Soka Afrika takes a look at the dark side of human trafficking in soccer
A talented player in Cameroon is approached by an agent after one of his best games. He’s told if he can come up with the money for a plane ticket to France, a tryout and potentially unimaginable riches await. The player’s family sells their entire inheritance to support their son. But when he arrives in France, there is no tryout, the agent is nowhere to be found, and suddenly he is left to survive on his own, sleeping on the streets and in the train stations of Paris. This far too common occurrence is the actual story of Ndomo Julien Sabo and is the basis for the film Soka Afrika, a 2011 documentary which is now finally available via streaming thanks to Kicking and Screaming Media. Despite the eight years that have lapsed since the documentary’s initial release, the film sadly remains far too current.
“It’s difficult to say if the situation of player trafficking has been made worse by the money or the situation is just getting worse because it’s unabated,” says Simon Laub, the producer of the film. “Or perhaps the situation is fractionally better in some way. It’s difficult to get a macro view on this stuff because it’s not reported and it’s not public facing. It takes a lot of determination and, detective work to actually track these things through.”
The film also follows two other main subjects. Kermit Romeo Erasmus, a player who stays in his country of South Africa and plays for his national team. It also follows Jean Claude Mbvoumin, head of NGO Foot Solidaire (an organization devoted to protecting young African soccer players), who takes an interest in Sabo and tries to help him get back on his feet, after Sabo finds himself in a soccer purgatory—unable to find work as a player in France, and unable to come back home and face the shame from his community and family of being trafficked.
“People are thrown in very difficult situations, sometimes regulated, sometimes completely unregulated,” Laub says, “and there doesn’t seem to be any plan or any care for the multitude of people who are getting hurt along the way. In the film, Jean Claude spoke about numbers, close to 10,000 kids a year, and that’s just from Africa. That’s also just the ones that turn up in Europe, that turn up on the streets of Paris and Belgium. There are kids all over the place—Lithuania, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey. These guys are not as much on the radar. What’s even scarier is that it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
To Laub, it’s not just the promise of opportunity elsewhere that allows a young African player to be susceptible to trafficking, it’s the lack of opportunity at home. “You look at players like Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, there are a lot of very top level African players,” Laub says, “and those players actually, as far as I’ve seen, are quite good at giving back in their own way, which is not actually their responsibility. But what you would hope is that when prices increase and players are going for $100 million, if the system worked correctly, then that money would trickle down to the grassroots. That’s not just in England. There’s a massive broken link in the chain of what’s going on and why stuff is so institutional. If you’re the best child in Libya and you’re 14, you may be very good compared to every other people in the world. You don’t have access to the resources. All of these other kids who’ve been training since they were eight have, so for good reason, you’re probably not very likely to say, ‘I’m the best around here, so I’ll stay here and play in the national league and wait until I’m 18. You’re going to want to go somewhere else. Now the problem is the incentive is not there in Africa to stay until you’re 18. And that’s what it should be. And it would be, if the money that these players are making is what they make when they go to a staging point.
Laub explains further. “First, a player may go to France or another European league, or Scandinavia. And if you can imagine, that the transfers are a bit similar to a trial process. So they’ll bite on one for a few hundred thousand euros and hope that they work out. And when they do work out, and they score 15 goals, the club happily sells them on to a different, larger-scale European club who will pay five million euros for this player. So now the Belgium club may have made about five million on the sale of this player. But the African club who should have trained, raised and brought this kid to the start of his career, they are getting maybe 100,000 euros. Who knows what actually goes to the club? Think of what these people could do with five million euros.”
Eight years later, Laub remains attuned to the issue of trafficking in the soccer world. He remains in regular contact with the main participants of the film to see where they have progressed in their lives. It’s an issue he hopes will receive renewed attention with the availability of the film online to a new audience.
“I hope this new audience can take away unfiltered viewpoints on the reality of the life of some of these athletes, coming from an African background, particularly,” Laub says. “We would like people to see the reality and they can judge for themselves. We were very keen on not holding the audience’s hand and guiding them to ‘This is the right way. This is the wrong way.’ We feel it’s kind of fairly evident within the characters. As a general rule, a player with two parents behind them, a legitimate agent, staying in the country, playing on the national team from the ages of 13-17, that’s going to make a more productive football player, and also a more productive human being.”
To view Soka Afrika, visit Kicking + Screening Media.