Portugal investigates suspected trafficking of teenagers from South America to play soccer in the country

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According to the survey, the minors were living in Portugal without the authorization of their parents or guardians. The group of 40 young people also includes immigrants from the Middle East.

The Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF), the body responsible for immigration matters in Portugal, is investigating reports of human trafficking involving some forty teenagers from South American and Middle Eastern countries, who were allegedly enticed to play soccer in the country.

According to the investigation, the minors were living in Portugal without the authorization of their parents or guardians. They allegedly entered the country with the promise of professional soccer training, with the possibility of signing contracts with renowned teams.

The SEF raided the Bsports Academy, a soccer school located in Riba d’Ave, in the town of Vila Nova de Famalicão, in the northern region of the country. The school sells a training program in the sport, and has been awarded the seal of professionalization by the Portuguese government.

The home of the President of the General Assembly of the Portuguese Professional Football League, Mário Costa, was also searched. According to the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, which revealed the operation, Mário Costa is one of the suspects in the investigation led by the Portuguese Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In a note sent to the press, the SEF states that it “cannot, for the moment, give any further information, given that the process is subject to judicial secrecy. Further information will be provided in due course”.

In a statement, the Portuguese Professional Football League said it was “surprised” by the information concerning Mário Costa’s name, and said it was “following the development of the procedure and awaiting further information – always respecting the principle of presumption of innocence and uncompromisingly upholding the institution’s principles of ethics and transparency – for a more concrete assessment of the situation”.

In a press release, the executive states that he is cooperating with the authorities and denies any involvement.

“I calmly await the progress of the investigations, certain and confident that the truth of the facts will be established and will reveal that no criminal offence has been committed”.
The Bsports school also guarantees that it is cooperating with the authorities and that it is “confident that the truth of the facts [sic] will be established, that it will reveal that no criminal offence has been committed by its representatives or collaborators and that it is only through error or slander that anyone could have thought otherwise”, the statement reads.

The case, which has been under investigation since 2020, stems from a complaint lodged by the consulate of a Middle Eastern country. However, situations of this type are nothing new in Portugal.

Typically, teenagers are lured back to their home countries by so-called businessmen or recruiters, with the promise of training and club contracts. Families pay between 500 and 1,000 euros a month (around R$2,700 to R$5,300) for the minors’ stay.

Many teenagers don’t get professional contracts, and their passports are kept by the bogus agents, preventing them from leaving Portugal. In other cases, the so-called businessmen disappear as soon as they receive payment from their families. Instead of dreaming of shining in European soccer, the youngsters remain in the country as illegal immigrants, subject to exploitation in other jobs.

Raising awareness in Brazil too

Last year, the NGO Saúde em Português, the Portuguese government’s Commission for Citizenship and Gender Equality, the Portuguese Football Federation and the Union of Professional Footballers joined forces in a campaign to warn against this crime.

With the slogan “Don’t let your dream become a nightmare”, the initiative draws attention to the ways in which players are lured and the dangers to which young people are exposed. The poster shows boys wearing soccer uniforms but working in agriculture, catering and construction. These are sectors that have historically exploited illegal immigrant labor in Portugal.

Launched in October, to coincide with European Anti-Trafficking Day, the campaign has had an international impact, particularly in countries such as Brazil, where most of the young victims of trafficking leave from. Representatives of the Palmeiras club were present at the webinar launching the initiative.

At the event, Portugal’s Secretary for Equality and Migration, Isabel Almeida Rodrigues, said that Brazil, Argentina and Colombia are the countries from which most trafficked players leave. Foreigners who, she explained, are “abandoned” by their destination clubs.

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