Theorising Legal Responses to the Trafficking of Child Footballers from West Africa to Europe

By Eleanor Drywood


This paper interrogates legal responses to trafficking-like practices around the recruitment of young footballers from developing regions of the world to Europe’s professional football leagues, arguing that an approach which focuses to a greater extent on the agency of the players involved would result in more effective legal responses. In 2002, FIFA banned the international transfer of minors in response to growing evidence of harm towards children (Article 19 Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players), yet there is significant evidence that a sophisticated network of rogue agents continues to operate in West Africa, violating the basic rights of child footballers (Drywood, 2015), capitalising upon the continual search for cheap, young talent by European clubs (Hawkins, 2015).


This paper theorises ways in which the law responds to this issue, using four categories to classify relevant measures: sports regulation; criminalisation; migration; child protection. The purpose of this classification is to offer a more sophisticated way of assessing the appropriateness and effectiveness of legal responses. The paper utilises a socio-legal methodology, requiring the analysis of law at the level of the individual and within a broader social, political, cultural and economic context (Cottrell, 1995).


Drawing on theories from critiques of anti-trafficking legislation (Vijeyarasa, 2016), of literature on the trafficking of footballers from Ghana as a migratory phenomenon (Essen 2015) and of children’s rights and the sociology of childhood, this paper identifies agency as a more appropriate starting point for legal responses to the trafficking of child footballers. It argues that by conceptualising the young players’ desire to travel to Europe as a rational choice, the focus of the law can shift in a way that may offer more effective responses in three ways: first, a more victim-centred approach would be possible; second, the role of the football industry in perpetuating this phenomenon becomes clearer; and, third, an alternative to the current (ineffective) abolition on international transfers of minors becomes possible.


The paper is part of a wider two-year project (part-funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship) entitled ‘Children and the Globalisation of Football: Rights, Participation and Exploitation‘. Specifically, the analysis presented in this paper forms a springboard to key stakeholder interviews, which will be used to gain more insight into the law’s failure to address the phenomenon of trafficking of young footballers. Ultimately, the project extends beyond legal analysis, drawing upon multi-disciplinary theories around power dynamics and globalisation and will, therefore, be well suited to a diverse audience.



Cottrell, R. (1995). Law’s community: legal theory in sociological perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Drywood, E. (2015). ’When we buy a young boy…’: migrant footballers, children’s rights and the case for EU intervention. In: I. Iusmen and H. Stalford, eds., The EU and the global protection of children’s rights: norms, laws and policy dimensions. London: Barbara Budrich., pp. 191-219

Essen, J. (2015). ‘Better off at home? rethinking responses to trafficked west African footballers in Europe’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(3), pp.512-530

Hawkins, E. (2015). Football’s lost boys: inside football’s slave trade. London: Bloomsbury.

Vijeyarasa, R. (2016). Sex, slavery and the trafficked woman. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.

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