In pursuit of sporting success 2

In pursuit of sporting success 2

Factors influencing the migration of young footballers to Europe in pursuit of sporting success

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the standard-bearer for all issues pertaining to the rights of children especially in countries where the legally-binding agreement has been ratified.  Article 19 UNCRC explicitly requires children to be protected from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse. Despite this, scholars such as Donnelly (2008) argue that currently, children remain the major class of persons who have enjoyed almost no increase in human rights in general, or in sport.

Football is a prime example of this. The lure of the Big 5 European leagues has increasingly led to the migration of young footballers from developing countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. For every young footballer who “makes it” in Europe, there are a great number who not only fail to make the grade, but often fall into the wrong hands, and are subsequently left abroad and desolate.

Lionel Messi, arguably the most talented footballer of his generation, left Argentina for Barcelona at the tender age of 13 and reached super-stardom within a few years. In contrast, it is estimated that 15,000 young players are moved out of West Africa every year on false pretenses of fame in European football, but due to the lack of monitoring the number could be much larger in actuality (Poli, 2010). These young African footballers often end up being exploited by unscrupulous traffickers, ending up worse off than they were when they left their home countries.

In order for state actors, governing bodies and NGOs to counteract this phenomenon, it is critical that the push and pull factors of a young footballer’s decision to leave home in search of a football career in Europe is well investigated and understood.

Bogus agents and “talent scouts”

Recently, FIFPro warned footballers about criminals posing as player agents on LinkedIn. Several players informed FIFPro about their experiences with a person named Steve Mac Hughes who they say deceived them by promising trials or contracts with clubs in the United Kingdom and Asia. In short, this person approached them via LinkedIn, said that a club was interested and that he would arrange a trial or a contract if the player first signed with him and paid a fee. None of the players spoke with or saw the person; they communicated with the “agent” via LinkedIn and WhatsApp. After they sent the money through a Western Union account, the person broke off all contact. This phenomenon is particularly widespread in the many “football factories” all across the African and South American continents.

Money talks

Research conducted by Prof. James Esson (2015:521) of Loughborough University on the migration of young African footballers to Europe found that many of them believed that a career in professional football and migration to a league outside of Africa is a realistic career-decision in order to lift an individual and therefore vicariously their family out of poverty. This is seen as a hugely significant factor that lures impoverished and often desperate young footballers into migrating to Europe by any means necessary, playing into the exploitative hands of traffickers and fraudulent agents.

Easy as that

The global image of successful athletes, who mostly ply their trade overseas, creates a desire among the youth to also elevate their standards as well as whet their hopes and appetite for “success”. Hence, globalised societies and the immense influence of social media have created the illusion that success in football or sports in general is a given, as long as an individual has talent and the right work ethic.

For example, Poli (2006) conducted a survey with the Ivorian Under-17 national team, where 18 of the 23 players he asked said that, once in Europe, finding a professional club to play for would be easy. Such optimism was not shared by their team’s trainer who felt that only three or four of them had the requisite talent to breakthrough in Europe. For many talented young boys and girls around the world, any career pathway that offers hope for breaking out of poverty is worth the attempt.

“Cultural placement”

‘Cultural placement’ is a reciprocal arrangement where a young person leaves his immediate family and is placed in the care of an individual or household, with their labour offered in exchange for education and/ or training, as well as his means of subsistence. For instance in Benin, there exists a local tradition of “vidomegon,” where village children work as servants to wealthy urban families in return for education and training. This often extends to families sending their children to acquaintances who are not well-known in Europe, in the hope that their children have better life chances in the “western world” (Manzo, 2005). False promises of reciprocity and return are an increasingly common theme in the migration of young footballers from developing nations into Europe.

There is certainly some evidence to argue that societies where “cultural placement” is standard practice seem to be susceptible to football migration.



  1. Donnelly, P. (2008). Sport and human rights. Sport in Society11(4), 381-394.
  2. James Esson (2015) Better Off at Home? Rethinking Responses to Trafficked West African Footballers in Europe, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41:3, 512-530, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2014.927733
  3. Manzo, K. (2005). Exploiting West Africa’s children: trafficking, slavery and uneven development. Area, 37(4), 393–401.doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2005.00644.x
  4. Poli, R. (2010). Understanding globalization through football: The new international division of labour, migratory channels and transnational trade circuits. International Review for the Sociology of Sport45(4), 491-506.
  5. Taylor, M. (2006). Global players? Football, migration and globalization, c. 1930-2000. Historical social research31(1), 7-30.
  6. Poli, R. (2006). Migrations and trade of African football players: historic, geographical and cultural aspects. Africa Spectrum, 393-414.


The writer, John Luke Chua, is a Graduate Research Assistant at Mission 89.


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