The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Exploitation, Youth Soccer, and College

I begin with a warning and an observation. First, I do not want to dwell on American soccer troll topics. This post is not meant to gauge the “effectiveness” of the college soccer system in producing elite players as compared to European youth academies. Rather, I want to focus on the intangible. I also want to grapple with a topic that has long ached at my soul: does our consumption of top-level European soccer foster child labor exploitation in Africa and elsewhere? As 21st century consumers with unparalleled access to tomes of information, we have a moral obligation to reflect on how our decisions in aggregate affect the world.

Lots of ink has been spilled on clubs fighting over prodigies, but what happens to the graft? What happens to the kid from a far-off province who signs with an agent, moves to a town, ceases any formal education, and simply doesn’t make the cut to top-tier professional soccer? Or worse. has horror tales from the front lines of human trafficking of children & soccer in Africa. FIFA implemented the “TMS” system, collecting over 30 pieces of identification of children, in order to prevent an abusive over-the-counter sale of a child. Yet the blurry line between the traditional soccer-transfer system as applied to youth, and human trafficking, is shades of gray upon shades of gray. For example, imagine FC Utrecht sends scouts to a remote town in Ghana to hold try-outs for talented teenagers to move into a big city and train at their academy. Parents from nearby towns loan money to send their kids to the town of the try-out. The kid gets selected. Does a dream get fulfilled? Or a nightmare begin?

Every time I see a John Obi Mikel or Michael Essien play, I wonder—how many African youth have been exploited to serve me this product on my television? Yet the devil whispers in my ear. He tells me that the cost of any big dream is potential failure. In the United States, thousands of baseball players toil in Double and Single A ball, never coming close to a decent paycheck or a shot at the big time. Am I projecting middle-class sensibilities on risk-takers? Is this simply a case of the taller the mountain, the steeper the fall? Who am I to tell somebody not to dream, especially if the alternative realities are bone-crushing poverty?

The alternative—college soccer in the US—certainly has a biological rebuttal. I can admit that soccer requires running. Lots of running. The lungs of a human being also peak around 18 years of age—so the traditional college years are a player’s cardiovascular peak. Yet these scientific rationalizations overlook the life-long value of an education. Granted, lots of players go to athletic department diploma-mills and many never graduate. But American Claudio Reyna, a former EPL player who spent three years at UVA, recently unveiled a US soccer youth curriculum that showed intelligence, organization, and analytical coherence (even if you disagree with him). Conversely, Jean Marc Bosman, the Belgian footballer who courageously opened the door for free agency for other players, lives on welfare. These are obviously extreme counterexamples—but a few years of college education surely makes a difference.

Both systems can surely be tweaked. And it starts with us. As individuals, our consumption preferences can start piecemeal change. While globalization can lead to a race-to-the-bottom whereby the best product at the cheapest price wins, we can also select products for other reasons. When I watched Chris Klein play midfield for the KC Wizards, it was pretty cool that his wife was an elementary school teacher at my grade school. What’s even cooler is his business degree from Indiana University.

Chris Klein never reached the professional heights of John Obi Mikel, but he entertained me for years. And I slept easy knowing that IUB only marginally exploited parents with annual tuition increases.

Elliott blogs about soccer at


Exploitation, Youth Soccer, and College

by Elliott · May 19, 2011

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