How football academies scam young African footballers

Young Ivorian football players in Casablanca. Image sent by one of them and blurred by France 24.
Young Ivorian football players in Casablanca. Image sent by one of them and blurred by France 24.

A few months ago, 13 young Ivorian footballers aged between 16 and 22 arrived in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. They thought they would only have to spend a few weeks at a training camp before heading on to teams in Europe. But the aspiring players, who were lied to and abandoned by their 'agent', have been left to fend for themselves. Far from being an isolated incident, the case is an example of the scams that have plagued football for years.

For these young footballers, everything started back home in Ivory Coast. Desperate to reach the promised land of European football, they began looking for ways to make their dreams reality. By word of mouth, some of them had heard of 'Amis talentueux du football' [Editor's note: 'Talented friends of football'], or ATDF, an organisation headquartered in a suburb of Paris.

Its website (which since the publication of the French version of this article, was taken offline) offers 'advice' to 'young amateur footballers living in the third world who have the desire to go elsewhere, to follow the right path, in order to avoid clandestine networks,' by putting them in touch with training centres or football clubs. 'To find out the price of each service,' a registration form is available online. The website never describes in detail the exact nature of the 'services' on offer. Likewise, it doesn't offer any further details, apart from pricing info on t-shirts plastered with its logo.

In Abidjan, some aspiring footballers also heard about 'Foot Africa Inter - Centre de perfectionnement', based in the Tunisian capital Tunis. According to its Facebook page, the centre 'recruits, trains and sells footballers.' A message posted on March 26 details a training course in Qatar at the end of April. But our Observers say it never took place.

Photo posted on the Facebook page of 'Foot Africa Inter - Centre de perfectionnement', on September 16, 2014 (photo blurred by France 24).

"We were totally fooled"

Élie is a young Ivorian footballer (all the names of our Observers have been changed). Three years ago, he refused to sign a contract with a local club because he reckoned that the level of football in his country wasn't professional enough.

"I heard about the Tunis-based 'Foot Africa Inter' for the first time two and a half years ago. With my parents, we met the centre's representative in Cocody, whose job is to recruit footballers in Ivory Coast [Editor's note: According to Fifa, anyone can be a football agent, as long as they're registered with a national football association]. He showed us photos of the centre and told us that it would allow us to round off our training before being placed in a European club. According to him, some of their players had already gone on to join clubs like Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid. He assured me that I could stay and play in Tunisia if I didn't get signed by a European club [Editor’s Note: According to another Ivorian player who spent several months at the centre, they were also told that they would be able to take part in a tournament in Croatia].

The logo of 'Foot Africa Inter - Centre de perfectionnement'. Photo posted on the centre's Facebook page.

My parents and I believed him. So we signed a document outlining a 10-month training program that I would follow. In all, we had to pay 3.5 million CFA Francs [Editor's note: 5,336 Euros] for housing in a boarding school, food, a residence permit, insurance and computer courses that we were supposed to get in Tunis. My dad paid 1.5 million CFA Francs before I left [Editor's note: 2,287 Euros]. We were supposed to pay the rest in Tunisia. We also had to buy the plane ticket.

A complete lack of schooling

I arrived in Tunisia two years ago. At the beginning, I stayed with the president of 'Foot Africa Inter', who was already hosting other Ivoirians. As a matter of fact, there wasn't any boarding school. And after two months, he sent us to another apartment. He paid the deposit and the first month of rent, but we had to pay for the following months. From that moment on, we had to take care of everything. We weren't taught anything and we never got our residence permits.

With regards to the training, that worked out more or less at the beginning. There was only one Tunisian coach for around 40 players aged between 17 and 23, but he knew what he was doing. There were players from Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Cameroon, Congo... but no one from Tunisia. Some had already been there for months. We trained four times a week. But after a few weeks, the training completely stopped without anyone explaining why.

We were totally fooled by their promises. They take our money, but in reality they don't send any players on to Europe."

A France 24 journalist contacted the president of 'Foot Africa Inter', who is Ivorian, by pretending to be interested in signing up. He said that he had set up his venture in 2010, and explained that "the training program in Tunis can last from one month to two years, depending on the player's talent. The price therefore depends on the length of the training." Though little inclined to set out his tariffs in detail, he nevertheless pointed out that "in order to be able to follow a one-year training program, you have to pay 1,500 euros, which doesn't include lodging or food. But the centre pays for the first two months of rent and studies, because studying is compulsory." He asserted that while none of his players had yet been recruited by European clubs, two of them were taking part in trials for the French club Evian Thonon Gaillard, a claim refuted by the club's own director of communications, Florent Nyanga.

"The organistion is based in France, so it seemed to be the real deal"

Now aware of the scam of which he had become a victim, Élie wanted to leave Tunisia. Through a friend, he found out about 'Amis Talentueux du Football' (ATDF) roughly one year ago.

This organisation is based in France, so to me it seemed to be the real deal. I got in touch with its president. He told me that I'd have to pay 800 euros to get two months of training with its partner football academy, Al-Mostakbal, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, before being able to take part in tournaments in France and Belgium [Editor's note: Questioned by France 24, other young players said that the training was supposed to last between one and three months. One of them said they were promised that afterwards they would be able to take part in "trials for European clubs based in the first and second divisions"].

Advertising for "Amis talentueux du football", sent by an Ivoirian footballer and blurred by France 24.

In addition to the 800 euros, there was also the cost of the plane ticket to go to Morocco. I asked my parents if they could pay for me a second time round. They were sceptical, but they knew I was really unhappy in Tunisia so they agreed. I arrived in Casablanca in November 2014.

Other players heard about ATDF in Abidjan, where the NGO has an Ivoirian representative. Before leaving for Morocco, they all signed several documents including a two-year 'exclusive representation contract'. According to the contract, ATDF commits itself to 'finding and putting the player in touch with any person [...] likely to be interested in his professional know-how.' The contract also stipulates that the group will 'receive, by way of compensation, 10% of the player's gross wages at the end of his work contract.' The cost of breaking the contract is as high as 3,000 euros (see below).

Third page of the 'exclusive representation contract' signed between players and ATDF. Document blurred by France 24.

A 'commitment letter’ stipulates that the 800 euros will go towards paying for accommodation, meals, transportation, health insurance, and sports equipment, without giving further details.

The Ivorian players also received a letter from ATDF inviting them to take part in a training program to perfect their football skills ‘before transfer’ to other teams, at the Al-Mostakbal football academy, ATDF's partners', from October 9, 2014 (see below). On top of that, they also got a letter from the president of the Moroccan school inviting them to 'join the school team in the 2014-2015 season', without giving a precise date.

Invitation letter received by young Ivorians from ATDF and the Al-Mostakbal football academy. Document blurred by France 24.

"There ended up being 13 of us in an apartment, whereas we thought we were going to lodge in a boarding school"

All the young Ivorian footballers arrived in Casablanca between October 2014 and January 2015. Élie describes what happened when he got there.

The president of the Al-Mostakbal football academy came to pick me up at the airport. He took me to an apartment that was roughly 20m2 in size, where there were already several players, while telling me that we would be housed elsewhere afterwards [Editor's note: According to testimony gathered by France 24, the 13 youths were all housed in the same apartment for several months in Médiouna, a town on the outskirts of Casablanca]. That sent chills up my spine, because I had been told that there would be a boarding school.

The apartment in which the young Ivorian footballers lived in Casablanca. Photo sent by one of them.

"The training stopped very quickly"

In addition to the shabby accommodation, the youths quickly grew disillusioned with the training program put on by the Al-Mostakbal football academy, described as little more than an elaborate set-up by one of the players. Marc explains what happened.

Strictly speaking, there was no real training program. There were only a few training sessions on a gravel pitch with some Moroccan players. Just one person - a Moroccan friend of the academy's president - vaguely organised a few sessions two or three times a week. The training lasted less than two months, up until February. Afterwards, we tried to train as much as we could amongst ourselves. On top of that, we never went to school in Morocco, even though we were supposed to study.

Young Ivorian footballers in Casablanca. Photo sent by one of them and blurred by France 24.

Young Ivorian players at the Al-Mostakbal football academy in Casablanca. Photo sent by one of them and blurred by France 24.

"We had to pay 200 euros to get a residence permit that we never received"

As the months rolled by, the problems began piling up, as Élie explains.

Food was taken care of until around February or March, but it was pretty bad and there wasn't enough of it. We fell ill several times, so we had to go to the pharmacy and pay for medicine. During the same period, we even had to spend a night outdoors. We had been kicked out of our apartment because the rent hadn't been paid by the football academy's president.

According to the youths, the food that they were provided with at the beginning of their stay in Casablanca 'wasn't enough'. Photo sent by one of them and blurred by France 24.

A meal prepared for one of the players. Photo sent by one of them.

Around March, the president of ATDF came from France and met with us - at last! He promised to send us money to rent a second apartment [Editor's note: This promise was kept]. He assured us that we would go to Europe at the start of April, but that never happened.

"We've just been kicked out of our apartment once again"

Moreover, the academy's president asked us to give him 200 Euros so that he could get us residence permits [Editor's note: The fees are normally in the region of 100 dirhams, or 9 euros]. But we never got them. As a result, we went to see the police several times in July, but they wouldn't hear us out. We even ended up behind bars for a few hours on July 13, at a police station in Maârif, an area in Casablanca. They threatened to kick us out of Morocco [Editor's note: The youths arrived in Morocco on a three-month visa which expired long ago. They are now staying illegally in the country]. In the end, the issue was settled and we got our money back, but it wasn't easy.

We've currently got huge housing problems because the president of the Moroccan academy hasn't paid rent on the two apartments for the last four months. So we've been kicked out once again. One of our friends went to go stay with an acquaintance in Rabat. Another went to go stay elsewhere. As for the rest of us... we've been living on the street since Tuesday.

When contacted by France 24, ATDF's president explained that he had signed a partnership deal with Al-Mostakbal in October 2014 after creating his own NGO back in 2013. Despite his lack of experience in the world of football, he claims to have set up the venture to 'train young people and put them in touch with other centres' but denies having ever promised the young Ivorian youths that they would play in Europe. He admits, however, to have never succeeded in getting a player on European shores.

A photo sent by the president of Casablanca's Al-Mostakbal football academy to the president of ATDF, who claims to have been misled by photos sent by the former.

ATDF's president also claims to have been swindled by his Moroccan counterpart: "He sent me fake photos of the school. It looked pretty good, so we signed the contract. I got swindled because I was in France. As a matter of fact, there's nothing over there! On top of that, I sent him money every month so that he could feed the young players, but he kept most of it for himself." However, according to his version of events, the players' accommodation costs should have been footed by his Moroccan counterpart. Yet the '12-month' contract signed by both sides never sets out who should foot the bill (see below).

The contract signed between ATDF's president and the president of the Al-Mostakbal football academy. Document blurred by France 24.

France 24 also got in touch with the president of the Casablanca-based Al-Mostakbal football academy. He claims to have only received 5,000 dirhams a month [Editor's note: 462 Euros] since last year to pay for both the players' apartment and their food; a sum he says is hardly enough. He also claims to have papers proving that ATDF's president sent only small sums of money. However, he still hasn't sent France 24 any such evidence.

With the young footballers seemingly bogged down in a never-ending quagmire, some aren't giving up hope of one day being able to play in Europe. "We gave up our studies for this, so we hope we can find scouts or get help from an NGO that could send us to Europe," says Élie. "Either way, it would be difficult to go back to Ivory Coast. My family has spent so much money on me... I would be ashamed to go back home with nothing." Some of the other players still haven't told their family about their ordeal, for fear that it may cause them to worry.

According to Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, president of 'Foot Solidaire' - a French NGO set up in 2000 in order to help young players who fall victim to fake agents - the ordeal faced by the 13 Ivoirian players is emblematic of the scams plaguing football. "Every week," he says, "five new players get in touch with us. But the number of players dealing with this kind of problem is surely far greater, given that many don't come forward." He adds: "These youths think they have a good enough level to go play in Europe. But that's rarely the case, and some people take advantage of their naivety.

Post written with France 24 journalist Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier)