelling to achieve their footballing dream each year, less than 1% of them realise this dream.
There are approximately 604 players with Nigerian nationality who currently play worldwide in clubs outside of Nigeria, of which under 400 play in 47 European and Eurasian countries, according to an analysis of data from Soccerway. And out of 65 players currently playing in the five major leagues – England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France – only 17 play at the equivalent of the Premier League.
An investigation by the Qatar funded International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS) revealed two main avenues fake agents exploit young players. Firstly, there are “criminals who purport to be agents and defraud young footballers online,” most of whom operate out of Nigeria and Ukraine.
Jake Marsh, Senior Manager of Operations, Betting and Sports Integrity at ICSS, said that the investigation “identified numerous fake agent profiles online and spoken to young footballers who have been tricked into transferring money.”
The financial transactions are done via “Money Service Businesses (MSBs) whose anti-fraud control and KYC checks aren’t always as stringent as banks.” Other cases involved those who had “fraudulently established bank accounts in the names of Premier League football clubs.”
Second is the international player trafficking, which Mr Marsh described as being “far more extensive than governments and the football authorities are willing to admit.” Even the United Nations Trafficking Report does not “mention sport when it comes to trafficking or slavery.”
“The ICSS has spoken with one player for example, a teenager from Cameroon, who was taken at the age of 16 from Cameroon believing that he had a trial at a top club in England. The ‘agent’ who took him did not ask for any money but initially took him to Nigeria where the boy was made to work for no money and was essentially held against his will.”
The agent later transported the young boy to England after acquiring a fake passport. Luckily for him he was able to escape once in England, with the help of the Red Cross.
“The ICSS believes that had this boy not escaped when he arrived in England (and got to the Red Cross) then he may well have been subjected to some form of slavery, sexual exploitation, or co-opted into a life of crime.”
In April 2015, FIFA discontinued its system of accredited agents, replacing it with intermediaries. Many in the system have questioned this move.
For Mr Mbvoumin, this was not a wise move by the governing body. “If you don’t have licensed agents, how can you distinguish the good from the bad?” He also questions FIFA’s regulations governing the Status and Transfer of Players, that allow International Transfer Certificates to be issued for children as young as 12.
“We are talking about children, they are footballers, they are athletes, but they are young players, they are children.”
He hopes that after the FIFA elections next year, “Maybe there will be another working group” to review these decisions, and that the protection of minors will be one of the top issues for the new FIFA president.
“FIFA needs to have an anti-trafficking department for the young players,” he says, which will work more closely with organisations like Foot Solidaire, as well as national football federations.
Aminu Yusuf is an agent licensed by the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF). He says having the title ‘FIFA license agent’ was part of the problem that allowed football hopefuls to be duped by fake agents.
Giving the example of two agents, one who introduces himself as a FIFA licensed agent, and another who introduces himself as a player agent licensed by your football federation, he says:
“People who want to be duped will run after the one that is called the FIFA licensed agent thinking that he has international connections.”
Aminu is however unhappy with what he describes as the new “free-for-all system [which] further bastardises the system.” The rigour of becoming a FIFA licensed agent, he says, meant that agents behaved with greater integrity.
“As a [FIFA] licensed agent, you have to take qualification exams. You know you cannot cheat: if you do, your licence will be withdrawn. When you know what it took to pass the exam and get the licence, you will not behave anyhow (sic).”
But whose role is it to stamp down on the trafficking of young boys by fake agents? According to the Protocol of Palermo, it is a collective international-level responsibility “in the countries of origin, transit and destination”, to not just prevent this crime, but “to punish the traffickers and to protect the victims of such trafficking, including by protecting their internationally recognized human rights.”
The main problem, argues Mr Mbvoumin, “is at the country of origin of the player”: greater action within West African countries, he argues, will help reduce the problem by at least 70%.
The Nigerian Football Association, which had its budget slashed by a third in 2015 to N1,242,523,749, is responsible for the registration and regulation of Nigerian agents, according to the new FIFA guidelines.
The onus, Amiu argues, is on the NFF to educate academies and aspiring players about the new system of licensing agents.
“The whole system is not well organised. The names are not published.”
In Europe, the declaration of the European Council of Nice on 7-9 December 2000 included an outline that Member states and sporting organisations should “monitor and investigate commercial transactions targeting minors in sport, including those from third countries.” This, it says, ensures compliance with labour law and protects the welfare of young sportsmen and sportswomen.
Aminu’s advice for Nigerian footballers:
“If somebody comes to you and says, I am an agent, you ask him for his ID card. You go to the NFF website, you check his name, make sure he is licensed before you can deal with him. And if you sign anything with him, you will be rest assured he will not cheat you.”
The complex world of football agents
When done right, the relationship between an agent and a player can be fruitful for both parties. Aminu says professional agents “put the career of the player first” ahead of money, focusing on sending them to countries “where football really thrives.”
“We get the club first, we give them example of countries that pay good salaries. But we don’t force them to go to these countries. We give them countries where football thrives. That will help them in their career.”
According to FIFA’s intermediaries guidelines, agents can only take 3-5% commission from transfer fees. As part of this investigation, we looked into this complex world of agents and their corporate structures.
Our investigation painted a picture of a complex network involving corporate structures in tax havens, agents with no obvious company registered, and many agent companies which were either dissolved or dormant. We looked at company annual returns but could not always tally the amounts stated with the commission they would have expected to receive from transfer fees.
The case of Mr Gabriele Volpi is an example of agents that can be linked to tax havens, as this interactive mapping demonstrates (click and drag the nodes). Mr Volpi is the founder of the Abuja Football College, but he is also linked to several companies registered in Panama, a well-known tax haven in the Caribbeans, and, the Isle of Man. Panama was recently blacklisted, along with 29 others by the European Commission for not meeting “agreed international standards” in the fight against tax avoidance.
The question is whether and how FIFA should be regulating this and undertaking due diligence to ensure everyone is playing by the rules? What tax obligations do these agents have? And is FIFA doing enough to govern this flow of money?
“FIFA should follow the money for a number of reasons,” argues George Turner, writer and researcher at the London office of the Tax Justice Network.
“Some football associations require that all payments to players are registered with them. Perhaps [FIFA] could hold a similar register, acting as a clearinghouse for payments to agents – all this assuming that we want FIFA to continue as an organisation of course, which many don’t.”
All football authorities, he adds, should shoulder some responsibility in “knowing the full ownership of any corporate structure set up” operating within the footballing industry.
“If you look at FIFA and the current cast of characters hoping to take over from Blatter, it appears that the organisation is completely unreformable. World football really needs a new governing body altogether which is based on an entirely new set of rules, with entirely new people running it.”
While FIFA regulates football associations, it does not regulate clubs. The associations, therefore, would need to play a big role in ensuring due diligence is carried out to an appropriate standard.
The ICSS believes that “in general, due diligence in football (and not just regarding agents) needs to be improved.”
“This lack of transparency raises questions regarding potential conflicts of interest between agents, clubs, and national associations.”
For OpenCorporates co-founder, Chris Taggart, the amount of money in the footballing industry is bound to attract some level of corruption:
“The more power, and the more money in the system, the greater the potential rewards and the greater the temptation.
“At the moment, sports governing bodies seem not to acknowledge this.”
This investigation won the CNN African Journalist Award 2016 (Sport Reporting). It was funded by Journalismfund.eu, and carried out by a cross-border team comprising of Yemisi Akinbobola, Paul Bradshaw and Ogechi Ekeanyawu; with additional work by David Blood, Leila Haddou, Caroline Beavon, and members of Hacks/Hackers Birmingham.