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VICE Sports Q&A: How Big of A Problem Is Youth Trafficking in Soccer?

Author Ed Hawkins talks to us about the seedy underbelly of teenage player transfers.

by Aaron Gordon
23 May 2016, 11:08pm

LEGNAN KOULA // EPA

Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In 2009, FIFA revised Article 19 to further protect minors from the predatory underbelly of the soccer world. It banned players under 18 from moving countries for the purpose of playing soccer (with a few exceptions; more on that later) and instituted a Transfer Matching System requiring both Football Associations involved to confirm the player's details and log the transfer in a central database.

FIFA instituted Article 19 because trafficking minors is bad. This much, one would think, is obvious. Only it's a regular occurrence in soccer, and the biggest clubs do it with reckless abandon. Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid have all run afoul of the statute. America's best prospect, Christian Pulisic, circumvented the regulation by obtaining a Croatian passport—which, it should be noted, is perfectly legal—so he could play in Europe at 16, a common maneuver for foreigners to circumvent Article 19.

Then there's Qatar's Aspire Academy, which buys pre-teens from Africa, Central America, and the far East, moves them to Qatar, trains them, then moves them to a Qatari-owned Belgian club. Technically, this is all above board as far as FIFA is concerned, even though it violates every spirit of Article 19.

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British journalist Ed Hawkins went undercover to dig into soccer's child trafficking problem for his book, The Lost Boys: Inside Football's Slave Trade, released two weeks ago in the United States. Hawkins was kind enough to talk to me about his book, why he went undercover, and what can be done to fix this problem. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

VICE Sports: What made you want to write a book about child trafficking in soccer?

I hadn't done anything on it before. I was going to team up with the International Center for Sport and Security and they were supposed to be doing a long-term investigation into it. So my idea was just basically to follow them around and report that as a book. But that fell through. So I had initial discussions with them and a little bit research myself about the topic. By the time it came to them not really going ahead with what they were doing, I was kind of hooked and wanted to know what was up, what was the anatomy of this trade. What's the truth? And I kind of got the bug, really. And once you sort of get into a subject or, I suppose, obsessed with a subject, I've got to try and get the answers. So that's why I carried on.

Before you started researching this, what was your understanding of Article 19? As you learned more, what did you see in practice, and why is it so ineffective?

Before I started researching, I had no idea that this law existed. You couldn't transfer kids under the age of 18? That was completely new to me. Having done the research, it seems football isn't aware either.

So I suppose, to answer your other question about what's wrong with it, when you have a law like Article 19, it's fine in principle, and the principle is no kid under the age of 18 goes anywhere. Great. That's actually brilliant, pretty much everyone can agree with that, keep them with their families, keep them in whatever education they're in, keep them with their friends, allow them to mature, and then once they're 18, they can do what they want, they can make their own decisions.

The issue with Article 19 is the caveats or the subsection rules which basically give teams a get-out clause. So the classic one is: you can move if you're under the age of 18 if your parents are going to that country anyways for reasons other than football. So that just opens the door for corrupt practices, with clubs getting jobs for kids' families and moving them over under the guise of this employment. So it's not really worth the paper its written on.

The other issue is that, because you have clubs who are willing to basically ignore Article 19, Barcelona being a terrific example. They just didn't think it applied to them for some reason. You have an attitude which filters all the way down right to the bottom of the game, to the kids themselves and your unscrupulous agents, your unscrupulous scouts, who are looking to make a fast buck. And they would say look, this player moved, that player moved, it's fine, everyone's doing it, and it creates this culture of willful neglect of this Article 19 law. So you have a rotten top, bottom, and middle.

How easy was it for middlemen to get under-18 kids moved?

Well, if you really want to get a player out, you will do it.

Now if you're, say, a Man United or another big club, they'll use that caveat of, his parents were coming to Europe anyways. So they'll bend the rule in that regard. Or they'll go to FIFA and try to make a case to their committee which rules on clubs asking for special permission to sign a player under 18. And overwhelmingly the percentages are in favor of the club. So you've got that legitimate route, so to speak.

But your middle men, they're looking to find a player who has the potential to be sold for a transfer fee so they can take a cut. So they're prepared to do pretty much anything to bend the rules to get that player out of his home country. Now that might be simply faking a birth certificate. OK, that might mean getting a contact inside the local FA to tweak the data in the Transfer Matching System so he appears to be older than he actually is. So falsifying the forms on the Transfer Matching System, or other documents, including a birth certificate. And you also have the middlemen prepared to get embassies involved, which I talk about in the book, with regard to getting visas and passports. There's an industry for that.

And that's probably one of the major things I did in the book, I guess. I spoke to someone who, that's his business. He gets—they're not fake, actually, they're genuine passports, they're just obtained through illegal means, paying corrupt officials to get these documents so they can get them over, get them out.

For this book, you posed as a talent scout so you could find out how the trafficking system works. Why did you decide this was necessary, and did you have any concerns about posing undercover for this book?

No, because, I think, once you've established that it's in the public interest to report on illegal activity where the laws are being broken and children are being exploited, then I have no issue whatsoever with going undercover and exposing what these people are doing.

Why I decided to go undercover: that was the only way I could think of getting my fingernails under the topic, and getting myself in the situation, really discovering what the anatomy is of this industry and what the trade is, how it works, how they're moved, how much money it costs, and what the tricks these people use to get visas, to get passports, to get round Article 19. So yeah I thought it was absolutely necessary and I didn't have any qualms with the ethics of the situation, particularly, you've got to remember, I spent quite a few months sending just blanket emails to agents. I was only dealing with people who said they were prepared to move players under the age of 18 anyway.

I'm curious to get your impressions about Qatar's Aspire Academy, based on everything you've learned. Is it ethical? Is it something we as a global sporting community should accept?

I suppose ethically and morally, those are the kind of words that are really important when you talk about Aspire. On the face of it, legally, in the world of football, have they done anything wrong? Well, they would insist they haven't. And FIFA are reluctant to investigate them for doing anything wrong.

If you really get into the nitty gritty of the laws and the rules and regulations, it's quite clear that there is a case that FIFA needs to investigate because of the way they are taking these kids from one country and moving them to another when they're under the age of 18 and then graduating them to a team which they bought and which plays in a UEFA recognized league and therefore FIFA recognized league and therefore organized football. Organized football is one of the key phrases when it comes to Article 19. They have to be playing organized football. Now they're not playing organized football at the academies, OK? By letter of the law. But once the Qataris are moving them to the club they own, then surely they are playing organized football. So, they are bending the rules to the extreme. They found a very canny way to get around it.

But just getting to the point I'm making at the start, it is a moral and ethical issue. Is it really right that the Qataris are buying these kids by giving money to their parents and then moving them out of the country to a football academy in the hopes that they're going to find the next Messi or the next international star for their team or a very good player for a team they bought in Europe? I would say it is morally wrong. European MPs have said it's totally wrong. Academics who have been researching this industry for years have said it's wrong. So I'd point you towards people like that who have great weight and stature when asking about whether it's morally and ethically correct.

One thing you briefly note in the book is that some people might look at this situation, where kids move to countries with higher standards of living and more economic opportunities, and some might say, what's the harm?

Well surely the problem is when you've got kids ending up in child prostitution, drugs, gang crime, because football has supposedly given them a route out to this better life that you've just described, and now it turns out they're nowhere near good enough. Football's turned their back on them. And they've been left to live on the street.

Now, some of those kids may know perfectly well what they're getting into. They may know perfectly well their chances are limited and it may be that they think, well it doesn't matter if I get a contract with a football club because, hell, I can make far more money doing A, B, or C in Paris or Madrid than working at home in Africa. So they would say what's the problem? But there's a major, major problem if kids are ending up in prostitution, drugs, or crime gangs. So I don't think football really has a leg to stand on.

If Article 19 isn't solving the problem, what can?

I think Michel Platini has always said it should just be banned. You can't sign a player under the age of 18 from a different continent, period. You just can't do it. No caveat. No way you can get around the rules. It's just a blanket ban. No one moves if they're under the age of 18. After that, do what you like.

Of course there will be people willing to get birth certificates faked, passports, etc. to get those kids out earlier. But this brings us back to a question of culture. Once those at the top of the game take the problem seriously and educate the top clubs, clubs like Barcelona, who, I said earlier, thought the rules didn't apply to them, then you're actually going to see a change, because it filters all the way down otherwise.

Michel Platini argues there should be a hard ban on transferring players under 18. Photo by PATRICK B. KRAEMER // EPA

About three quarters of the way through the book, you come away with this realization. I won't give away what it is, but what surprised you the most while reporting this book?

It would be the moment when I get the email from the Japanese boy and Foot Solidaire, the charity, and it just unravels from there on. That was the most surprising moment because I didn't expect to discover the charity supposed to be helping these kids is part of the problem and exploiting them as well. That was quite shocking I think. Since then, I think FIFA have started to investigate Foot Solidaire and what they've been up to.

Has reporting and writing this book made it harder for you to enjoy soccer?

No, I don't think it has affected my view that much of the game because I've always been pretty cynical about it anyways. It's basically all about money and always will be. That's what this whole problem is about. It's about money. It's about every level, every ladder, they want their slice of the money pie. Your top clubs want to sign the next Messi, your agent or your scout wants to make a quick few bucks, and the kids right at the bottom, they want to make their riches. So everyone is on the make, and money is making the industry go round.