Whether you know it as “soccer” or “football,” the “beautiful game” is so called because of its ability to bring diverse people groups together. Barriers that exist in other spheres of life suddenly disappear among like-minded fans.
We can see this in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar—an expected global audience of over 5 billion will make it the most-watched tournament in its history.
But among all the beauty of the world’s game, there exists an ugly, dark side. Every year thousands of children, primarily from African countries, are recruited by unlicensed scouts and agents and promised the opportunity to travel to Europe to play for major soccer clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Juventus. Families often leverage everything they own to help their sons pursue soccer stardom.
However, most of these teenagers don’t make it onto a top professional team, leaving them to fend for themselves in a foreign country with little to no money.
“They come to Europe to play for AC Milan or Paris St-Germain, but the reality for many talented young African footballers, children not much older than nine, is that they will find themselves selling fake handbags on the streets,” reported the Guardian.
Ben Boycott is the last person you might expect to be pushing back the darkness of African soccer player exploitation.
Ben grew up in Canada and Alaska playing ice hockey, not soccer. After college, he completed an MBA and a Masters in Financial Risk Strategy from the University of Alabama and went on to a successful career in corporate finance. But in a major about-face, Ben left corporate America in 2014 to join Vapor Ministries, located in the small Alabama town of Sylacauga. As the president and chief operations officer of Vapor Ministries, he was inadvertently propelled into the midst of the exploitation and trafficking of African soccer players. But that is just the beginning of the story!
I asked Boycott—now the founder of Sovereign Football Club, managing director of Trivela Group, and director of the Walsall Football Club—about the innovative strategies he and others are using to bring about meaningful change for thousands of young African soccer players and their families.
How did you get involved in the world of soccer in the first place?
Vapor Ministries uses football as a platform for Christian evangelical and humanitarian work in impoverished environments around the globe. Founder Micah McElveen and the team at Vapor do phenomenal work—life-changing transformation of entire communities in the poorest places on the planet. And football is a means to that end.
By providing thousands of kids with the opportunity to play high-level football, we were thrust into the world of professional football, as we saw very talented players come out of Vapor centers.
As you were exposed to professional soccer, what did you find?
Vapor has seen the best of it—and the absolute worst of it. The truth is that football can, at times, be a very exploitative and corrupt industry. So while we saw some of our players achieve the highest levels of football in the world, we also saw players faced with tremendous barriers, horrible exploitation by agents and scouts, and, at times, even human trafficking into foreign countries.
It isn’t an uncommon thing. A player, often underage, can be enticed by an agent to travel to a foreign country to start a professional career—which is not allowable under FIFA regulations when the player is under 18. If that career works out, the agent gets paid, potentially a lot of money. If it doesn’t, players can be abandoned by these agents in foreign countries with no way home. As a nonprofit with a huge football footprint, we realized that we had to address the professional aspect of the game—otherwise, we were setting our best players up for harm.
How did you go about finding a solution?
This became a huge passion for me as I began to deeply study the economics and politics of the world of pro football, from top to bottom, for years. The entire mindset around talent in the developing world is one of extraction: “Let’s find the talented players and get them out.”
In this way, these players’ footballing talent is a value detractor from their communities instead of a value-add.
Slowly, we began to gain a vision for a development mindset to replace the extraction mindset. We wanted to create a professional football mechanism that develops young men in these nations athletically, academically, and personally—where those who “make it” are benefited, but where those who don’t make it are benefited as well.
So I launched a company called Sovereign Football Club, which now operates hand-in-hand with Vapor Ministries, as the professional football outlet for the top talent from Vapor’s sports leagues. Today we are running a full professional team in Kenya, a full professional team in Haiti, and a preprofessional community team in Togo.
How does this tie into the larger world of European soccer?
As we were developing Sovereign, we began to shift our focus to the development of safe, clear pathways for these players to advance through professional football. We wanted to develop a way for our top player at Sovereign to be able to progress to established and reputable European clubs. In the process, we began to explore investment in professional teams in Europe and quickly realized that there was not only a great financial investment opportunity but a great social opportunity as well.
As a result, my partner and I launched a company called Trivela Group, aimed at acquiring professional football clubs in Europe. We’re deploying capital for profit, for a return, while doing so with a very long-term, community-minded view.
Can you give me an example?
Yes, earlier this year we invested in Walsall FC, which participates in League 2 in England. Walsall is a town of about 300,000 in central England, and the club is a key focal point of the community. We’re investing time, energy, and capital—blood, sweat, and tears, I guess you could say—into the club.
We want to make the club better on and off the pitch—to win more matches and move up the leagues and so on. But more than that, my partners and I are investing in the town, the people of Walsall, and the players. It’s not strictly about making money, or even making the club better—it’s about the future of the entire town.
Over the long term, how does all of this work together?
Football can often be a nasty, exploitative industry—from World Cup bribes amongst billionaires all the way down to an agent taking advantage of an impoverished 10-year-old in West Africa, and everything in between. The industry has hurt so many people. But it’s the most popular sport in the world, and one of the most powerful social forces in the world. Its potential to do good is nearly limitless.
I believe in a future where our clubs at Sovereign are creating jobs, developing world-changing leaders out of the players in our academies who don’t make the football cut, and developing high-profile forces for good in the players who do, while feeding back into the life-changing work that Vapor Ministries is doing in the poorest places on earth. I want to see those players advance in part through our network of Trivela clubs, which are investing heavily in communities and bringing about a brighter future across Europe.