By Brian Homewood
GENEVA (Reuters) - Hundreds of African teenagers are still being led abroad by false agents promising soccer riches only to be abandoned on the streets of European countries, according to a charity that is trying to deal with the problem.
Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroon international who heads the Culture Foot Solidaire group (CFS), said it was estimated that up to 15,000 young African players were taken abroad every year under false pretences.
Mbvoumin said that the agents, often using fake business cards allegedly issued by European clubs, approached the players' families, promising a lucrative contract abroad in exchange for a fee ranging between 3,000 and 10,000 euros ($13,400).
"In Africa, you have the dream, everyone wants to be Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure," Mbvoumin told Reuters in an interview.
"There's the big dream and the families don't have good information. They pay money, they think the children will succeed in football and they leave the children with unknown people."
FIFA has introduced tougher rules on international transfers, especially those involving players under 18 which are only authorized once a long list of requirements have been fulfilled.
Soccer's world governing body says that its electronic Transfer Matching System (TMS) has dramatically cut down on minors moving abroad.
But Mbvoumin said that TMS only applied to official academies and clubs, whereas most academies in Africa were unofficial and the players therefore unregistered.
"We can say that TMS works for the organized football but we know that in Africa, 80 percent of youth football is run by non-official academies," he said. "All the traffickers, the middle men, the fake agents, work on these training academies.
"We don't have official figures because that's difficult for an illegal phenomenon, but from the NGOs (non governmental organizations) working there, we believe we have about 15,000 young Africans moving out of Africa every year because of football," he said.
"They're going to Asia, Europe and even Africa, the Maghreb countries."
Another source recently told Reuters of a case where players from Cameroon had been taken to Nepal on the promise of professional contracts and abandoned there.
Mbvoumin said that, while some youngsters were taken to Europe by plane, others were led through the Sahara desert and across the Mediterranean on clandestine boats along with other economic migrants.
Once they arrived in Europe, the promised contract failed to materialize and they were abandoned.
"You have thousands of African young people on the streets of Europe," said Mbvoumin, whose Paris-based group works to help the abandoned players in Europe and raise awareness in Cameroon.
"I went to Hungary recently and they told me there were kids abandoned there. There are thousands in France, in Italy and in Spain, Greece and Cyprus.
"Sometimes, the children don't want to go back because of the shame, because the family have paid a lot of money sometimes even selling their home to pay the middleman," he added.
"For the children, it is a dramatic situation."
Mbvoumin, whose charity signed an agreement on Wednesday with the Qatar-based International Center for Sport Security, said both European clubs and African footballing authorities could do more to help.
"European football has a huge responsibility because everyone wants to come to Europe," he said.
"In Africa, we don't have sports policy, we don't have protection of minors, or even organized youth football," he said, adding that even professional leagues did not offer players a proper way of earning a living.
"It's just so-called professional," he said.
"In countries such as Senegal or Cameroon, you can see that is not professional football. The players earn 70 euros ($93.68)a month, many are not paid, you cannot live from football in Africa today, except maybe in some countries like Morocco or South Africa.
"We need to develop the sport, the training of the young people, the protection of the young people, and organize an awareness campaign for the young players."
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(Reporting by Brian Homewood. Editing by Patrick Johnston)