The second edition of the International Conference on Young African Footballers is scheduled to take place in Cameroon on 27 and 28 October. At the behest of the association Culture Foot Solidaire, the conference will focus on the protection of under-age footballers, and Africans in particular.
Having made it as a professional footballer, Jean-Claude Mbvoumin fulfilled the dream of many millions of youngsters across Africa. Not that the road to success was easy. In order to achieve his goal, the former Cameroon international experienced the full gambit of emotions, from dizzying highs to sickening lows.
Now retired, Mbvoumin drew on the lessons learned from his time in the game to set up a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Culture Foot Solidaire, which is backed by FIFA. This organisation is devoted to the protection of young African footballers, first and foremost via preventive measures. They are, however, able to come to players' aid if necessary.
His own struggle to forge a career in Europe began around the age of 20, upon arrival on French soil. "With hindsight, I would have loved to have been better advised. When you're discovering a new country, when you're injured, when you're at the end of your tether, you're alone because you're far away from your family - you're left to fend for yourself. ."
Roger Milla, the NGO's roving ambassador
The project began gathering momentum around the year 2000. "I used to pass by the Cameroon Embassy, and I'd see these youngsters who didn't have the right documents (to be in France) who'd found themselves abandoned after dealings with a fake agent. I realised that something had to be done," said Mbvoumin.
Straight away, measures were put in place to take Mbvoumin's project forward. First to come on board was Cameroon legend Roger Milla, currently the NGO's roving ambassador and honorary president of this month's Second International Conference on Young African Footballers. "When the people from the Culture Foot Solidaire organisation asked me for my support, I didn't hesitate for an instant," said Milla.
"As a former footballer from the continent, I owed it to myself to make my own humble contribution to improve the fate of these youngsters, who often end up in all four corners of the world. It was my responsibility. It was also a way to give something back to the game after all it had given me."
Over the course of the organisation's eight-year existence, it has dealt with a wide variety of cases, as well as finding new problems and issues emerging all the time. "We're constantly uncovering new problems," revealed Mbvoumin. "The main danger is that of young players being treated like objects. The success of players like Samuel Eto'o or Didier Drogba leads to increasing numbers of children being developed purely for financial gain."
For this reason, Culture Foot Solidaire have put forward a well-rounded project that places a greater emphasis on social rather than sporting issues. This initiative is backed by France's FIFA World Cup™-winning coach Aime Jacquet, a patron of the organisation, who believes that "nowadays young players are taking greater and greater risks, sometimes to the detriment of their safety and their education. The goal of Culture Foot Solidaire, which is to prevent these things from happening, deserves to be supported."
Mbvoumin added: "There's a need to reverse the prevailing trend because the sole aim of developing youngsters can't be about making money. It's vital to put a regulatory code in place that clubs must stick to, because they too are exposed." The future lies with social projects, such as the Maison du Jeune Footballeur (Young Footballer's Club), a centre packed with resources tailored to development frameworks, young people, educators, footballing executives and to families - a project that is currently being tested in Cameroon.
According to Mbvoumin, young players must be aware that the chances of becoming a professional footballer are slim: "They need to have access to a project that is realistic, so that they have the chance to pick up a diploma to fall back on." As the experienced youth worker well knows, if social aspects of youth development are not put before the sporting side of affairs, the players' futures could be in jeopardy.
Indeed, Culture Foot Solidaire were the instigators of the first edition of the International Conference on Young African Footballers, held two years ago in Europe. At this year's event in Cameroon, which is spread over two days, eminent specialists from the football world and a variety of other institutions will discuss the issue of "Football, migration and protection of under-age individuals".
Together, they will try to find workable solutions and "sign up for a joint approach aimed at protecting young African footballers. The main objective will be to adopt concrete measures for protecting young African players as well as a 'Footballing Solidarity Charter' against child trafficking and exploitation."