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In the past four months FIFPro has been working to guarantee the safe return home of more than thirty young African footballers, including twenty minor players from Liberia and one from Guinea.

This is the story of the trip that these teenage footballers will never forget, a dramatic story that should open the eyes of ambitious adolescents around the globe and all football administrators, who have to step up their efforts in protecting minors (players under 18 years) worldwide.

In April, FIFPro managed to bring back 16 Liberian players (including 15 minors) to their homes. They had been staying at a so-called academy in Laos belonging to premier league club Idsea Champasak United. They arrived in February, persuaded by Idsea’s captain and former Liberian international, Alex Beyam Karmo. He promised them a great future in Laos, but all his promises were not fulfilled.

Next to that, 14 African players are currently held against their will at the Idsea academy, including 6 minors. They have no visa, no residence or working permit and their passports have been confiscated by the club. They informed the club that they want to leave, but the club is refusing to cooperate because all players, including the minors, have a signed contract.

“This is a tragic story about young players from a country in difficulties, where the future is far from bright. They get cheated by callous men who promise them a brighter future, but only want to take advantage of them,” says Anthony Baffoe, the Secretary General of the Professional Footballers’ Association in Ghana (PFAG) who was highly involved in the return of the 16 players.

Also read: African minors in Laos must be released

The story begins in December 2014 when Alex Karmo contacts a friend who is president of Liberian lower league club Rising Stars. Karmo says he is looking for talented players to join the newly established Idsea academy. The president trusts him and assembles a squad of 25 young men, aged 14 to 20, approximately half of them from his own club and the rest from other teams. Some of the minors are Liberian youth internationals.

The president and the 25 players travel to Ghana, where they join Karmo and other players in a training camp, before flying to Laos. Karmo persuades the players by proclaiming that the academy in Laos is a stepping stone to big clubs in Europe. He promises each player that will join the academy USD 1,000, a laptop, USD 25 per practice session, and a school education. The club will also reimburse the approximately USD 550 that each player had to pay for the flight to Ghana. The kids, who had never heard of Laos, are all convinced.

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Players sleeping in the stadium

In Laos, the players wake up in a harsh reality. The academy is far from what they expected it to be. There is no coach, no medical staff. Their accommodation is a dilapidated section of the stadium that cannot be locked and is anything but hygienic. They get only two meals a day: bread in the morning, rice in the afternoon. No education is arranged. They train twice a day, but don’t play any matches as the academy is not officially registered.

FIFA transfer regulations prohibit minor players making an international transfer or joining an academy abroad (Article 19 and 19bis of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players). There are exceptions to these rules, but they do not apply to the aforementioned cases of players involved. In short: because of these regulations, all minor players cannot be officially registered with the club. The adult players can be registered, although they must receive an official International Transfer Certificate through FIFA.

Nevertheless, two minor players appear in Idsea Champasak’s premier league matches: Kesselly Kamara Jr and Emmerson Wleh. Kamara even scores on his debut, during the 5-1 loss at Lanexang United on 28 February. Another player, 20-year old Adolphus Mutu Blamo plays several matches, even though he does not have an ITC.

After one month, Idsea’s management urges all minor players to sign a 6-year contract. The Liberian club president advises his players to refuse, according to him the contracts are “bogus”. The players listen to his advice. They have had enough of their stay at the academy, of all the false promises, of all the days waiting for matches, for improved accommodation and much more. All 22 inform the Idsea management that they want to go home directly, accompanied by their club president. But the directors refuse to cooperate and state that the players can only leave when they pay their expenses for accommodation, food and drinks. The players are unable to and thus, are trapped in the training ground.

Alerted about the situation regarding the Liberian players, FIFPro, assisted by the PFAG in Ghana (as the world players’ union does not have a Liberian PFA among its members), exerts pressure on the Laotian FA (LFF) to solve this situation. After ten hectic, sometimes scary (as players and their president get physically threatened) and confusing days, Idsea sends 17 players (including 16 minors) back to Accra, the Ghanaian capital where the players started their trip to Laos.

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The Liberian players meet Anthony Baffoe (middle, blue shirt) in Accra

In Accra, most of the players end up in a refugee camp because they lack the money to pay for a flight to Liberia. The situation lasts until FIFPro decides to finance return tickets for these 16 Liberian players. On 15 April, they are finally back in Liberia.

Not all players returned from Laos. Five players, including four minors, remained in Laos when the others left. Some of them insisted on staying because their parents indicated that they would be considered failures and their families would be mocked if they came back without being successful.

However, towards the end of May FIFPro receives information that these players and their parents regret their decision. The situation in Laos has not improved, the players indicate that it has worsened. They are stuck at the training ground. Their visa expired in March and they are afraid of being arrested when caught outside.

The players are part of a group of 14 African players (11 Liberian, 1 each from Ghana, Sierra Leone and Guinea), aged 15 to 20, who desperately want to return home. They state they were forced to sign a contract, as they would get a valid visa and a residence permit in return. All players, including six minors, signed a three-year contract. But after signing the contract in April, they have still not been handed a permit or visa.

Last weekend, Idsea reportedly tried to organise a match in Cambodia, in an apparent effort to showcase (and sell) some of the African players (including two minors). The game was cancelled, as the club realised that the African players did not have any visa...

FIFPro tried several times to get in touch with Karmo, but he did not answer any of FIFPro’s requests for comments.

Baffoe: “For FIFPro, this club Idsea Champasak and its so-called academy are a clear example of child trafficking. They approach young players from Africa and persuade them with stories of a golden future. In reality they do absolutely nothing that is beneficial for the players. They don’t give them proper training, they don’t educate them, they don’t take care of them.”

“FIFPro is very concerned that the Idsea Champasak academy is not one of its kind. We fear that there are many more clubs and people looking to earn quick money at the costs of young players wellbeing. Therefore, we alert all young professional footballers to first learn their trade and educate themselves before leaving their country. They should absolutely not rush to join any kind of worthless program abroad."

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