Children born to immigrants in Europe are fast becoming bedrock of many African sides, notably former French colonies.
Saeed Osumar’s passion brought him from Ghana to Moscow after someone posing as a football agent five years ago had asked him for $2,000 to secure a contract with a Russian club.
The amount was four times the annual minimum wage in Ghana.
Osumar made his own way to Moscow, eyeing the greener pastures that apparently awaited him. Once he got there, the ‘agent’ disappeared. And so did the money.
Tales like Osumar’s are not uncommon. According to an estimate by Foot Solidaire, a Paris-based charity working to increase the protection of young footballers globally, up to 15,000 young African footballers are taken abroad annually under false hopes – over a third of them head to Europe.
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At 15, he was left stranded in Paris after a man who had promised him an overseas contract disappeared. After spending two months alone in France, he managed to move to Madrid, where some fellow Nigerian footballers helped him secure his first contract.
He now plays in the Bulgarian top tier with CSKA Sofia.
“My advice to young players would be to take one step at the time, to stay focused and not allow any agent to distract them from what they are doing,” he said.
“One needs to give an agent two years [before trusting him]. If he really cares about you and wants the best for you and your career, he will stick with you and press clubs until he finds the right one.”
Many end up stranded in Europe, Asia, North America or the Middle East as they cannot afford to return or are too ashamed to do so.
Under the new Fifa rules – finalised in 2009 and coming into effect on April 1, 2015 – contract negotiations between players and clubs are no longer facilitated by licensed football agents, but by ‘intermediaries’.
Football agents were required to take exams run by their country’s football association before obtaining a license. The intermediaries are now asked to register by self-certifying they have an ‘impeccable reputation’ and no conflict of interest.
A Fifa spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the reform was conceived precisely to curb the ‘unacceptable practices’ that had arisen in the business.
Players and clubs are now required to disclose to their football association the full details of each transaction an intermediary is involved in.
“The new system should be more transparent, effective and simple to administer and implement, resulting in better and more efficient enforcement at national level,” the spokesperson said.
Only up to 30% of international transfers used to be concluded through licensed agents when the reform was drafted, according to Fifa.
But Foot Solidaire is concerned that scrapping of the licensing system will increase the risk of frauds and abuse.
“It’s a catastrophic reform for the protection of players, particularly young ones, and especially in Africa,” Foot Solidaire founder Jean-Claude Mbvoumin told Al Jazeera.
This is because the new rules remove the independent vetting and scrutiny of those coming into contact with young footballers.
Similar concerns have been raised by Jake Marsh, head of training and youth protection, sport integrity, at the Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS).
“[The reform] opens players up to more forms of exploitation,” Marsh said. “We could potentially see more trafficking and it will become harder to investigate.”
Marsh argues that football, and sports in general, should adopt more business-like practices.
“I don’t know of many other industries where intermediaries can self-certify their good character, where a broker isn’t properly vetted, regulated or has professional standards.”
The Fifa spokesperson, though, stressed that the new regulations only set minimum criteria.
Football associations can introduce any additional requirements they deem necessary to allow intermediaries to operate. The English FA, for example, has established that individuals representing minors need to provide a criminal record check from an official body to obtain specific authorisation.
An ‘organised scam’
But many football associations will just comply with those minimum criteria, according to Marsh who added that criminal activity in sports has become increasingly sophisticated, which deepened the need for more scrutiny and guidelines.
Academy and young players often publish their videos and provide contact details on social media in order to be noticed by scouts. And that is where fake agents often approach them. The criminals then offer the possibility of participating in trials.
“It is an organised scam but for a young talented player, the offer could look totally credible,” added Marsh.
Agent Eby Emenike, who works in the UK, Nigeria and Ghana through her agency TBD Sports Management, has seen how convincing the tricks devised by rogue operators are. She has run workshops raising awareness among young players.
“I have seen documentation [sent by fraudsters], for example letter-headed documents that are identical to the clubs’ logos,” she said.
“The information on there is as it would be if it was a real letter.”
Fake agents usually manage to extort sums between $300 and $3,000 for processing paperwork, paying for travel expenses, passports and visas, according to Emenike.
Young footballers eager to leave Africa are also inclined to try their luck if they are given a chance, no matter how small, to realise their dream.
I don't know of many other industries where intermediaries can self-certify their good character, where a broker isn't properly vetted, regulated or has professional standards
Osumar did not question whether the agent he dealt with could secure him a place in a Russian club. He was 20 at the time.
“I have now realised he probably wasn’t a proper agent. But I never checked. I never thought about doing some research, the only thing I thought was I was getting out of Africa.”
He was able to return home and is now training with a first-division club. But he is still committed to finding a way to leave, arguing that talent alone was not key to securing a major foreign contract.
“People outside think football here in Africa is played on merit. In reality, it’s about who you know and can bribe. All the youth wants to travel abroad to play football. And that’s the reason the fake agents take advantage of.”
Fifa is committed to tackling this issue, according to its spokesperson, and protecting minors was a ‘constant priority’.
For example, the new regulations prohibit the compensation of intermediaries involving players under the age of 18.
Since 2009, Fifa has also mandated that a dedicated sub-committee approves all international transfers or registrations of minor footballers.
Foot Solidaire’s Mbvoumin has urged Fifa to do more to raise awareness among youngsters in Africa, as he believes this is the main solution to eradicate the problem of fake agents. The charity is planning to establish an international information centre, hoping it could help educate players on market dynamics, regulations and rogue agents in a better way.
“It’s very important to be on the field, to work with the kids on the ground. We need to train academies’ coaches and to explain to the families how football works internationally.
“We need concrete action.”