Nairobi, Kenya – Geremi Njitap had an illustrious career playing for Chelsea, Real Madrid and the Cameroon national side. Now, in his role as president of the FIFPRO Africa union, he focuses on the welfare of footballers and is calling on clubs to improve how they treat their players.
“If you want a player to perform, he needs to be free in his mind to go on the field and just think of playing football,” Geremi, 44, told Al Jazeera.
FIFPRO Africa is part of the International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPRO), the worldwide organisation representing the athletes. It is made up of 66 national players associations.
Al Jazeera spoke to Geremi and FIFPRO Africa Deputy Secretary General Kgosana Masaseng on their plans to improve the welfare of African footballers, including resolving payment disputes, ensuring retired players get sound medical and financial advice, and protecting young players from unscrupulous clubs and agents.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
Al Jazeera: What are the main challenges African footballers face today?
Geremi: For the players in Africa, the biggest challenges are the working conditions and the non-payment of salaries. We have a few leagues, a few nations who are trying to do better, but in general, most of the countries are still struggling to respect the contracts of the players.
Ironically, this is one of the biggest problems because if you want a player to perform, he needs to be free in his mind to go on the field and just think of playing football. When he becomes a professional player, he believes that he is under contract, so he’s expecting his salary to fulfil all his responsibilities, and when every month he’s not being paid, it becomes a big problem.
I started my career here in Africa. Then I went to Europe, and I saw the big difference. You can see that in Europe where I played, they’re well organised. Everything is put in place for the players to perform, to play well. The problem we have in Africa is the infrastructure. Those problems straightaway affect our football.
[Another] challenge for FIFPRO is to sit with all the stakeholders to try to harmonise the international calendar and also the national calendar, which is very important because when players in one season have more than 70 matches, that would be affecting his career, affecting his performances.
Masaseng: In addition to that, the biggest problem we face now is the delay in the dispute resolution mechanisms. In some countries in Africa, they don’t exist. Players have got no recourse, especially local players. There was an introduction of what you call a dispute resolution chamber in some areas, but it takes a long time to hand down a judgement, so this is justice denied on the part of the players.
Al Jazeera: How is FIFPRO Africa helping to speed up dispute resolutions?
Masaseng: We deal with other stakeholders in the game. We agreed with FIFA to pilot this project of setting up the dispute resolution chamber. There is also a wide discussion around having regional dispute resolution chambers, so that we speed the process. So the discussion is around engaging CAF [the Confederation of African Football] and FIFA to try and fast-track this process.
When players have issues and cases are of international dimensions, it is better because we take them directly to FIFA. But when they are of local dimensions, there’s a delay in first hearing the cases and secondly in disposing of the dispute.
Al Jazeera: How is FIFPRO helping retired players that have financial or medical challenges?
Masaseng: About two years ago, FIFPRO undertook a survey with a university in Amsterdam, where we were looking at an age category from 26 to 39 and this survey is going to be done for the next 10 years … to inform ourselves of the type of injuries, how they happen, how they affect players both during the playing and post-playing period.
So we need to look or take care of players during playing and post-play. This is why some of the unions even offer what they call financial literacy. Research has shown that [many] professional athletes go broke three to five years after retirement.
So the career transition aspect is what we want to approach in the broader sense, and this is why we’ve taken [the decision] to develop player development managers. These are the people who’ll be dealing with players issues on a daily basis. If he needs psychosocial support, you provide that or organise that as a player development manager. If [the former player] comes to you and says, “I want to invest,” you must organise that.
So at our last congress in Cameroon, we adopted the route to develop more player development managers within our unions.
Al Jazeera: Age fraud has been a problem in African football – usually when players have pretended they are younger than they are because clubs prefer to develop younger players. There’s also the matter of fraudulent agents who engage in player trafficking. How is FIFPRO addressing issues like these?
Geremi: From a young age, these players in age-grade competitions are all registered already in one database, FIFA Connect. And also, this is the same information that the federations have. So CAF has given some instructions to their members that [there must be] no more fake ages. They have to start from their local leagues and tournaments.
Masaseng: We are fighting for the enforcement of the regulation of working with intermediaries because they are the ones who hide behind academies to bring in the transfer of players. Now if you enforce the regulations, which is the view of the football associations that come together, then it means for us it’s just to provide an oversight role to check whether the young players are protected.
There was a case some years ago where FIFPRO had to intervene. Sixteen young players were stranded in Lagos because some fake agent took them there from different countries, claiming to be an academy. And FIFPRO had to fight to get them out of Lagos. So one, we need all those associations to regulate the academy because they are the custodians of the game. So they are the ones who must regulate. Our [role] is just to police whether this one does his work, or this one does her work.
Al Jazeera: Is it part of your remit to help more African players go through the pipeline of big European academies and protect them as they go?
Masaseng: We don’t own players – either they’re owned by academies or clubs – so our [role] is just to look at their welfare and also make sure that there is free of movement and they’re protected in that period.
As part of our education programme, we partnered with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) … to promote safe migration and to regularise this process and also to train and educate the young players on this.
Secondly, we partnered with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) with one of our own, FIFPRO Africa honorary President Didier Drogba. Through his foundation, we held a campaign on fake agents. This is to educate the young players about immigration. That’s the best thing you can do, but the ownership is largely on the clubs and the football associations as the regulators of the game.
Al Jazeera: Out of FIFPRO’s 66 full members, only 11 are African. Is there a reluctance among African countries to join?
Masaseng: It’s not reluctance per se. The membership of FIFPRO is not like FIFA. In FIFPRO, you register. You start the process as an observer. You spend two years there offering services to the players. Then if you do well, you’re promoted to a candidate level. Now you start having your voice in the General Assembly. And after two years, you are promoted to become a full member.
By the way, at a global level, FIFPRO was started in 1965 by mostly European countries. The division in Africa only started in 2007 and we’re lucky that there were already countries who had unions: Cameroon, Egypt and South Africa. In all this, our intention is to get as many members as possible, and there is a process that they need to go through for them to be at this level of membership.