By Leonida Krushelnycky
At the age of 17, Serge Nijki Bodo arrived in Belgium from his native Cameroon to pursue the dream of many young African football players - to make it big in Europe.
An adolescent who showed great promise, Serge was discovered by a talent scout while training in Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital. He was promised a contract with the French side, Montpellier, and professional training. With his parents' blessing, Serge arrived in Europe to seek his fortune.
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"When you're a youngster in Africa," he says, "you watch TV, and you see the beautiful soccer stadiums, and you want to wear the football strip like the real professional players."
Now, three years on, Serge is older and wiser. Despite the lucky talisman - a gold football and boot - he still wears around his neck, Serge's dreams lie in tatters. It all went wrong just one month into training with Montpellier, when he was again talent-spotted, this time by a Belgian first division side who offered him a professional contract.
Serge accepted, and arrived in Belgium on a three month visa. But after three months of training, he was dropped by his new side - without ever having been paid. It was then, with his visa about to run out, that Serge's troubles really started.
"All I ever wanted was to play football," he says, "so when I was approached by an agent who promised me big clubs and professional status, I signed a contract with him."
Serge Nijki Bodo's case has horrified the Belgian press
Unfortunately, the contract stated that 50 per cent of Serge's earnings would go to his agent - a clause Serge says wasn't in the contract he had seen. Now sharing a squalid one-room flat in Brussels with four other young African players, Serge was in no position to argue. He even found a second division Belgian club who wanted him - but not at the price his agent was demanding. Having signed away his rights, Serge found himself without work, without papers and with little apparent future in Belgian football, because of his agent's demands for huge fees.
According to the human rights organisation, Sport and Freedom, Serge's is no isolated case. Paul Carlier, who set up the group in 1990 to protect young sportsmen and women, says his group is investigating up to 1,000 similar cases, involving young players from Africa, South America and eastern Europe.
"This is a modern form of slave trade," he says. "For two years, Serge was not paid. Sometimes he had to sleep in the streets or in the woods with just a blanket. He was only 17 - we are talking about children who are being exploited so that others in sport can make money."
Paul Carlier of Sport and Freedom
Paul Carlier has selected ten cases, including Serge's, for a legal battle on their behalf. Sport and Freedom has made an agreement with the Belgian government that the ten players can stay on legally in Belgium while their cases are heard. With the help of a lawyer paid for by the organisation, Serge is suing both his former agent and the Belgian Football Federation; he still has hopes of one day playing regularly for a Belgian side.
Mr Carlier is deeply unpopular with the Football federation and most Belgian football clubs, following his successful attempts to publicise the plight of the young foreign players, hundreds of whom - like Serge - are dumped on the streets and left to fend for themselves by clubs which no longer see them as a commercial prospect. The 50-year old former interior designer has even had threatening anonymous phone-calls, suggesting that he drop his campaign. But to Mr Carlier, the battle-lines are clear - football is a big money-spinner, but it shouldn't be allowed to profit from exploiting the young and the naive.
At last, though, Sport and Freedom's calls for more regulation are beginning to pay off. Paul Carlier has also been joined in his battle by several significant allies - Professor Roger Blanpain, an expert on international football transfer law, Johan Leman , director of the Centre for the Equality of Opportunity (which deals in the problem of human trafficking), and Bernard Noel and Vera dos Santos, members of the General Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium.
Caroline Wyatt with Prof. Roger Blanpain
Professor Blanpain's name carries a lot of weight in the sports world. For more than thirty years he's made sure that sports men and women have the same labour rights as any worker-
decent wages and sensible hours and conditions. And four years ago the Professor's expertise blew the European doors wide open for the football industry. Blanpain put forward the arguments for the "Bosman ruling", whereby a player who is out of contract with a team can move for free to a new one. The ruling had mixed reactions-some clubs were angry at the loss of earnings from transfers, while others welcomed the potential boost to their teams from foreign players. The Antwerp public prosecutor's office has opened a formal inquiry into allegations of the trafficking of African football players with information provided by Prof. Blanpain.
Johan Lehman is director of the Centre pour l'Egalite des Chances et la Lutte contre Racisme.
The Centre works with the victims of human trafficking on a larger scale. Many of their clients are women from eastern Europe and the third world who have been lured to Europe with promises of jobs but end up as prostitutes. Lawyers working for the Centre are now helping Paul Carlier prepare the legal case for Serge Nijki Bodo.
And Bernard Noel, of the General Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium, has ensured that the plight of the African players is brought to the attention of Belgian's politicians. The Federation's heavy lobbying forced the equal opportunities board to formulate new rules for the hiring of foreign players, forbidding deals with players under 18 from outside the EU, and making both clubs and agents responsible for the living, medical and travel expenses of non-European recruits for at least 3 years after their arrival. These proposals were voted through Belgium's Parliament on December the 17th last year.
And where is the one organisation that should step in and do something - the Belgian Football Association? They wouldn't give Crossing Continents an official interview, preferring to give a statement by phone. They said they have someone monitoring the numbers of African, east European and South American players coming into Belgium. They also check if they have been given short work permits and note their wages. But they haven't taken any action against the clubs who brought the boys in in the first place. They have merely told them not to do this again. But they have not fined them, as they say they don't have the power to enforce the penalty. The Football Association is waiting for the government to tackle the wider problem - of people coming in on short work permits and then becoming illegal immigrants once the permits expire.
But there are some success stories for African players. Royal Antwerp Football Club has a multinational team which includes players from Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, and the UK.
Paul Bistiaux, the Club's secretary, says the African players find a warm welcome at the second division club. Nigerian Bimbo Fatokun Lanre, now their top striker, agreed that Belgian fans, in particular, made him feel right at home.
On the pitch at Royal Antwerp FC, Caroline Wyatt and Paul Bistiaux
And last year, Royal Antwerp teamed up with their ed-shirted comrades: English giants Manchester United. The Belgian club is now training youngsters from Man. United's youth squad. They'll gain valuable experience on a foreign field while boosting the fortunes of Royal Antwerp, and so far, they report, they've been fitting in well.
19 year-old Danny Higginbotham is one of the first to make the journey
across the channel. In the three months he's been with the side, he's played in most of the major games. In Manchester he'd still be sitting on the subs bench.
"We have to face reality", Royal Antwerp secretary Paul Bistiaux said. "The smaller clubs have to align themselves with the big ones to survive. It's either sink or swim".
So Bimbo has been lucky ending up at Royal Antwerp. But while the Belgian government debates the issues surrounding the players and the Belgian Football Association waits for the government to take a stand, Serge Nijki Bodo and many hundreds like him wait to see if their future lies in Belgium. Whether their dreams to play European football becomes a reality. Until then all they can do is turn to Paul Carlier and his organisation "Sport and Freedom".