“The lost boys of Soccer”

August 11, 2011


by Tola Adenle

The incredible wealth being made by African soccer superstars in European Leagues is leading, perhaps, thousands of what an investigator has described as the “lost boys of soccer” into lives of poverty, deprivation and even deaths in the outer fringes of soccer in Europe and soccer’s no-man’s land in Northern Africa.

The paradox of good fortune for a few leading to poverty for many is not strange to Africa where thieving rulers, politicians, top government officials, etcetera take the wealth of all as the wealth of a few but the problem in soccer is not caused by Samuel Eto’o, Kanu, Okocha, Drogba, Seyi Emmanuel AdebayoR, the Toure Brothers, Stephen Appiah, or any of the very successful athletes whose success has created a stampede for European professional leagues.  The rags to riches stories of these superstars, however, are driving many boys to drop out of schools, trades and other proven routes to stable, if not great wealth lives – to desperate means of making it as pro soccer players.

To make matters worse, many parents in West Africa are selling belongings, including real properties like homes and investing – or so they believe – the proceeds with agents most of whom are fraudsters to ensure their sons make it to European soccer leagues.  These “agents” know the parents are so gullible and are easy pickings that they ask for huge sums as their fees up front, take the boys and disappear never to be heard from again. Unfortunately, these “investments” are often as good as playing the slots or higher stake-gambling games in Vegas.

There are all sorts of soccer academies all over Africa today but most of the ones featured in a television program I watched on Current TV seem to me to be run mostly by people not that interested in the boys’ development.  Although we cannot expect somebody to spend his money to set up an academy as a charity venture, there is Tom Brennan, a white coach – I think he’s American – in Ghana who set up the ‘Right to Dream Academy’, a free boarding school where boys actually receive secondary education as well as football coaching.  Brennan keeps his boys’ spirits up through the nourishing environment which should keep their hopes fairly realistic.  A few of the boys get scholarships.  A few will make it to the top leagues and those who do not still have their basic education to fall and improve on.

One of the fathers interviewed for the program which I watched a few months ago wondered aloud:  “look at Drogba, Essien … if they are accountants …”

It is this kind of expectation that has driven and is still driving many West African parents and relations like the older brother of a wannabe who sold his house while the younger brother for whom the sacrifice was made sleeps at a metro station somewhere on the outskirts of Paris.  There are worse tales.  A boy turns to working in a restaurant whose owner has a father that rapes the boy giving him twenty Euros and like many who have been forced into lives of depravation, is too ashamed to share his story.

Francis Tamba, one of the boys followed for the television documentary may be stranded in Morocco, his parents in Ghana have not stopped hoping even as his mother cannot stop crying.  Francis does not really express the desire to go back home even though he cannot afford to feed but the hunger to achieve his goal seems, perhaps, a more pressing need than to find his way back to where he can feed his body.

The father’s anguish over Francis who wears his “hair split in the middle” as the father refers to one of those hair-dos common with African boys in European soccer – is palpable as he gets a chance to chat with his son.

A very sad part of these stories is that the world tennis establishment is very aware of this unseemly side of the harm that soccer success is causing in a part of the world that can least afford another strike.  For instance, one family stops its female child from school because it prefers to expend its little resources on a boy it hopes would become so successful that he would be able to take care of everybody.

If “we created this monster” as the narrator ominously intones, who will slay the monster: the monster of unrealistic hope; the monster of un-informed; the monster of greed; the monster of exploitation, etcetera.

I believe FIFA, yeah, the Sepp Blatter-led organization that is forever plagued by corruption allegations, IS the most suitable body that can slay all these monsters.  It has the wherewithal to spread the word to young African boys not to pursue careers to Europe but to stay in school or in the trades and continue with developing their skills first, and Europe would pursue them when and if they reach professional standards.

Or am I asking for the equivalent of The World Bank advising profligate Nigeria to stop taking loans?

African governments, especially West African governments where soccer is most popular and where most of the African players everywhere come from, must pursue wide public education to stop the misadventures of our “lost boys”.  We cannot run away from the fact that the stealing and outright looting by those in governments in the sub-region are definitely partly responsible for the insane rush to Europe by the soccer boys just like the hundreds who perish crossing the Mediterranean to Italy daily.



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