Football Trafficking: unmasking the Uzbekistan ring
At least seven young footballers between the ages of 16-19 years old left the shores of Nigeria in December for the Central Asian country, Uzbekistan, in search of greener pastures.
These youngsters were recruited from different cities in Nigeria by a Nigerian who posed as a football agent. They had high hopes of playing the game they love professionally but reality soon set upon their arrival in Uzbek.
“I paid around $3,900 (N1,500,000) as payment for my visa application, ticket, and other processing fees out of $6000 the agent charged us,” 16-year-old Onyeka Benson said.
“He told my family that he had a second division club where I will be registered, play, and earn some money. He also promised to take me to a top division club to try out but when we arrived in December 2020, I realized that the man had only just started a U-14 boys club.”
Like Benson and others who arrived in Uzbekistan under the same circumstance, the purported agents had neither seen them play nor watched their video to assess their talent or ascertain their level of the game.
Ranked 85th in the FIFA Ranking with an average position at 75 since the creation of the world ranking, Uzbekistan is an unlikely destination for aspiring footballers but its doors are constantly open to foreigners who apply as tourists with the right documentation.
Frustrated and unhappy with the situation, one of the boys wasted no time as he returned to Nigeria to continue working with hopes of better opportunities.
“One of the players returned home after he found out that there was no hope of making it out there. He fought with the man,” Benson added as he is also considering the option of returning home himself. He said once our visa expires we will return to Nigeria or we have the option of playing for his academy free of charge or playing [for] other teams here that need players all for free of charge.”
Top division football in Uzbekistan had been concluded since December, and the boys had only managed to secure a three months tourist visa, i.e their visas would be expiring sometime in February. Time is gradually ticking.
“I’ve met with some of these boys, some of them come to the capital Tashkent. They tell me they are here to play football, and when I ask what club they play for they lament,” Ifeanyi Ifeanyi, a Nigerian international who plays for Marshal Mubarek FC in the top-flight division.
“I wonder how they are surviving here. They all have the same story about their route to Uzbekistan which points to one man who took money from them and dumped them here.”
“I hope I can meet this man someday soon, just to understand why he keeps bringing kids here without any opportunity.
“There are two of them who are doing this to these kids. They come to Nigeria to get players and bring them to Uzbekistan with no plan to get them into a club. After watching some of them you can tell they are not ready for professional football.”
Meanwhile, it is estimated that more than 15,000 children are trafficked into Europe among other regions every year with false hopes of making it as professional footballers. Many of these players have no formal invitation from clubs but make their way to several countries armed with hope and survival instincts.
Most footballers who find themselves in similar situations are usually reluctant to return to their countries of origin owing to a myriad of reasons. Dev Kumar Parmar, programme director ISDE Law Business School, highlights some of the reasons stating that trafficking in football is disgusting.
“It is the stigma that is attached to it which is not only an African thing,” says Parmar, who is also the principal director at Parmars Sports, an international sports law and dispute resolution company.
“In my view, I’ll break it down to the concepts of predator and prey, this could be found everywhere. We see in England this image. The country is right at the top of global infrastructure [yet] there are kids in England who are getting scammed by fake agents as well. Again, where the market is so saturated, there is a desperation for kids to get somewhere, there is the ability for predators to thrive.”
“The differences I have found culturally is the ideology of family and responsibilities coming into play. Especially for males. If a male is coming out of a certain village, he’s carrying the hopes of the village, not just his family. You are carrying all of those hopes. You could be looked on in a bad way when you come back home. There are cultural issues that need to be dealt with. You come back to the community as a failure. So many fears that could go through one’s mind when faced with the challenge.”
“The core of them is the principle of failure. You have taken someone else’s money whether it is sponsorship or a loan to go off to Albania and all of a sudden you are stuck there. Ultimately, it boils down to the fear of being seen as a failure, and depending on the culture of family or set up, there may be more or less concern than the individual concern.”
At age 15, Africa and Cameroonian Legend, Samuel Eto’o was an undocumented migrant in France with his goal of signing for a top club but was ignored by Paris Saint-German, and he had to return to Yaounde rather than stay illegally. His story is a true inspiration to aspiring youngsters as he didn’t give up when he returned home only to find himself in another trial with Le Havre AC, but was deemed not good enough.
His effort later paid off and he joined Real Madrid in 1996 but the club had little faith in him. He went on to sign for Mallorca where his story changed and the rest is history.
Before leaving their home countries, there is often the assumption that moving from one country to another would come easy even if things go south at the chosen destination. But when reality sets in, thoughts of returning home or moving elsewhere to pursue the football dream become a priority.
“Dubai is crazier. It is difficult to sign [for] a professional club here, and when your visa expires, your debt accumulates, says Success Nwachukwu, who was also a victim of the same circumstance in 2018. I was taken to Uzbek by the same people who have wasted my time. In Dubai here, I have to abandon football for now because survival is top of my agenda… I have got bills to pay and I know how old I am,” he concluded.
He urges that younger players should endeavour to return home and pick up from where they left off as experience gathered along the journey would come in handy if they want to continue the football journey.
Possible way out
While trafficking remains a serious crime, footballing authorities cannot simply try or accuse bad actors of the crime. Yet, there is a burden of responsibility that the football authorities have to make sure people are not duped or lose their savings, talent and lives.
“Ordinarily, jurisdiction comes under the state,” says Kumar Parmar. “However, we are talking about football and FIFA is the governing body worldwide. Anything FIFA can do to empower, educate the world is fantastic and they are already doing a lot through the FIFA Foundation. They are supporting and working with FIFPRO and they encourage the national associations to do things nationally. What they do is down to them.
“The member associations have got certain finances within their power. The FIFA Forward program is also there to give funds, and that’s something that they can apply to for educational programs. There is a lot that can be done within the football fraternity and it is not enough, and they need support from the state, member associations, and from us, because they cannot just grab somebody and accuse them of trafficking, it is outside of their jurisdiction.”
Just recently, a footballer union, Federation Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels, generally referred to as FIFPro, recently blacklisted and published names of individuals confirmed to have been involved in football scams following extensive investigations.
Those blacklisted included a Slovakian scammer Martin, who operated under an alias Martin Kois. He approaches young players offering them trials in European clubs for a fee reported to be around a thousand euro (€1000) but after getting paid, there is always a reason why the trial is cancelled.
Also, Francis Mofor (Frankfoot Sports) claims to be a FIFA licensed agent pretending to offer trials at Manchester United, Cardiff, Middlesbrough among others.
Meanwhile, Benson has returned to Nigeria to begin again, hoping his football skills can take him further away from Nigeria but not through the hands of shady agents.
*Some names have been changed to protect the person’s identity.