African players under 18 years of age were trafficked and forced to work under an illegal contract with a Laos-based football club, the BBC reported on Monday.
Despite FIFA regulations banning footballers from making contracts with foreign clubs or academies if they are under 18, the Pakse-based professional football club Champasak United reportedly still employs six underage players after it imported 23 minors from West Africa in February.
According to the allegations, the newly-formed club, which plays in Laos’ top league, was aiming to benefit by selling the trained footballers in the future.
The club, however, has denied all such claims, saying it engaged in no wrongdoing.
The teenage players claim that they were forced to work without salaries and to sleep on the floor, violating the rights provided by the contracts they signed.
A 14-year-old Liberian player, Kesselly Kamara, said that he was forced to sign a six-year contracts which promised him accommodation and a salary.
However, the contract was violated many times by the club’s management and he neither received payment nor accommodation. He had to sleep on the floor of the club's stadium.
"It was very bad because you can't have 30 people sleeping in one room," Kamara, who is now playing for a club in Liberia's top league after he returned to the country, told the BBC.
"It's hard to live in a place with no windows. It made sleeping very difficult, because you are thinking about your life," Kamara added.
As there is no football academy in Liberia, the young players happily accepted the invitation of the "IDSEA Champasak Asia African Football Academy."
Liberian journalist and sports promoter, Wleh Bedell, led the group to Laos in February before returning to his country. He said that the academy was never legally established, adding that "It's an 'academy' that has no coach nor doctor. One officer was the coach, the business manager, everything. It was completely absurd."
Three months ago, the club, in response to facing intense criticisms for holding the minors without their consent, decided to release all the teenage footballers to back their country.
Despite rising criticism of the conditions in the club, not all the players agreed to leave Laos.
Although 17 players decided to return their countries of origin, six others chose to remain.
"I don't want him to come back to Liberia until he succeeds in his dream," said Bella Tapeh, the mother of one 17-year-old player who is still in Pakse.
The players signed their contracts with club president Phonesavanh Khieulavong and former international Liberian player Alex Kamo who introduced himself to them as a "manager for players from Africa in Champasak," according to FIFpro, the World player’s union.
Kamo claims that the club paid the players’ salaries every month and provided three meals a day, while Khieulavong told the BBC that the footballers signed the contracts to benefit from bonuses.
Neither of them denied the presence of minors in the club, saying that there is only one 16-year-old boy from Guinea in the club. However the BBC reports that it has heard that there are still five underage players from Liberia at the club.
Another problem affecting the players is that their movement in Laos is restricted due to their visas having run out in March. But Karmo has insisted that “nobody is illegal. Everybody is legal" at the club.
Stephane Burchkalter, an official for FIFpro, says it is shocking that such a small country can attract underage footballers without FIFA being aware.
Culture Foot Solidaire, an NGO run to protect to underage footballers, estimates that 15,000 teenagers seek to leave West Africa due to hopes that their dreams of sporting stardom may come true.