Postcard from Senegal: the price of football dreams

The country’s elite football academies produce champions, but the lure of fame and fortune abroad can lead to ‘football trafficking’, says Azil Momar Lô.

The World Today
2 minute READ

Azil Momar Lô

Journalist, contributor to Africa Check

When Senegal’s men’s national football team were crowned African champions for the first time in February, it wasn’t just a proud moment for Sadio Mané, who scored the winning penalty. The victory was another triumph for Génération Foot (GF), one of the country’s elite football academies, which cultivated the young Mané’s talent and launched him into the highest echelons of world football. 

There were more Senegalese players in Europe’s top leagues last year than any other African nation

Mané is currently playing at Bayern Munich, having recently left Liverpool. Other graduates from GF have included the former West Ham player Diafra Sakho and Watford player Ismaila Sarr. By one calculation, there were more Senegalese players in Europe’s top leagues last year than any other African nation

At GF’s 18-hectare campus on the outskirts of Dakar, student Abdoulaye Fall Beye, 20, recounts his dream of playing for the French second division side Saint-Étienne when he graduates. Until then, Beye says ‘sport-studies’ is the academy’s motto: ‘We have class from 8am to 1pm or 2pm, then we have a two-hour nap before we start a training session in the evening,’ he says. 

‘We don’t just train future footballers, we train them to become men,’ says Talla Fall, a founding member of the academy when it started in 2000 and its current marketing and communications director. ‘Not everyone will be another Sadio Mané,’ he notes.

The academy says it offers the same educational qualifications as Senegal’s mainstream schools. Once a student is admitted, typically between 12 and 16 years of age, costs for bed, board, schooling and training are met by the academy. 

At Dakar-Sacré Cœur (DSC), another academy, sporting director David Laubertie says that they also offer professional qualifications, public speaking and media training. ‘We think that is important because, whether football professionals or not, they will leave with skills and values that will allow them to succeed,’ he says.

DSC is also a rare academy that takes women’s football seriously. Its women’s professional team won the Senegalese league last season and participated in the first-ever African Women’s Champions League.

Academy students usually come from modest backgrounds, and it is easy to see why competition for places is fierce. The literacy rate for 15-24 year olds in Senegal is around 70 per cent and the average monthly wage is equivalent to about £230. By contrast, the annual salary of 19-year-old GF graduate and Tottenham Hotspur player Pape Matar Sarr was thought to be around £500,000 when playing  for the French club FC Metz.

The rise of sports trafficking

It is estimated that about 6 per cent of players in Europe’s top professional leagues are African. It is hard to know how many young Africans journey to Europe each year in an attempt to emulate their heroes (tentative estimates range between 6,000 and 15,000). It is this desire that the so-called football traffickers exploit.  

As the University of Nottingham noted in its 2021 report The Problem of Sports Trafficking, figures posing as agents convince families of aspiring young footballers to hand over several thousand euros on the promise of a trial in Europe at a top club. These ‘agents’ have then been known to disappear, or, if they do provide passage to Europe via tourist visas, confiscate their charges’ passports, leaving them to languish penniless in shabby accommodation waiting for trials with clubs that rarely materialize. 

‘Hundreds and hundreds’ of Senegalese boys have fallen victim to football traffickers

Talla Fall acknowledges these issues, but denies GF can be held accountable. ‘When we send the boys to Europe, we always fix all the administrative and legal hiccups before they go,’ he says.

Alpha Fall of the Senegalese Football Federation estimates that ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of Senegalese boys have fallen victim to football traffickers, adding that the country has kept no records. The federation can track those under-18s licenced with the federation and intervene, he says, but has no means to help unregistered players.

As for the European clubs, they have been criticized for treating the African football scene like a talent ‘supermarket’ rather than investing properly in its development. GF is in a long-term partnership with FC Metz, which in exchange for equipment and financial support has first option to recruit the academy’s players. Only when a player is sold by FC Metz to another club will the academy receive a fee.

In one respect, this balance of power is shifting.

For decades, African national teams tended to be managed by Europeans. Since 2015, the former captain of Senegal’s national team Aliou Cissé has overseen the side, and of the five African teams that have qualified for the World Cup in Qatar this November, three others alongside Senegal – Cameroon, Tunisia and Ghana – are managed by Africans.

Mamadou Koumé, an expert on Senegalese football, also emphasizes the progress of Omar Daff and Habib Beye, former Senegalese nationals who are now managers at French football clubs. 

Back at GF’s campus, Abdoulaye Fall Beye smiles when asked what he’ll do should he not realize his dream – he hopes he will work in football in some form. ‘You never know what the future holds,’ Beye says.