To open his training center, Ibrahima* gathered the bare minimum: around ten balls and as many kids ready to do anything to become professional footballers. In Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast, this former striker who, by his own admission, “never broke through”, has neither office, nor field, nor coaching diploma. In any case, he says casually, he is “not really here to train footballers”.

Since 2018, this loud-mouthed forty-year-old who crisscrosses the communes of Abidjan day and night has other objectives: “I “scout” for talents and I know how to get them to leave,” he says. Understand: he spots good players during neighborhood tournaments, promises the best and their parents a destiny as a football star before selling them, as quickly as possible, to the highest bidder.

Proud of the “fruits of [his] labor”, Ibrahima scrolls through his phone photos of the young people he has detected and who are now playing for Romanian, Czech, Albanian or Moroccan teams, most of them in lower divisions . Others, less fortunate, are in Asia or East Africa. None play in a major club, most are struggling, some want to return and almost all are angry with him, believing that he “cheated” on them. But Ibrahima doesn’t care, he lives “very well”, he likes to say. And it’s not about to stop, because “the source is inexhaustible,” he continues, “Ivory Coast is a land of football and all these young people only dream of leaving.”

“Industrialized system”

Training center, entertainment center, academy: according to a recent survey by the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF), there are more than 700 training structures registered across the country, the majority of which, like that of Ibrahima, with a low-cost appearance and dubious intentions. Only a handful stand out from the crowd and do serious work in mentoring young people. “Everyone wants their training center to market young people and make money, not to train them,” laments Fernand Dedeh. According to this sports journalist, this phenomenon is not new, but while certain countries in the sub-region – Senegal in the lead – are professionalizing their training sector, Ivory Coast is “getting bogged down”, he judges.

Worse, the opaque sales of young players have become an “industrialized system”, explains Raheem Alibhai, one of the managers of Ivoire Académie, an internationally recognized training structure which notably launched star striker Gervais Yao Kouassi , says “Gervinho”. This “system” would now affect all levels of Ivorian football: the small structures as well as the most professional ones which supply the European championships with Ivorian talent. Raheem Alibhai says he is “tired of being robbed and others taking advantage of the know-how” of his teams. An exasperation shared by many training center managers met by Le Monde.

They all tell the same story: the families of their best young players, under contract and trained for several years at home, are approached by “crooked agents” who offer, in exchange for a sum of money, to send the prodigy to a training center in Mali, renowned for the quality of its networks and its gateways to European championships, and, more rarely, in Burkina Faso.

Since the transfer of minors is prohibited by the International Football Federation (FIFA), false papers are produced to change the nationality and age of the player. However, this new identity removes the training club from the young person’s career and deprives the collective of the solidarity contribution, compensation paid for each transfer. “Ivorian football suffers because of these methods,” denounces an Ivorian Ligue 1 manager, “they are child thieves, just look at certain youth teams in Mali, they are partly made up of Ivorians who have fake papers, and which we find on the current European scene”.

“New Slave Traders”

According to our information, several Ivorian training centers and clubs have launched procedures against Malian sports structures by contacting FIFA or by filing requests with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Observer of these practices which are similar to the trafficking of minors, Fernand Dedeh explains however that these “new slave traders” who gravitate in Ivorian football operate “in complicity with the parents and often the young people themselves who want to succeed in everything prices and prefer to try their luck in Mali or Burkina rather than here”.

Because in Ivory Coast, few professional clubs in the first two divisions of the championship have their own training center. However, these youth teams generally constitute bridges to the elite. “We are forced to play our 14-year-old kids against teams of 20-year-old guys,” complains Pascal Théault, the director of the MimoSifcom Academy, the most structured in the country. Attached to ASEC Mimosas, the most popular club in the country and official supplier of “Elephants” for the national team, the academy has notably seen the brothers Yaya and Kolo Touré and Salomon Kalou, legends of Ivorian football. More recently, the showcase of Ivorian training sold Karim Konaté and Oumar Diakité, who shine respectively with Red Bull Salzburg and Stade de Reims.

For the French technician, there should be “forty academies like ours which offer regular training, a school and medical curriculum and extracurricular activities to turn our young athletes into men”, says this veteran of the Malherbe stadium in Caen. The low number of structures for young people drags down the general level, notes the trainer, who speaks of “waste”, given the talent the country abounds with. Since 2015, there has been no youth championship, forcing teams to self-organize. An anomaly which will be corrected next year, the FIF assures us. “Côte d’Ivoire is a land of football, but not yet a country of football,” concludes Pascal Théault.

And if the training leaves something to be desired, professional football has few advantages to use to retain young players. The level of Ligue 1 is “catastrophic, it has increased very little in twenty years,” confides a Franco-Ivorian player agent, passing through Abidjan. Since the coronation in 1998 of ASEC Mimosas in the African Champions League, the continental campaigns of Ivorian clubs have been, with a few exceptions, real “purges”, he continues. Result: of the 27 Ivorians who will be selected to play in the African Cup of Nations (CAN) which will be held in Ivory Coast from January 13 to February 11, there will a priori be only one representative of the championship local: the substitute goalkeeper.

“Football crazy”

Without ticketing – Ligue 1 matches are sometimes played in front of 100 people –, with very little sponsorship and meager TV rights, club budgets are derisory. Each year, the FIF awards a subsidy of around 80 million CFA francs (122,000 euros) per club. “It pays for the jerseys all year round,” jokes a club manager who specifies that his budget is “three to four times higher”. According to the latter, the “weak” support from the authorities pushes clubs to “let their young players leave as quickly as possible”.

Even if the FIF imposes a minimum income of 160,000 CFA francs for Ligue 1 players, in reality, not everyone receives this amount. “It’s not surprising that a young person would prefer to do everything to go and earn 2,000 euros per month in the German 4th division,” explains Jean-Philippe Dieudonné, a young Belgian entrepreneur at the head of a training center in Abidjan and who recently bought a 4th division club to give playing time to the young people they are training. If the raw material, the players, is abundant, the infrastructure is insufficient.

According to Jean-Philippe Dieudonné, there are less than five standard plots of land to rent in the megalopolis of Abidjan. Like all professionals in the sector, this lover of Ivorian football hopes that the twenty training grounds built to host the CAN will be used by training centers and local championship teams. The project seems vast, but there is not much missing to make Côte d’Ivoire a football country with training “worthy of the name” wants to believe the young Belgian, according to whom “the essential is already there, the Ivorians are crazy about football, in addition to being good.”