In pursuit of sporting success 1
The worldwide coverage garnered by competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and the English Premier League – which attract the best players, large investments, fan following well into the millions of supporters from every continent – has certainly made Europe a coveted destination for thousands of would-be footballers.
The progress shown by African national teams in international competitions since the 1990s as well as the outstanding careers of African football icons such as Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Nwankwo Kanu, to name a few, has fueled the desire of thousands of young West Africans to try to make it to “the top”.
While some footballers have been able to follow in their more famous predecessors’ footsteps, a disturbing by-product of this fascination with Europe’s football leagues has also been on the rise. This worrying phenomenon is known as “football trafficking” – for a more comprehensive definition of the term, see Esson and Drywood (2018).
The growth of African football has not gone unobserved. This has triggered a reaction, some clubs have been looking out for younger and younger “raw” talents to be “purchased” at a low cost, with the hope of turning them into established players to be sold at a higher price thus generating a big profit. On the other hand, the number of aspiring footballers craving to pursue a professional career in European football has also dramatically increased. Unfortunately, this demand and supply situation has created thriving grounds for exploitation of young talent.
Alarmed by the “race to young talent”, national and international institutions and sports governing bodies have taken restrictive measures. For example, FIFA introduced Article 19 of its Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, which states that international transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18, unless their parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons unrelated to football, the player is aged at least 16 and the transfer happens within the European Union or the player lives no further than 50km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50km of that border.
The goal of Article 19 is to put a limit to the frequent cases of fraud and abandonment linked with the movement of underage players as outlined in the “10 step guide to football trafficking” (Esson 2015).
Playing football at the best possible stage – Europe – per se is not the only motivation drawing large numbers of would-be footballers from the Global South. Research conducted on over 100 underage Ghanaian footballers revealed that they viewed migrating to a well-paid European league, where a player would get the maximum return on their ability, as the embodiment of self-reliance and entrepreneurialism (Esson and Drywood: 2018).
In other words, football is seen as a way of improving families’ social and economic status, a situation that is mostly perceived as impossible to achieve by staying in the country of origin.
Global South to North migration does not only pertain to football, although research in other sports is lacking.
With the aim to finding a way to balance two fundamental principles of the Convention on the Right of the Child, i.e adherence to the best interests of the child and the child’s right to participate in decisions regarding their future, further research into the migration of youth related to sports is needed as well raising the awareness of all the players involved, two activities in which Mission 89 has always been fully engaged in order to tackle the issue of the exploitation of young athletes.