The Illicit Laotian Transfer Window

It’s been known for several years now, to whatever degree that people care to listen, that young African soccer players have been at risk of trafficking into Europe. It takes the form of a scam: an “agent” comes along, finds a player, tells him he’s fit to play for top European clubs and that he can get them a trial if only the player will first front costs for the trip. This can easily drain a family’s life savings in that part of the world, but with unimaginably large contracts dancing in their heads, they gladly do it. The “agent” then abandons the player somewhere along the route, either in Mediterranean Africa or in Europe itself (France is a particularly common destination, but anywhere on the continent could play host), and leaves the player to fend for themselves. Maybe they bother to arrange a trial with a club that didn’t actually know they were coming, but typically not. And with that, the player, broke, alone and stranded, simply has to figure out what to do now. The “agents” that somehow actually manage to get a player signed stick around long enough to siphon away nearly all of the money the player earns.

Here’s a piece from 2008 on it, here’s another from 2013, here’s a third from New Year’s Eve 2014. I unfortunately wouldn’t expect major change in the near future, simply because it’s so easy to present yourself as legitimate to a family in an utterly unconnected part of the world who doesn’t know any better, how to know any better, or how to obtain the resources they would need in order to know better. By the time someone gets out to educate the family on the topic, their money is long since gone and their child long since stranded in Europe. If the family is ever educated at all. Usually, the stranded player is too embarrassed to tell their family of the situation and too shamed to attempt to return home for fear of being branded a failure.

This tragic scenario, however, depends on tricking the player and family in question. If they become suspicious of the “agent”, and decline, the swindle does not take place.

It seems now that at least one club in Laos took things to another level.

On July 20, it was discovered by the BBC via global players union FIFPro, that 23 underage players were trafficked from West Africa to Laotian side Champasak United. FIFA regulations, at least officially, prohibit the transport of a player to a foreign club or academy until they turn 18. The word ‘officially’ is used because all that has to be done to get around it is the family oh-so-coincidentally moving to the club’s home country because of Reasons. FC Barcelona was sanctioned in 2014 for particularly brazen flauntings of the rule. Earlier this year, FIFA also announced that players as young as age 10 would need official international transfer certificates, also aimed primarily at Barcelona.

This has not stopped Champasak United- 2013 champions of the top-flight Lao League and third place last year- from hauling in children as young as 14. This is unusual in the respect that, instead of someone claiming to be an agent doing the transporting, it’s the club itself. FIFPro, who has been working on the case for about four months now, has since returned 17 of the players to Africa, though the other six are still in Laos.

As the BBC tells, 14-year-old Liberian Kesselly Kamara, one of the players, stated that despite the contract he was forced to sign before playing on the senior team- a contract promising $200 US per month for six years, plus accommodation costs- he was instead not paid anything and made to sleep in a single large room with the rest of the team without glass in the windows or a lock on the door. Of the players still in Laos (the six children are joined by eight adult overseas players), the club holds their passports, which causes the players to rarely leave the stadium grounds, and as their visas expired in March, they are at this time now considered illegal immigrants. Work permits are unlikely due to their age. Champasak United has provided no medical assistance either, resulting in breakouts of typhoid and malaria.

If this all sounds a heck of a lot to you like what adults might end up finding themselves experiencing in Qatar, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The players were attracted to Laos by Alex Karmo, who as far as his Wikipedia page is concerned has three caps for Liberia as a defenseman, and as Liberia has no national soccer academy at present, it wasn’t a difficult pitch to make even though Liberia sat ahead of Laos in the FIFA standings (the difference is even starker in the Elo ratings, with Liberia ranked 134th as of this writing to Laos’s 205th). The article just linked to is from January this year, when Karmo and the players had been only gone two weeks. The article stated Karmo was bankrolling the trip. The later allegations show that Karmo was in charge of basically everything else as well.

Families paid Karmo $550 per head.

These children are far from alone. The NGO Foot Solidaire, founded by former Cameroonian defenseman Jean-Claude Mbvoumin (who spent his career bouncing around France’s third and fourth tiers), estimates that 15,000 teenagers are moved out of West Africa every year, often illegally. Part of what Foot Solidaire does to combat this is publish the Passport Foot Solidaire. (The website’s all in French, so I’ve linked to a Google-spurred English translation, which actually appears pretty solid.) The idea is, people buy the passports (maybe even you buy a passport?), and they get shipped out to youth players in West Africa so as to let them know of their rights and educate them on how to spot a phony. Will it stop trafficking? No. But it hopes to at least make life a little harder for the illegitimate.

It certainly can’t get much easier.

POSTSCRIPT: The 2015 Lao League began on February 28. With the second half of the season just underway, Champasak United sits 9th in the 11-team table.

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