Football bodies and government need to tackle illegal recruitment practices to protect young people and the reputation of the sport.
It is a, sadly, often-repeated story. An African teenager playing football at an academy in his native country was taken by an “agent” who said he would get him into professional football in Europe. The youth, who was a child at the time, was then taken to another African country where he was made to work with no pay and poor living conditions. He did not play football for three years.
Eventually, he was told by the “agent” that he had a trial with an English Premier League club and was taken to the UK, albeit some 200 miles from where the club is based. The young man soon realised that he wasn’t in the UK to play football and fearing he was going to be confined again, managed to escape. After asking for help in a local church he was put in touch with the Red Cross and local authorities and has just been granted asylum.
Match-fixing, betting fraud and the recent FIFA Scandal are well known examples of governance, ethics and transparency failing in football, but its association with fake agents is less known.
The sports industry, and football in particular, has multiple soft spot areas that are attractive to those looking for good financial returns. Player recruitment and transfers is one of those areas. While some practices under the guise of recruitment are clearly illegal, others are legal but arguably in an ethically grey area. Many UK clubs hold summer trials (as opposed to summer schools), which on the face of it are an opportunity for talented youngsters without professional contracts to put themselves in the “shop window”. The clubs put on these trials at facilities they already own or lease and they can attract large numbers of youths, often from overseas as far as Africa.
Some clubs charge a fee to attend these trials, despite the fact they are looking for undiscovered talent that could prove a cheap but game changing addition to their set up. This type of recruitment practice is not illegal, but morally dubious. It needs to be higher up the priority list of football governing bodies to make sure that children, young people and their families are not taken advantage of.
While there are plenty of reputable agents who represent players well in recruitment, transfers and outside of work, the profession also attracts opportunist criminals.
In recent years talented teenage footballers have been targeted by online fraudsters pretending to be football agents or club representatives offering trials or club contracts. The fraudsters ask for money to be transferred online to register the keen player’s interest and then disappear.
This kind of scam is especially prevalent in Europe and Africa, but teenagers in the UK have also fallen victim to it, so the problem isn’t confined to any particular country.
Last year the ICSS (International Centre For Sport Security) sent out a “sport integrity alert” to federations outlining the problem with advice for proactively communicating the problem to clubs and players. The FA has published a warning about scamming on its website, as have some premier league clubs like Manchester City. Certainly, clubs should be informing their own players of the scam as young professionals are the most likely to be targeted but more needs to be done to reach young players across Europe and internationally.
There are no official statistics on sport related trafficking; the problem is not effectively monitored by the sports industry or government and there is no mention of sport in the UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014 (pdf). The complex cross border characteristics of human trafficking along with a lack of desire from authorities combine to make this a hidden problem for football.
We do know that criminals in this area often illegally obtain real sports visas and illegally amend passports to give children older dates of birth. Sports visas often aren’t checked thoroughly at airport immigration, enabling criminals to name even Sunday league amateur football clubs as sponsors. Of course, if the Sunday league club was ever called about the youngster, they would not know who they were.
In the UK there is no reason why border agencies can’t establish a form of monitoring to determine how many sports visas are being used to enter the country, where they are from, and who the named sponsors are. It is only when those bodies who can collate data on the problem start doing so that we can begin to understand and address it.
Of course, more proactive border agencies in the UK can’t tackle human trafficking alone and nothing will change until there is recognition of the problem by sport and governments.
To this end Fifa introduced new intermediary regulations in April, intended to make football transfers more transparent and introduce certain minimum standards. However, it devolves supervision of agents to individual football associations. An agent no longer needs to be licensed to operate, instead they just need to make an application to a football association, pay a fee and show themselves to be a reputable person. Already there are fears these rules could threaten the safeguarding of young players, especially in countries where standards and regulates for agents are already poor.
This said, Fifa’s Transfer Matching System, responsible for overseeing the global trade in players, is stepping up its efforts against the exploitation of young players by clubs so there could yet be positive results.
© 2015 The Guardian | This article was written by Jake Marsh and first appeared in The Guardian on July 14th 2015.