The problem of human trafficking in football has to be tackled directly at the source – Ellen Chiwenga Interview
This article is a collaboration between Mission 89 and the European Football Agents Association (EFAA) as part of a football summer transfer window campaign.
Ellen Chiwenga has been working in the world of football for more than 15 years, learning step by step all the aspects of the game, from grassroots football development to global business development and transfers. She is a FIFA Football Match Agent, as well as a member of the Association of Football Agents (AFA), the International Association of FIFA Licensed Football Match Agents (FIFMA), and Women in Football (WIF) from Zimbabwe.
Driven to create change in a male-dominated industry with the ambition to promote diversity and equality in the game, she is the only female Football Match Agent in England and the only female African Football Match Agent in the world. As part of her duties, Ellen legally represents athletes by checking their contracts and negotiating their employment. She is responsible for communication between the managers and individuals she represents to ensure that both sides are satisfied and also arranges international matches among teams belonging to different Confederations, such as friendly matches and tournaments between national teams or clubs.
Her work has been recognized with several awards. She was named Personality of the Year at the 2017 Zimbabwe Achievers Awards and the African Woman of the Year in Football in 2018. That same year, she became an Ambassador of FC Karachi in Pakistan. In August 2019, Ellen Chiwenga was appointed Global Goodwill Ambassador of Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation (BHHF), a charity organisation that delivers humanitarian aid and medicines to internal displaced people, refugees, and people in need around the world. In November 2019, Ellen received the prestigious Football Black List Award for her outstanding work in football. She is a member of the ‘Right to Play’ Partnerships Committee and in January 2020 was awarded the Medal of Knight of the Order of Lafayette. In May 2020, Ellen became advisor at FIFA Ethics and Regulations Watch (FERW). Earlier this year, Ellen Chiwenga announced her intention to run for the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) presidency in the 2022 election.
We had a chat with her on her role as a football agent.
Why did you decide to become a football agent?
I grew up in Zimbabwe hearing about football all the time as my two uncles were working with clubs and the football association. Above all, I love football because of its power to inspire and drive change in the lives of boys and girls. When I moved to the UK, my own experience taught me how difficult it can be for a young person to adapt to a new environment, sometimes in a totally different country. This is how why I decided to become an agent. I like to take care of players because I know that my daily work has an impact on their wellbeing. By helping them adapt and feel well in the club and mentally, I make sure that they deliver great performances on the pitch. Football is the science of people and I like these interactions, not just with the player but with the clubs’ staff, other agents, the community and the fans.
Which aspect of your work as a football agent makes you the proudest?
Managing a player is like being a mother taking care of her child. I like to see them grow as individuals, and flourish as players. There is often a lot of expectations from the fans and media, as well as large sums involved in transfers at a young age. It is not always easy for players to resist the pressure and make sense of all this. There are countless stories of great talents who never fulfill their potential. Therefore, it is a source of pride to see one of your players developing into a nice, confident and respectful individual with good values that will guide them for a lifetime. Also, to see young boys and girls make their dreams come true as professional players after years of hard work, commitment and sacrifice fills me with tremendous joy for them and their family.
What are some of the misconceptions about football agents?
One of the biggest misconceptions in the public and media is that football agents exploit the system and make a lot of money on transfers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Agents are a key part of the football ecosystem. They are ambassadors who detect talents, promote and advise players, facilitate discussions with clubs, and help them find the best opportunities. People take a partial view based on the very few top agents who negotiate the transfers of world-class players. They merely represent the top of the iceberg and reality is that many agents struggle to make a decent living with players in lower divisions and smaller clubs. Also, there is no magic formula to be certain that a young talented player will sign a professional contract in the future. This is a risk that the agent has to take. What many people also forget is that an agent doesn’t just come and go after taking a commission on transfers. An agent continues to take care of his/her player after the transfer, and this is a 24/7 job.
What advantages does a female agent have in an industry that is dominated by men?
Speaking about my own experience, I would say that a woman football agent takes a different perspective, more long-term and comprehensive than men. While most men would focus in details on the qualities of a player – statistics, technical skills, strength, speed, stamina, etc. – I like to engage with the player and discuss topics such as which position he prefers, the system he feels more comfortable with, or what type of coach he likes. Regarding potential transfers, we discuss elements like the city, the region, the teammates, and if he thinks he would fit into the culture of the club. I know that the living and working environment is very important for the development of a player, for him to strive in his new club, so we take the time to address all these topics. A man might not take the same approach.
In your opinion, do you think that the majority of agents are aware of the issue of human trafficking in football? If yes, then why do you think human trafficking continues in football? If no, why not? What could be done to improve awareness among agents?
We have all heard the sad stories of human trafficking in football and how so-called ‘agents’ are taking advantage of impoverished families and children in developing countries by luring them with false promises of lucrative careers abroad. However, most agents working with professional clubs in the top leagues of Western countries only see the faces of the young players who have signed or are about to sign their first professional contract. The problem of human trafficking in football has to be tackled directly at the source, in countries where poverty leads many families to believe the narrative of corrupted individuals. It is worth noting that those individuals are not ‘agents’, since official agents are required to be registered by their Football Association (FA) and go through police check if working with minors. Therefore, it is the role of governments, municipalities, Ministries of Sports, and Football Associations in developing countries to lead the charge against human trafficking in football by educating local populations about this danger. FIFA also has a large role to play by initiating an international campaign on the subject, and by making sure that part of the funds it sends to the FAs of poor countries is used to fight against this global issue.
What role can football agents play in preventing the trafficking of young footballers?
Whenever they travel to less developed countries and poorer areas of the world in order to scout potential players for clubs, agents should take the opportunity to speak with local club managers, football academies staff, and football authorities about this important subject. They should also raise this matter with coaches and make sure that their message is relayed to the kids, and even better, their parents. Together with their FAs, football agents could work to produce information leaflets and stickers that could be distributed to the relevant populations at home and during their trips. Education and knowledge are the first powerful barrier to eradicate trafficking.
Are there any special considerations for female football players who sign with agents? Are any specific measures taken to safeguard them from exploitation?
Females are more vulnerable, and with the growth of the women’s football across the globe – which is a great improvement – it will also become more dangerous. Unscrupulous individuals will try to take advantage of the situation by luring young girls with tales of riches with a football club in Europe, the US or China. The first line of defense is the family. With more girls around the world attracted by the passion of football, it is important for the parents and family to acknowledge it and support them in their journey. Taking interest, asking questions, attending training and watching games is the surest way to understand who is evolving around your daughter and take action to prevent any kind of exploitation before it happens.
What do you make of the new agents’ regulations set by FIFA? What would you like to see changing?
I strongly welcome the decision of FIFA to reintroduce the mandatory licensing system for agents. Having had literally anyone being able to act as agent for players did nothing good for the game, and makes me wonder why it was abandoned in the first place. This will raise professional standards, and bring more transparency with the creation of a FIFA Clearing House. Regarding the more sensitive issue of a cap on commissions, I believe that the market is always better regulated by itself. Temptations to distort, in any sector, the natural equilibrium of the market always create unintended externalities and incentives for some actors to get around the legislation, which is exactly what everyone wants to avoid. But overall, the return of the licensing system represents a great opportunity to inform and educate agents about the issue of human trafficking and the risk of exploitation by fake agents at grassroots level.