The Lost Boys: Inside Football's Slave Trade by Ed Hawkins

In his new book, acclaimed sports writer Ed Hawkins sheds light on the moral corrosion and exploitation that characterize the recruitment process in professional soccer.

Allegations of top-level managerial corruption are nothing new in the world of international soccer, which has been in the news as the target of high-profile investigations and indictments by the US Justice Department.

Now comes The Lost Boys, a riveting exposé by award-winning sports writer Ed Hawkins. Hawkins, who lives in France, looks beyond the world of bagmen and bribes, going deep into the heart of the player recruitment process, which affects barefoot boys and leads to a landfill of broken dreams.

He dissects the moral corrosion and greed among unscrupulous agents, human smugglers and corrupt embassy officials out to make a buck, and the European leagues themselves, which desire only to find the next big star,no matter how many lives they ruin.

Much of the prey comes from Africa. The victims are the impoverished youth of countries such as Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana — young boys who feel that the only way out is soccer, and who will do anything to make their way into that world. By the hundreds, maybe thousands, they dedicate themselves to the game, scrape together exorbitant fees their families cannot afford and pay for bogus airline tickets that get them nowhere.

Some who are able to find their way to Europe end up abandoned in hotel rooms. The majority never make the team, even if they do try out, and are left to fend for themselves, more impoverished and desperate than when they left home.

Hawkins goes underground, posing as an agent from a fictional recruiting company called The Scout Network in an attempt to figure out how this exploitation continues even though officials know about it and claim to want to stop it. He takes us from England to Geneva to Larnaca, Cyprus, and from Paris to Accra, Ghana, putting sad human faces on the problem. We meet, for instance, Jay-Jay, a 17-year-old wannabe star lured from his school’s soccer field in Guinea by the “narcotic power of football” and a rogue agent. Not only are his dreams of stardom dashed but the agent attempts to sexually exploit him. We meet others like him, as well as some traffickers, con men, coaches and bureaucrats who keep the system going. It’s a sordid tale, but one that is leavened a bit by the sports writer’s sometimes clumsy attempts to talk tough and act like one of the boys.

Hawkins does find out why no one is putting an end to this system. No spoiler alerts here, but let’s just say that most investigations worth their journalistic salt turn up more than the writer bargained for. In the end, things are not what they seemed to Hawkins. To his credit he is able to lose some of his preconceptions without becoming cynical and giving up the fight.

He closes by calling for the system to change. But sadly, his book does not convince us that it will.