Foul Spiel

Foul Play

Foul Play: Profit, promises, and semi-criminality

Claims against the Football Migration Industry


The Gambia

Capital: Banjul
Population: approx. 2.3 million
Languages: over 20 national languages; alongside the official language English, Mandinka is the most widely spoken language

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Currently, the European football media is mainly dominated by the profit-greed of the failed Super League and vague protests against the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Slogans like Human Rights or Human rights – On and off the pitch on the tricots of the German and Norwegian national team indicate human rights violations in the host country Qatar.1,2 These slogans refer to the slave-like living and working conditions under which foreign workers construct football stadiums for the upcoming World Cup. Human Rights Watch, in a 2020 report, points out the three main reasons underlying the exploitation: the kafala system, which creates a visa-bondage between employer and working migrant; an unmoral recruitment process that pushes many workers in debt as they have to pay their own recruiting fees; and unpaid or postponed wages.3 While all of those claims against Qatar are right and important, nobody talks about protests against the Football Migration Industry in Europe, which is financially exploiting minor refugees and often leaves them in precarious conditions. For this purpose, we were able to conduct an interview with Almami (name changed), an under 18 refugee from Gambia who has played in the Campionato Primavera, the major league of Italian youth football, for two years. The interview was conducted on the 11th of April and is fully anonymous to protect the insecure asylum status of the interviewed.

Who is playing?

In Italy's major football youth league, players are generally eligible between the ages of 15 and 20.

Who is playing?

In Italy's major football youth league, players are generally eligible between the ages of 15 and 20.

This article poses critical questions at us: How can we as White positioned persons translate the story of a Black person? How can we decry racism while still reproducing structural racism? We have decided, for this specific article and in this specific context, that solidarity may be inconvenient and conflicting. But, it also means using our privileges in order to report the story of Almami who cannot just decide to publish it on his own, as he could be facing severe consequences due to his precarious asylum status.

Good vs. bad migration: The Fortress Europe and its labor market

The European border regime cannot be solely explained through the lenses of militarization into the Fortress Europe. Rather we must analyze it as the Janus-faced apparatus of isolation and neoliberal labor market. While the first one is more or less obvious, the second is driven by the fear of loosing the producing masses due to demographic change. It functions through a combination of social-Darwinism and (non-)governmental recruitment agencies.4,5 This two-sided approach – good vs. bad, legal vs. illegal migration – dominates the European migration policy at least since the start of its Neighborhood Policy in 2003.6
Graffitti No Border No Nation
No Borders No Nation © Bright Tal via Creative Commons

In a capitalist organized world-economy, this approach makes total sense. Ever since World War Two – and maybe even before that – migrating people are first and foremost seen as human capital: They are supposed to subordinate themselves as cheap labor forces under the European economies as long as they are profitable.4 The German (profit-oriented) developmental agency GIZ has various programs running under the slogan Triple-Win, supporting that reality. In 2016, the GIZ in cooperation with the Moroccan employment agency has started a pilot program that handpicked 110 apprentices for the German hotel industry.7 Another program of the GIZ and the German employment agency is headhunting migrant workers in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Tunisia for the German care sector.8 Simultaneously, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Morocco function as Europe´s externalized border. Though this may seem cynical, it perfectly fits into the last two objectives of the European Neighborhood Policy: “security; and migration and mobility”.9

The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) relies primarily on the EU’s soft power: a political tool that relies less on coercion and more on consensus and incentives. For example, cooperation on border issues is considered a number one condition for admission to the free trade area of the world’s largest common economic space. In this context, the proximity in time to the establishment of the border control agency Frontex in 2005 and the institutional increase in importance of migration control is probably no coincidence. After all, the goal of the ENP is to establish a stable ring of friends in the immediate regional neighborhood. In other words, it is also about propping up authoritarian regimes, taking preventive action and allowing as little freedom of migration as possible.
Externalization means a threefold outsourcing of the border regime: to technologies, to private actors and/or geographical shifts to third countries. The latter have been common practice at least since the ENP was launched. Border management cooperations take place with both African countries of origin and transit countries. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco are the epitome of Fortress Europe. Here, time-honored border fences meet state-of-the-art technologies.
While economic exploitation in the low-wage-sector is well known to most of us, the same does not apply for the football migration industry. Why is that the case? First, football is usually perceived as a large opportunity for the integration of young refugees and asylum seekers. 10,11,12 Second, as there are neither broader debates nor policy-reforms regarding structural racism in the European society, there is no need for critical self-reflection in professional football apart from fast slogans and gestures. Third, football is primarily seen as a game, not a business.

Money and the balls

In 2010, the FIFA already reworked their policy-standards. Since then, international transfers, technically, for players under the age of 18 are prohibited. Of course, there are still exceptions included.13,14 However, the new policy was responding to increasing numbers of irregular football migrants stranding in Europe. The organization Culture Foot Solidaire counted 8.000 irregular football migrants in France in 2010.14 In many cases, European football agents have been picking young talents – especially from West Africa – and make their families pay large sums of up to 5.000€ to bring their sons to the large European football clubs. Some youngsters might even make it to a top team. In those cases, they often face adhesion contracts while the agents earn large sums. The others are dumped by their agents and left in precarious legal situations.14

Annual revenue (bn, EUR)

Annual revenue rate of European top-teams in billions (EUR) from 1996 to 2016.
Source: own Illustration, data from: UEFA (2016): Club Licensing Benchmarking Report Financial Year 2016

In order to avoid the FIFA-rules and continue with the employment of West African minors, their age is often falsified. If they are no longer supported by a powerful football team or their agents, French (and other European) immigration services no longer accept their given age and use racist methods such as bone tests to confirm their age.14 Though these cases are not the same than what happened to our interviewee Almami, the racist-capitalist structures are alike. The ability of the youngsters to act independently (agency) – to make it in one of the European football leagues – is clearly a driving force for emigration in the first case. By arriving in Europe large parts of this agency is taken away from them.

The start of a precarious football career

When Almami arrived in Sicily in 2016, he has made it through the world´s deadliest border: the Aegean Sea.15 He was almost immediately brought to a reception center for minor migrants located in Messina, Sicily. Back in Gambia, he was not even interested in football or dreaming of a professional football career.

Soccer in camp
© Jared Köhler for EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid via Creative Commons

Close to the reception center, there was a football ground. Here, Almami started playing for fun with other minors. After some time a man appeared on the playground. That person later became his football agent. One week after his appearance in early 2017 the camp officials accompanied by the then unknown agent, knocked at his door and sent him further to Genoa – the start of his football career. He explains to us how they lured him with having an own room, a TV, and becoming a football player. From that moment onwards, the agent also became his legal supervisor, as he was still under 18. Almami has played in three different teams in the Campionato Primavera – two in Genova and one in Bologna. During that period, he had been living in a talent camp together with youngsters from countries like Canada and Brazil. Though working and training fulltime (two training sessions per day) he never received any payment while playing in the teams. His teammates on the other hand did. So where did his money go?

When he started playing for the team his agent made him sign a contract. He tells us that this was just one signature of many, as he always had to sign for everything back in the reception center (e.g. entering, leaving, receiving food). Later he found out that his agent probably received the money and held it back; it must have been at least 5.000€ per month if not more. Making a total sum of at least 180.000€. Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist, explains the binding of contracts through noncontract conditions like trust and common understanding.16 Almami did not find latter here. Most likely, the agent took advantage of his power position as the legal supervisor of Almami to enrich himself. This recruitment practice is nothing other than a neocolonial legacy. In the imperial era, this racist legal system was called indentured labor: the trade of people from one colony to another to work as unpaid laborers in exchange for food and housing. Now in these days it is obviously to be found the football migration industry.17

The British legal system of indenture was a common practice of indentured servitude, especially from the 16th to the 18th century. Under this system, the servant was dependent on a company or private individual, receiving no wages but room and board. When the contract expired, the servants were free to start their own businesses. For many European emigrants, who were fleeing hunger, censorship, and missing freedom rights, this relationship of dependence was the only way to finance the expensive passage to the colonized territories of North America. From the middle of the 19th century, this forced labor system formally replaced the slave trade. However, the trade of colonized workers between the plantation economies, as well as their inhumane treatment, was in fact the continuation of slavery under a more humane title.
The Gambia used to be a major hub for the transatlantic slave trade. Especially from Kunta Kinteh Island many slaves were shipped out of the African continent to work in the cotton industry. Since 2003, Kunta Kinteh is a UNESCO world heritage. In his best-selling book roots the American author Alex Haley tells the story of his ancestors who were kidnapped in the Gambia and then shipped to the USA through this particular island.

From Sicily to Bremen: Illegalizing refugees for the sake of profit

The fragility of this whole work-contract-arrangement is seen when the indentured is no longer profitable. In 2019 Almami was injured – so far nothing special in professionalized football. Now, in his particular case the team terminated his contract. When this happened, Almami´s agent told him to move to Bremen, to make his case in a new team. For that purpose, or so-called opportunity, he was illegally – as his first country of arrival was Italy – sent to Germany via bus. After actually playing for some time with a team in Bremen, the police caught him due to missing papers, and most likely racial profiling. Almami was then brought to another refugee facility. By now, he is no longer living there, but has instead found a shared flat apartment. Unfortunately, the struggle does not stop here. Currently, the German officials challenge his age. They do that for obvious reasons because the deportation of unaccompanied refugees under 18 usually is illegal.18 Anyway, one chance of proving his age would be his football profile on „tuttocampo“, which is a job market for footballers. Problem is, his profile (excluding his data and score) was replaced by the name and picture of another player:

“I no longer exist there.“ Also in the Gambian Embassy in Italy from where he received his passport somehow through his agent, there is no file existing. Back in Sicily, where he was first registered and mysteriously also discovered by the agent, no file exists. When talking to the Gambian officials on the phone, they tell Almami that definitely a passport was issued to him in Italy.

I no longer exist there.


How can it be then that there is no file anywhere in Italy? Not later than here, the criminal energy of the whole football migration industry is no longer blurred, but rather crystal clear. Almami assumes that when he was injured the agent sent him to Bremen to get rid of him. From there on, he could easily change his football profile and continue business as usual:

They make you believe you are a good player but in their own interest. After they are done with you, they throw you away and find someone else.



With Almami being in Germany and knowing of his precarious asylum situation, who would believe his story or care about it? Since then he never heard again form his manager who blocked him on social media.

After all of that happened, Almami is still playing football any time he is unhappy. Besides, he is now using his energy in doing rap music, and after we have heard some of his powerful songs, we are sure this was not the last time we have heard of him.

In collaboration with Almami


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