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Monday, 14 February, 2000, 13:17 GMT
Africa's football 'slave trade'

footballers Many youngsters dream of playing in Europe

By the BBC's Jon Sopel in Paris

Unscrupulous agents are bringing young African footballers to Europe and dumping them if they fail to make the grade, prompting a French official to dub the practice "the new slave trade".

France is in the vanguard of trying to outlaw soccer clubs paying for players under the age of 18 in an effort to halt the trade in young African hopefuls.

In Africa many youngsters act out their fantasy of being top stars, like one group of schoolchildren I saw having a kick-around in the Ivory Coast.

They play barefoot in the heat of the afternoon - two rocks serve as goalposts - all dreaming of one day being a top professional in Europe.

"I want to play in Europe," says one boy, "and make lots of money to send to my family".

"In Europe," says another 12-year-old, "I would play for Manchester or PSG [Paris St Germain]."

Disciplined regime

At the Paris St Germain training ground just outside Paris, there are many young African players going through their paces.

kanu Only a few make it to the very top
They all have agents and are well looked after by the club and put up in a smart hostel.

There is a disciplined regime of football in the mornings and schooling in the afternoon.

Bartholemew Ogbeche is 15 and was playing for the Nigerian Youth team when he was spotted and offered the chance to come to PSG.

He admits he knew little of what he was signing up to, but counts himself lucky that he is at a big club.

The question is how to protect youngsters who don't know what they are letting themselves in for.

Michele Benguigui is one of France's top agents, and brought David Ginola to Spurs from Newcastle.

He says the law needs to be tightened with stricter licensing of who can be a soccer agent.

Easy prey

Until then, he says, children will be easy prey.

"What child can resist a grown-up promising fame and riches?" he says.

We tracked down a young West African boy who was brought to France with precisely that hope of greatness.

footballers In need of protection
When he was interviewed last November he had just arrived and the dream burned bright.

But he hasn't made the grade. His club has discarded him.

His agent doesn't want to know, and he was too scared to give us an interview, because he is now living as an illegal immigrant in fear of arrest.

The new slave trade

There are thought to be hundreds more like him and it is this which the French Government is determined to stamp out.

Gilles Smadga, the chief of staff to the sports minister, calls it "the new slave trade" and says it has to be stopped.

The new law will prevent cash transfers for children under the age of 18 with restrictions on the activities of both agents and clubs in their ability to put young adolescents under contract.

Smadga says what brought this to public attention was not only the treatment of African youngsters but the case of a 15-year-old French boy, Jeremy Allaniere, who was bought by Arsenal for FF1m.

It caused an enormous furore in France, and at the time Arsene Wenger said he may not have had ethics on his side, but said he had the law.

The French are determined that the law too must be called in to protect young hopefuls.

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See also:
14 Jan 00 |  Cup Features
Africa's worrying soccer exodus
13 Feb 00 |  Cup News
Cameroon are Kings of Africa
25 Jan 00 |  African
When will Africa win the World Cup?
09 Feb 00 |  Cup News
Sommersaulting to stardom
14 Feb 00 |  Cup News
Nigerian media bitter in defeat

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