Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Myth of the "Lost Boys"

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Myth of the "Lost Boys"

Article excerpt

Every year, thousands of young Africans pay men masquerading as football scouts for aeroplane tickets, passports and visas after being promised trials at European clubs. When they land, there is no one to meet them and no sign of a trial. They have been conned. Lured by the dream of self-determination through sport, the boys--many are under 18--end up in Europe, unsure what to do next.

Or so the story goes. The sportswriter Ed Hawkins has written a book on the subject, The Lost Boys: Inside Football's Slave Trade, and, as he recently told me, the narrative around trafficking is often insincere. "Halfway through researching the book, I realised this doesn't make any sense," he said. After all, if these "scouts" were only after money, they wouldn't need to bother buying plane tickets. It turns out that many boys and their families are aware of how poor their chances are. What they pay for is a reliable route to Europe.

"There's a strong chance that the kids are complicit and just want to get out," Hawkins says. "They're not naive. If they don't sign at a club, they can get a job on the black market doing something cash in hand."

The situation is complicated by the work of anti-traffickers in Europe. Hawkins believes that Europeans have unwittingly created incentives that encourage the con to continue. He spoke to JeanMarie Dedecker, a Belgian politician who spent years working with the "lost boys". When Hawkins said that it took two years for him to become cynical, Dedecker replied that it took him five.

Slight and bespectacled, Hawkins didn't make for an easy fit in the trafficking underworld. But, with the help of Oxford United, he devised a fake company, Scout Network, to find out how the world of football trafficking works. He learned how scouts, agents and clubs disregard Fifa's Article 19, a regulation that prohibits international transfers for those under 18. …

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