African youths playing football in Dubai’s Safa Park. Many have been duped out of hardearned money by phoney football agents. Picture for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

Dubai: Jean Claude Mbvoumin, the founder of Foot Solidaire, a French charity working to combat the issue of trafficked African footballers, is calling for greater awareness to stamp out the global phenomenon.

A Gulf News investigation published yesterday found scores of players had been lured to the UAE by fake agents on the premise of a trial or contract with a UAE club, but abandoned on arrival. They were instead forced to find Dh1,000-a-month work as waiters or security guards.

Mbvoumin, who says he has received some 15-20 reports of players conned by fake agents in the UAE, suggests a global pandemic could now be spreading this way due to the development of football in the GCC region, buoyed by Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. He says he currently knows of four agents from Turkey, Lebanon, Nigeria and Cameroon who are offering young African footballers bogus trials and contracts at UAE clubs.

"Cases are increasing. Everybody is talking about the Middle East and particularly Dubai as a football destination now, and everyone wants to play there. It's becoming a new route for this kind of activity," Mbvoumin said.

His comments come after a recent Sky News report revealed 4,000 young African footballers had been trafficked from Africa into France, with 20 cases a week. Mbvoumin claims 2,000 had been dumped in Paris alone. Sky News even found one Fifa licensed agent in Cameroon trying to sell 14-15-year-old players for £25,000 (Dh148,085).

Educating players

Describing the GCC as a future potential "hub" for such movement, Mbvoumin told Gulf News: "Internationally, this is a very big problem. We try to help players by educating them about the realities of their dream to play football abroad. We meet with football associations, clubs and the media to sensitise them on this issue.

"It is a problem, but it is not well known. The phenomenon is not easy to spot. Players don't know their rights and they are scared to report such matters to the local authorities because they are often technically illegal immigrants. I believe there are many more cases going unreported because players don't know who to turn to.

"It is also hard to combat and find statistics because the problem is always on the move. Players move from place to place to find contracts or they move on to find work elsewhere."

Involving stakeholders

Mbvoumin, who played for Cameroon at the U-20 World Cup in 1993, is now planning to hold a conference in the GCC, which will be part of a global awareness drive with a week of worldwide education and protection pencilled for later this year, incorporating African governments, Fifa and football associations of most affected states.

Pointing out that the majority of players at the recent African Cup of Nations are employed by clubs in France, Mbvoumin said: "If a country wants to open its doors to foreign players, this is fine. It helps raise the level of the championship. But on the other hand, regulation must be in place to prevent young players being exploited."