Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo recently made the rather ridiculous claim that his club, Manchester United, was treating him like a slave. Ronaldo wanted to break his contract with the English club and move to Real Madrid in Spain, no doubt for the sort of money that has little in common with slavery.
But a far more disturbing form of football traffic has been exposed this week. An investigation by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) has shown how con men pose as football agents representing European clubs. They approach young boys in the slums of cities across Africa, and promise them trials with football clubs, once these boys cough up a few thousand dollars. The boys are then either sold to clubs or abandoned on the streets of European cities.
Sports have for long been an escape from poverty, be it black kids from American ghettos or so many of our own cricketers who have emerged from difficult circumstances. Examples such as Irfan and Yusuf Pathan — supremely talented all-rounders from Baroda — show how sporting ability is a wonderful vehicle of social mobility. In that sense, a vibrant market for sporting talent needs to be encouraged.
But all markets need rules. What has been happening in Africa is terrible. Sepp Blatter, head of Fifa, the world’s apex football body, has condemned what he calls the “despicable behaviour” of European football clubs and said they were involved in the “social and economic” rape of Africa. The Independent, a British newspaper, quotes Moussa Ndiaye of the Senegalese Football Association saying this: “The boys are cheap compared to European players. It is always worth sending 100 — the agent can make money from the one or two who make it. The other 98 are forgotten.”
The commercialization of sports is welcome, since it benefits both consumers and producers. We have generally little sympathy for the moral outrage that grips politicians when sportsmen sell their talent for big bucks, as was the case in the Indian Premier League.
But the traffic in young African football talent shows a dark side of this same process. There are lessons here for sports administrators the world over.
Should sporting clubs have a code of conduct on player purchases? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org