Inquiry into 'slave trade' in African footballers

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The Independent Online

New evidence of the football world's exploitation of African players has emerged in Belgium - of young men lured with promises of lucrative contracts then dumped or mistreated.

New evidence of the football world's exploitation of African players has emerged in Belgium - of young men lured with promises of lucrative contracts then dumped or mistreated.

European sports ministers are meeting in Paris to discuss measures to tackle soccer's "slave trade", and football officials said the EU could easily take action against exploitative clubs, unscrupulous African managers and greedy European agents.

The 15 players, most from Africa, are in shelters for victims of human trafficking in Brussels, Antwerp and Liege. Their experiences - of signing contracts in foreign languages often diverting a large proportion of their earnings to an agent - are in stark contrast to the stories circulating back home of the supposed millions earned by African superstars such as Chelsea's Celestine Babayaro or Arsenal's Nwankwo Kanu.

Jean-Pierre Kindermans, spokesman for Anderlecht FC in Belgium, Babayaro's former club which has a strong tradition of nurturing African players, said: "It is urgent for the EU to do something ... Britain and the Netherlands already have effective rules. Belgium lags because the minimum wage for a first division footballer is so low [about £1,400 a month] that it is easy to import players."

The high pay scales in Dutch football act as a disincentive for taking a chance on untried and inexperienced talent. In Britain, stringent immigration rules, especially the stipulation that a player must have appeared in 75 per cent of his home country's internationals in the year before joining a British club, guarantee that footballers are established before they so much as warm-up for a UK side.

Mr Kindermans said: "Many African players use Belgium, because of the low pay here, as a stepping stone to other European clubs.

"But youngsters with no track record come here and take their chance, and they get little or no protection."

Among the players in the Payoke refuge in Antwerp is a 27-year-old Ghanaian, promis-ed a contract by a Belgian agent with a French club. He ended up playing in the Belgian second division. Although the official contract promised 90,000 Belgian francs (£1,400) per month, he says he received 20,000 Belgian francs.

A 24-year-old Nigerian was brought into the country on the promise of a contract, originally by an agent in Nigeria.

He says he was touted round clubs, starting in Ghent, then moving to Antwerp and Ostend, for trials supposed to lead to a contract. Further trials in Germany produced nothing and he returned to Ostend, after almost a year, having received no payment.

Since the Mozambican pearl fisherman "Eusebio" Ferreira da Silva arrived to play for Portugal's Benfica in 1961 - and became a world superstar - African youngsters have dreamt of playing in Europe.

Many, such as the Ghanaian Nii Lamptey, who plays for a German second division team, Greuther Furth, saw their fortunes decline as fast as those of Cameroon's Roger Milla or Liberia's George Weah soared.

Lamptey joined Anderlecht a few days after his 16th birthday in 1992. Disappointed, he went to PSV Eindhoven, then Aston Villa, Coventry City (on loan) and Palermo.

He said: "The pressure was too much. Everyone just expected me to pass four or five men and score all the time. Now I am with a smaller club and I hope to make the step to a big club later."

Philip Osondu, an award-winning Nigerian junior in 1987, signed for Anderlecht in 1989, being older than he originally claimed. He failed to score, and is now said to be an airport cleaner in Brussels.

The European Commission wants all sports associations in the European Union to agree voluntary codes of conduct governing young athletes.

Manchester United has a deal with the Belgian club Royal Antwerp which allows young players to be exchanged between the clubs, and for talented youngsters, destined for Manchester United, to be groomed in Belgium. Thisopens a new path for third world soccer talent into the English premiership.

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