BANGKOK - The Laos football federation pledged Tuesday to investigate a local club over allegations teenage African players were trafficked to the communist country and forced to sign contracts without adequate pay.
The probe follows a BBC report quoting teenage players alleging they were forced to live in miserable conditions at an academy run by Champasak United, a club based in the southern Laos city of Pakse.
"We have sent people to the site for a full investigation, including interviews with the players," Xaybandith Rasphone, general secretary of the Laos Football Federation told AFP.
The BBC interviewed former academy players at the club who described being tricked into travelling to the isolated southeast Asian nation with the promise of good pay.
Instead they allege they were forced to sign lengthy contracts, received little of the promised cash and had to sleep on the floor of the club's stadium.
"It was very bad because you can't have 30 people sleeping in one room," 14-year-old Liberian footballer Kesselly Kamara, now playing for a club back home in Liberia's top league, was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The British broadcaster said 17 teenagers returned home three months ago after FIFA were made aware of the allegations but six minors chose to remain at the club.
Champasak United, a relatively new club that plays in the Laos top league, denied the allegations Tuesday.
"The club had the idea to help people from Africa," board member Ponsawan Siwawong told AFP.
"So we started the programme of allowing African males to join our academy where they learn how to play football with an international coach." Ponsawan said 30 African players were brought over to the academy where they received accommodation, food and $100 per month, adding none were forced to play against their will.
Asked how old the students at the academy were he replied: "They were from 17 to late 20s." He added that 14 African players remained at the academy.
Laos Football Federation official Xaybandith said around 40 registered foreigners played for local football league clubs - which doesn't include academies. Koreans, Japanese, Africans and Latin Americans are among them.
He said Champasak were cooperating with the investigation, adding initial enquiries showed that most of the players who were or still are at the academy were adults.
He said he had been told FIFA would conduct its own investigation.
Scores of African players ply their trade across Southeast Asia, where the leading leagues are desperate to boost the quality of the game with relatively cheap imports, while rich owners seek the prestige linked to football.
But many others fail to secure contracts or fall foul of dodgy agents.