Page last updated at 23:05 GMT, Friday, 8 February 2008

Exposing Africa's football traffickers

By Clive Myrie
BBC News Europe correspondent

African boy
For many African families, football is more than a game

In European capitals they are a familiar part of the landscape.

You may even have spoken to one of them as you haggle over the price of a fake Louis Vuitton bag - or maybe you bought a miniature Eiffel Tower from one of them in Paris.

They are African youths selling cheap tat to get by: refugees or economic migrants, and some victims of people trafficking - young footballers.

Far away in Ghana - indeed, right across Africa - football is more than a sport; it is a weaver of dreams.

It can fulfil the hopes of a young boy and his family trying to escape poverty like Michael Essien - now worth millions and playing for Chelsea - or Didier Drogba from neighbouring Ivory Coast, one of the best strikers in the world.

As well as hope there is greed, as unscrupulous adults traffic increasing numbers of African youngsters to Europe, exploiting their dreams, then abandoning them.

Family help

Fahd Abu Bakari is a 16-year-old Ghanaian who lives in Accra.

When we met him he had his football kit on ready for a training game close to Nema - a slum area in the capital.

The pitch is a square of scorched dusty red earth, bordering a huge rubbish tip where a cow was foraging for food under a baking African sun.

Michael Essien and Didier Drogba
Essien (l) and Drogba are icons to many African boys

He told us he wanted to be the new Michael Essien and that agents were always turning up to his club's games.

"Finding the money for the visa and passport to go to Europe is not easy," he said.

"Some boys ask their families to help them and then when they're successful they will pay them back."

Fahd's mother Christiana Kissiwah says she would love her son to go to Europe. She makes a modest living cooking and selling food from a stall outside her home.

Success in Europe will of course not only realise her son's dreams but also those of his family - to live a better life.

The agent left and a few hours later called to say I had arrived too late for the start of the season
Cameroonian trafficked player

But Fahd and his parents are easy prey for the growing number of unlicensed so-called football academies and agents in Ghana.

They claim - for a fat fee - that they can introduce a youngster to a top European club.

Sometimes that fee is raised by desperate parents selling their home, handing over the deeds or selling family heirlooms like jewellery.

Typical story

Kallis Karlton-Senaye is an agent who boasts he has never signed a written contract with the numerous players he has sent to football clubs.

Kallis Karlton-Senaye
Kallis Karlton-Senaye is an unlicensed football agent

"My word is my bond," he says. "I can be trusted and players know this".

He is also unlicensed. "We provide a service as good as any of the licensed agents. Sometimes we do better, better for the players of course, not us."

According to him, illegal trafficking of footballers is not possible from Ghana because of strict visa regulations.

He says he is honest and has never received a complaint.

In Lyon in France, I met up with a Cameroonian man who didn't want to give his name - his story is typical of the trafficking of young footballers.

His family paid 750 euros eight years ago to an agent to take him to Europe. He was just 13.

Attractive way

"We got off the plane and went straight to a hotel. The agent left and a few hours later called to say I had arrived too late for the start of the season with the club I was supposed to join.

"He said he'd sort things out - but never called again.

"I only had a small bag of clothes because he said everything would be taken care of.

Fahd Abu Bakari
Fahd and his friends have been approached by football agents

"Now I do odd jobs and hide from the police. I have no visa to stay and no money to go home."

The European Union says it is concerned about the trafficking of African children for football and is preparing an action plan.

The charity Save the Children is working hard to inform African families of the dangers of dealing with unlicensed agents and middlemen.

But for the poor, football will always be an attractive way to escape poverty-stricken lives - so stamping out exploitation won't be easy.



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