“This Trade Is Evil”: Inside The Secret World of Soccer Player Trafficking

There is one surefire thing any aspiring young player shares with Leonel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney. They dream — or dreamed — of leaving behind the dusty or muddy makeshift football pitches of their hometown for the bright lights of the Nou Camp, Bernabeu, or Old Trafford.

But talent alone won’t drive you down the road to those theatres of dreams. You need the hunger but you need to be noticed; you need luck; you need connections; and you need good judgment to make important decisions.

Meet Matthew Edafe, victim of trafficking

This is where we meet Matthew, who thought he had every box ticked. Like pretty much every other teenager, playing professional soccer seemed a fantastic way to make money. It was not a job. Like many teenagers, it was also a way to break his family out of a desperate cycle of poverty — even if it meant leaving his home, his town, his country, for faraway Europe.

Edafe was from a small city in Nigeria, a country that has produced generations of soccer stars now known around the world: Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Samson Siasia, Celestine Babayaro, Nwankwo Kanu, John Obi Mikel.

For sure, Matthew had raw soccer talent but, like many parents around the world, his mother preferred he use the money the family had saved for university to study to be a doctor or lawyer or accountant. But when a guy claiming to be a player agent turned up in town, driving a big car, saying he knew a lot of important people, and saying had taken other young players to Europe, well, it was difficult to ignore what he said.

“He showed some photos he had taken with white people,” explains Edafe, today. “I don’t know how they do that — maybe it’s Photoshop — to show that they had the opportunity to travel.

“They bring a document that says they want to take 30 young players abroad; that for the very first game you play, any game, a trial match or whatever, they will give you $2000. When you sign the contract you will start earning anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000.

“The only thing that comes into your head during all that is the exchange rate from dollars to [Nigerian] naira. It is a question of your dream versus your reality. The person who is speaking looks well fed. You don’t even ask a question.

“The African is brought up to respect and not question their elders. The elders are not supposed to lie. The elders are supposed to be a paradigm of knowledge and honesty and wisdom. So the question is, how do I get myself onto this list of 30 players? Then the agent comes up with a ‘contribution’ you have to make, ranging from $2200 to USD$5000.

“People who are desperate then get more desperate, and sell their property, family land, houses, parents’ cars, to get on this team. But the agent says that we’re scheduled to play about 30 games so you will get the money back and more.”

The route from Africa to Europe

If you were poor and desperate and had a dream, what would you do? Possibly what Matthew Edafe did do. He was told that once he paid the required fee, he would travel to Spain with the “team” of other young Nigerian hopefuls. Matches and a trial with a team in Spain’s second division would await. This was the big chance. There was no choice to make.

“My mother borrowed a lot of money,” Edafe explains. “She tried to make sure I made something out of life. We were really from the slum. Really poor people.”

But this journey would be no luxury trip, the way many professional footballers travel in the first class section of a jet or on comfortable air-conditioned VIP buses. With 22 other players, Edafe left Nigeria for Senegal before heading for Cape Verde — by boat. There, on the island, they were promised a training camp to prepare for Spain.

According to Edafe, after four days on Cape Verde, some white men, speaking a language none of the players understood, came by to watch the Nigerians train. They left without speaking to the boys. So, too, did the agent. Just like that.

Dumped in a foreign country to fend for themselves

The “team” was soon tossed from its hotel (prostitutes were among the other guests, Edafe recalls) and the players worked out what might have seemed obvious to others. There was no deal, no game, no tour, no plan, no money, and most of all, no agent.

Edafe was stuck in Cape Verde for 11 months. He says he lived on the street and did all kinds of jobs before he met a local girl who introduced him to her father. That earned him a job in a boatyard and led to a trip back to Nigeria on a ship.

“I was 20 years old in a strange land,” says Edafe. “We heard on the street that this is what normally happens. I thought I would never see my family again. I didn’t know what to do. I lost a chance to further my education and I lost a chance to play football. I was in a daze. There was no going forward. There was no going back.”

There are no accurate statistics for the number of players from Third World countries scammed and marooned in Europe — the trade is illegal, players are not registered, and are often embarrassed about their plight . Most arrive in Europe via the broken promises of agents or private coaching academies that claim associations with European clubs. According to some observers, professional clubs in Europe are aware of the crime and corruption in player recruitment that is now systemic.

As well as Nigeria, you can add Ghana, Cameroon, Mali, and Cote D’Ivoire as major sources of young players. In a route different to Edafe, clubs in Africa will recruit players and promise to on-sell them to a club in yet another country which may have a reputation as a launch pad for a fabled career in Europe. The dreams sold and routes taken are similar to that of human trafficking more commonly associated with prostitution and illegal immigration.

There are many roads taken. Twenty years ago there were fake agents recruiting in Africa and taking money from families who pay for a ticket and they get to Europe. Sometimes they made it to a professional club for trials but sometimes the agent abandoned the player on the street.

An international market, sold like cattle

We have stories of children going from sub-Saharan countries to Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. These countries are the first mythical step  toward Europe where  the final step is intended to be Western Europe. However young players end up in Serbia, Croatia, Romania, or Poland where it is much easier to get a work permit.

Once that permit is granted they can go to another country. There are also other roads that take you to the United States, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and, more recently, some Gulf states. It is an international market.

“Soccer players are bought and sold like cattle," said the late Roger Blanpain, a lawyer and former head of FIFPro, the international players union.

"This amounts to human trafficking. At all levels.”

Matthew Edafe's experience is exactly why Mission 89 exists 

In Lagos, Matthew Edafe is now trying to educate young players so that others don’t share his experience. 

“Education is not the final solution but it is part of it,” he says. 

“Here, in Nigeria, you have to understand that in this country it is dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, and everything has a price. This trade is evil. Any trade that makes you exploit people and destroy their future is evil. It is another version of slave trade.”

Mission 89's objectives directly address the experiences of Matthew Edafe and his teammates: research into the trafficking of young athletes; education about pathways to professional sports careers so young athletes and their families make informed decisions and avoid exploitation; regulation and licensing of academies to mitigate the opportunities for athletes to be exploited.