AARHUS, Denmark (Reuters) - African families are handing their life savings to false agents who promise their sons a career with a European club but instead leave them abandoned on the street, says a charity which deals with the problem.
Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroon international who heads the Culture Foot Solidaire group, also warned that Africa is awash with ramshackle, unlicensed soccer academies which exist primarily to prepare children for a move abroad.
"In Africa, you have thousands and thousands of academies for which the main goal is to transfer young players to Europe," he said on the sidelines of the Play the Game conference.
"They just want to make money, they don't care about the health of the children," he added referring to academies which are often little more than a dusty pitch by the roadside.
"Anyone can set up an academy with a small pitch, two or three poor-quality balls, and you have 50 young players running here and there," he said.
"There is no changing room, no stadium, no office, no address; they have their office in a suitcase.
"You can have some guys with a phone and computer; they have an email address, they have one coach who doesn't have the skill or qualification to train."
The best players are offered a contract by an agent and are asked to pay from 3,000 to 10,000 euros ($3,301.80 to $11,006.00) up front to cover visa and travel expenses.
But instead of a lucrative contract with a glamorous club, they are often abandoned on the streets. To make matters worse, the family fortune is also lost.
"The whole family invest in football, because they know that if he (their son) makes it as a professional, he will become a millionaire," said Mbvoumin, adding that some families even sold their houses to raise money.
"Relatives all club together because today, in Africa, it's a complete project for the whole family. Children are removed from school just to train in an academy with no contract, no idea of what will happen tomorrow.
"We need the prosecution of the traffickers, the people who take advantage of the dream of football to traffic minors," he added.
Mbvoumin, who said he received several calls a day from families asking for help, said there needed to be more co-operation between governments and police forces and that soccer's world governing body FIFA needed to be more proactive.
He suggested FIFA should set up a task force to deal with the issue.
FIFA said it had 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.
"The protection of minors is of major importance for FIFA," the ruling body said in a statement.
"Young footballers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation when they are in a foreign country without the appropriate controls.
"For FIFA, protecting the appropriate and stable development of a minor as a whole should prevail over purely sporting interests."
FIFA said the basis of the regulations on the protection of minors goes back to an agreement signed in 2001 between itself, European soccer's governing body UEFA and the European Commission and that the rules had been developed over the years.
FIFA added that its electronic Transfer Matching System (TMS) had dramatically cut down on minors moving abroad.
Mbvoumin, however, said TMS was a good idea in principle but only applied to official academies and clubs.
He added that another problem was the lack of opportunities to play soccer in Africa.
"I played before crowds of 60,000 people in Cameroon. Officially, I was an amateur but I was paid. It was a very good time for me and I was happy to play in Cameroon," he said.
"Nowadays in Cameroon we have professional football but only in name; in fact, the players are poorer than when I was playing. So everyone wants to leave the country and that is one of the problems."
Editing by Ken Ferris