Even with only his workaday shoes and a scuffed football, Souleymane Oeudraogo exudes instinctive talent. Close control skills, keepy-uppy, volleys on the spin: all are effortless. This spartan municipal training pitch in southwest Paris is his habitual terrain. But something is amiss. Oeudraogo looks too gaunt to be a central defender, the position he plays. And the 21-year-old is wearing only a gilet to stave off the piercing late-afternoon chill. He tells me it is his only jacket.
Oeudraogo is a professional footballer who two years ago stood on the cusp of joining the Burkina Faso national team. He arrived in Paris eight weeks ago, after 24 months of moving between clubs and academies in Senegal, Portugal and Belgium.
He is one of thousands of young players hoping to catch a break this month. For January brings the absurd largesse of football’s midseason transfer window, when an estimated £150 million will be lavished by Premier League clubs across 31 chaotic days. In the final week of the last summer window, Argentina’s Angel di María joined Manchester United for a £59.7 million fee, a British record. The Colombian Radamel Falcao also moved to Old Trafford, from Monaco, for an eye-watering loan of £6 million a year.
Oeudraogo, however, belongs to a growing underclass for which the top European leagues are but a shimmering mirage. Enticed on false premises from West Africa, South America and parts of the Far East by unscrupulous agents, their transfers to Europe are less about chasing the dream than living through a nightmare. Oeudraogo has wound up in the French capital as a victim of football’s version of human trafficking. He has no contract, no connections, and couch-surfs between apartments in the Paris projects. “It’s really harder than I thought it would be,” he says quietly.
He was still at school when an agent plucked him from Burkina’s Atalentus academy on the assurance of a fulfilling career in Portugal. “I was already playing in national championships, and in the same class as a guy who has gone on to achieve great success in the Premier League,” he says. “Another of my friends is in the top division in France. I was told that I would go to Portugal to complete my training.” Instead, his agent abandoned him in Portugal without a job or any formal documentation.
Oeudraogo’s best friend grew up two streets away from him in Burkina Faso’s second city of Bobo-Dioulasso. He was lucky enough to be approached by a reputable football agent, and has become one of the highest-rated young talents at a top-four Premier League team. But Oeudraogo has found himself on a parallel track to perdition.
His circumstances are commonplace in football’s lawless subculture. Many boys are being lured to Europe by rogue agents fully aware that they are not good enough to succeed, while others, who are genuinely gifted, are picked up by agents feigning high-level contacts who have no intention of fulfilling their end of the deal. In 2007, a dilapidated fishing trawler washed up on La Tejita beach in Tenerife, deserted by its skipper, leaving 130 dehydrated people on board, including 15 footballers who had been duped into thinking they were en route to trials at Marseille or Real Madrid.
These boys’ families are often blowing their life savings to pay the agents’ fees for representing their sons. Sometimes, they are charged for their sons’ travel to Europe and living expenses, too.
When the agents, who tend to be European or Middle Eastern, actually deliver players to a club, they receive a commission. And if those players make it through trials and go on to make a footballing career, they frequently remain under the thumb of middlemen who confiscate their earnings and their passports.
Jake Marsh, head of training and youth protection for the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), a non-profit organisation set up to protect the integrity of sport, has heard estimates that there could be as many as 15,000 trafficked players in Europe. Almost all have either been duped or are being controlled by rogue agents, and the situation is growing worse.
The vast majority of players in Oeudraogo’s predicament stay silent, preferring not to risk retribution from those who brought them here, or to highlight the fact that they might be outstaying their visas. But Oeudraogo reached out to Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, the ex-Cameroon international. Mbvoumin created the charity Foot Solidaire 14 years ago after he learned there were dozens of homeless footballers sleeping rough in the parks of Saint-Denis. Today, that number is measured in the hundreds. Some are as young as 11.
“In Paris, there are a lot of young players like Souleymane,” Mbvoumin says. He is a wiry, well-dressed figure who repeatedly breaks off our conversation to take calls from youngsters in similar straits to Oeudraogo. I meet Mbvoumin in a backstreet office in Boulogne-Billancourt. It's sparsely decorated save for a few football shirts, and hired for a couple of hours at a time. Foot Solidaire has no permanent base, no funding and no active website. Beside Mbvoumin sits Oeudraogo.
He is circumspect, reticent. Oeudraogo’s sense of alienation is palpable. He grew up in an impoverished homestead, where his elder brother Ismael “still tries to fend for himself”. Bobo-Dioulasso is among the most diverse corners of Burkina, owing to its history as a vital trade centre, with a history of exporting fine footballers. Charles Kaboré, five years Oeudraogo’s senior, carved out a creditable career for Marseille, nine times champions of France, before leaving for Kuban Krasnodar in the Russian Premier League. The route taken by Oeudraogo has not proved so auspicious.
“I ended up with a second-tier team in Porto, playing for the Under-19s,” he tells me. He was living in a tiny apartment in Matosinhos, a port district in the city’s southern suburbs, with nothing but the most basic subsistence costs covered. What little money the club possessed, since being relegated from the Portuguese top flight in 2010, wasn’t being spent on the junior levels. “Before long they shut down the junior section completely,” he says.
He went to the social security services in Portugal to claim housing benefit, “but the agent came with me and the money all went straight into his pockets. He pretty much left me after that. His job, he said, was just to bring in the players.” The agent had received his commission from the club. While Oeudraogo was being paid, he had stayed in contact in order to receive a cut of Oeudraogo’s earnings. Now the opportunity had evaporated, “I never heard from him again.” Oeudraogo left his flat and contacted a friend in Belgium. He stayed there for a fortnight before heading on to Paris.
Why not accept the thwarting of his dream and go back to Burkina? “These kids are the ambassadors for their families,” says Gilles Ratiarson, a financial advisor who works with Foot Solidaire to find proper trials for young players left abandoned in France. “They represent a livelihood, so heading back to Africa is perceived as a failure. They’re ashamed of not having made it. They’re ready to do anything. You see them at Sangatte, the asylum-seekers’ refuge in Calais, trying to cross into the UK. You see them everywhere.”
It is football’s great unreported scandal. Earlier this month, the Santa Marta Group, a global assembly of law enforcement chiefs and religious leaders, endorsed by Pope Francis, that is working to eradicate human trafficking, held its second conference in London. But it was not until Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, raised accounts of vulnerable players being prised from Nigerian academies on the spurious incentive of fame and fortune in Europe that most of the delegates were even aware of the practice.
Later, I speak to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, at Lancaster House in St James’. “What struck me most at the conference was the extent and type of enticement and abuse of people that goes on in Africa,” he says. He tells me that the Premier League is affected by the same problem. “There are schools for football excellence which promise youngsters careers in the Premier League, and then as soon as they get to England these children become trapped, or are simply abandoned.”
These susceptible youngsters are effectively pimped out to clubs asking far too few questions about the legality of their recruitment. “It became clear from talking to the African conference delegates that this is a real issue for them,” says Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. “There is no doubt that, for some children, it would be a fantastic opportunity if they had the footballing talent.” These boys and their families are sold the dream of becoming the next Didier Drogba. But, says Sir Bernard, “There are people abusing the dream. We have to discover more about it.”
The Met are seeking co-operation from counterparts in Nigeria and across West Africa, where bogus football agents are believed to be most active, but the precise pathology of the problem is poorly understood. The FA currently has no official stance on the issue and there is no monitoring by FIFA.
“Once in Europe, the kids are left to their own devices,” says Gilles Ratiarson. “And it happens a lot.” Oeudraogo arrived in Europe envisaging a fixed contract at a celebrated European club. “I came here and someone picked me up, but when I met him at the station he said, ‘No, you’ve misunderstood, this is not what I can do for you.’”
Oeudraogo’s agent had struck a deal with the academy in Bobo-Dioulasso by faking a legitimate European licence, which allowed him to cherry-pick players. In Porto, Souleymane put what pittance he earned towards his family’s needs. “My father died when I was five, and my uncle took care of me after that. He is unemployed at present, so I must provide for him as well, because he was a father to me for all those years,” he says.
Once in France, Oeudraogo was approached by a second agent. “This guy called me up one day, and asked me to pay him for representing me,” he says. I check the name he gives me but it appears nowhere on Fifa’s official list of licensed French agents.
Jake Marsh, at the ICSS, has spent years as a private investigator looking into match-fixing allegations. He says he has never encountered a wall of silence like the one obstructing his inquiries in to trafficking. “No one is tracking these people,” he says. “It is closely connected to organised crime and attracts opportunists. The victims are lost individuals, who nobody wants to do anything about.”
He has made an appeal to the United Nations for co-operation. “The nature of the crime is hugely complex,” he explains. “For a start, it is multi-jurisdictional. The UN ought to take a lead, just as national federations in Africa should have a responsibility to protect, but poor governance and poor procedure in those countries makes it almost impossible.”
Not that this deters Mbvoumin, who is defying his vanishingly small budget at Foot Solidaire by creating a “passport”, a thick booklet tailored to academy students in Africa. “It illustrates what to do when they are approached by an agent, how to read a contract, how to understand whether the offer of a trial in Europe is real or not.”
Mbvoumin sees himself as something of a lone crusader against the game’s endemic corruption. “The UN could think about putting pressure on Fifa, although that is futile,” he says. Fifa’s purpose, according to its mission statement, is “to improve the game of football constantly”. But it’s incredibly hard to hold Fifa to this. Because Fifa is based in Switzerland, no other jurisdictions have formal authority over it. And Fifa’s status is such that it is largely exempt even from Swiss laws against corruption. Achieving any kind of accountability is virtually impossible.
Mbvoumin points out that filthy-rich Fifa is assailed by reports of the deaths of migrant workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. How, he asks, can such an organisation be expected to give a voice to these boys?
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“Not enough people are ready to understand the true nature of football,” he argues. “Corruption, money-laundering – everything is on the table. When you see the sheer arrogance with which football’s rulers perceive the rest of the world, you realise that we pay a kind of ransom for that. Sometimes,” he continues, “I just ask, ‘what is football for?’ To make money? To distract and entertain? Beyond that, what? I was a young footballer myself, so I know what opportunities the sport is capable of giving people. But this shouldn’t mean that we forget about protecting the young.”
At 21, Oeudraogo feels he has nowhere left to turn. Even the charities who have taken pity on him in Paris, such as the Red Cross and Foot Solidaire, can only help for so long. “On certain weekends I would like to forget about my situation, to just go out with friends,” he says. Is his mother ever in touch? “She calls me up. Sometimes.”
These days, he is prepared to try anything. “If a club in another country offers a contract, then I will accept,” he says. “I have to remember that I left school for this. I am convinced I can be successful, because the only way for me is to make it.” His ability to summon any optimism at all is remarkable. “I still think that it’s going to be fine one day.”
As he returns to Ratiarson’s office from the freezing football pitch, Oeudraogo hears some rare good news. Ratiarson has a promising lead in Orléans, at their second-division club, where Souleymane may have hope of a trial. It’s too early to say for sure, but it’s something. Ratiarson also hands him a real winter jacket to put over his gilet. It is far too big for him, but it will keep him warm on the cold nights ahead.