In October 2020, former Trinidad and Tobago national youth team footballers Isaiah ‘Mal’ Garcia and Jaheim McFee boarded a plane at the Piarco International Airport with the intention of becoming professional players in the Egypt First Division.
Six months later, both young men are rooming with relatives in London and not quite certain of their next step, while they appeared to have been fingered by Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith today in a press conference that touched on the ‘human trafficking of minors in sport’.
“There are two minors, both are previous members of national youth teams, they were given the world of promises and they are now stranded in London,” said Griffith, who earlier noted that the unnamed players had left Trinidad for the Middle-East.
“[…] This is for me to advise all parents that yes you’d love for your son to be an international footballer and make hundreds of millions of pounds, but please when you are getting these offers from these so-called agents or scouts or whatever they want to call themselves; please liaise with the normalisation committee or the TTFA.
“Make sure that the club is accepting them, that there are proper logistics in place on their arrival, and they have a return ticket. This is going to eliminate a problem throughout the world now as it pertains to human trafficking of minors in sport.”
Former AC Port of Spain assistant coach and international scout Joshua Lamb said he believed Griffith’s comments were in reference to trials he arranged for Garcia and McFee in Egypt. He was decidedly unimpressed by the implications.
“Human trafficking is the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labour, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others,” the 29-year-old Lamb told Wired868. “If this is human trafficking, how come the parents haven’t been charged for negligence and not reporting that their kids are missing?”
Incidentally, Garcia, the cousin of Soca Warriors stand-out Levi Garcia, turns 23 next Thursday while Mc Fee celebrated his 19th birthday last month. Neither is a minor, as Griffith claimed.
“I’m reaching out to McFee and Garcia about their issues but wanted to get more details from you as you raised it in the press conference,” Wired868 wrote to Griffith. “Can you say how you’ve assisted or are trying to assist the boys? And why did you compare it to trafficking since neither player is a minor and nobody reported them missing or anything like that?”
In response, Griffith vowed to have police question this journalist.
“This is an ongoing police investigation,” said the commissioner. “You seem to have in-depth knowledge of this investigation, so you would be contacted to assist us. Thank you.”
Lamb’s own account was that the affair was merely an unsuccessful trial, made worse by the players’ difficulty in returning home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“They went to Egypt and had trials with a club in division one, two division two clubs and a division three club offered them a direct contract,” said Lamb. “But they were not interested in the salaries being offered to them, so they decided they would [stay in] London—because there was a club in Slovakia that sent an invitation letter for them based on my relationship with the club.
“[…] So they remained in England but they are by family… When the boys left Trinidad for Egypt, they knew that if they didn’t get something over in Egypt they would not be able to come back to Trinidad easily.
“They accepted the risk and that is why they have not made it an issue.”
And what did the footballers have to say about the saga?
Wired868 spoke at length to both young men. Garcia subsequently said he preferred not to be quoted. He is staying by his aunt, Nicola Garcia, and is not trying to return to Trinidad.
For him, it is all or nothing—as he tries to emulate cousins Levi, Judah and Nathaniel Garcia by earning an overseas contract.
McFee, who is staying by his uncle Michael Worrell, is anxious to be back home, though.
“I’ve been trying to get back to Trinidad since about two months ago,” McFee told Wired868. “I am waiting on the call to hear if I get through or not… I don’t regret nothing. Everything is part of a process and a learning experience.
“I don’t regret it; it just wasn’t the best.”
Last September, McFee said Lamb approached him with an opportunity to win a professional contract in Egypt’s top flight, courtesy of a trial with newly promoted club, Ghazl El Mehalla FC.
The players were asked to pay US$500 before they left Trinidad and another US$500 on arrival in Egypt, as well as pay for their own airfare. They were told that the payment of US$1,000 would go towards accommodation—they sometimes stayed in hotels, while some teams kept them at their own apartments.
“My expectation was we would get a hotel next to the sea and we were supposed to go on a trial with Mehalla and a few other teams; but it didn’t turn out so,” said McFee. “It wasn’t the hotel they told us we would get, and when we went to Mehalla we only got to train for one day…”
McFee, a former Trinidad and Tobago National Under-17 attacker, said they went for their first session with Mehalla two days after they landed. However, they were told that the players were just doing running exercises and it would be better if they returned the following week.
McFee and Garcia took part in the session that day and then left. It was the last time they saw the club.
“We were supposed to go back but we didn’t get chance,” said McFee. “The agent took us to some smaller teams in the second and third division. And when we asked about it, he said the opportunity had passed for us try out with Mehalla.
“I didn’t know what he meant because we were following his directions!”
Both players described their initial accommodation as unsanitary with inadequate meals, although things improved after they complained. Their stay, as they bounced between teams, was frustrating
“I was just mad at that point,” said McFee. “I explained to Lamb and the agent that what we were told wasn’t what was happening. Everything was very disorganised. “Sometimes we didn’t see our agent or his representative for two or three days; and we are in a foreign country where they don’t speak our language, so we didn’t know how to move around.
“Every time we asked for an explanation, [the Egyptian handlers] just said we would organise this or that better.”
One of the teams that McFee and Garcia were taken to turned out to be an under-19 team. They trained for just one day there.
The young men spent a week with a lower division team whose sessions were described as inferior to what they experienced with the local-based Soca Warriors before they left Trinidad. Some of the players at that club, according to Garcia, could not make a Pro League team.
The salary, remarkably, was even worse. It was less money than Garcia earned at W Connection.
“The second division club offered me a contract for 3,000 Euros (TT$24,000) for the entire season, which is like nine months long,” said McFee. “That was not good at all. They would give us a place to stay but we would still have to buy groceries and so on from that money.”
The month in Egypt passed without either player getting a reasonable offer.
“Some of the things I feel Lamb could have organised a bit better in terms of who was seeing about us in Egypt, so they could get us what we agreed to,” said McFee. “But other than that, he wasn’t there to see what was happening. They could have told him one thing and done something totally different. So it wasn’t really his fault.
“Although I feel he should know these people better, so he would know how they operate and we don’t end up wasting our time.”
Despite the issues in Egypt, the Trinidadians were receptive when Lamb made them a second offer. This time, he arranged for the duo to receive an invitation letter, via email, that purported to be from the sporting director of a club in the Slovakian second division.
“We had a round-ticket for us to stay a month in Egypt,” said McFee, “and after the month finished, me and ‘Mal’ decided that as we are in Europe already and we have family in England, we could stay there and then go to a next European country.
“We preferred that than to go back home and have to get exempted again. So we decide to stay for a while and see if anything came up.”
They landed in London in late November and have been there ever since, with Lamb and the players blaming the pandemic on their inability to get to Slovakia.
“They were never on the streets, they were never uncomfortable,” said Lamb. “They were always in proper care…”
The players were not exactly enthusiastic about their circumstances, though.
“How we are making out?” asked McFee. “That is a hard question. We train on our own sometimes with personal running. To survive, Mal’s mom sends money for him and my mom sends money for me as well…”
Lamb insisted he did nothing wrong. He said the police have not contacted him with any issues and he was surprised by Griffith’s public statements.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I respect their investigation and I am open to it. Just let it be truthful and not about rumours.”
At the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) press conference, a journalist asked Griffith what he had done since learning of the ‘stranded’ young men.
“I got the details within a week or so, when I spoke to the individuals in London,” said the police commissioner. “So I am compiling a report to give the minister of national security to see what we can do to have them returned.”
McFee is a good technical player who is two-footed and can play wide or just behind the striker. The tall attacker caught the eye in the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) Premier Division with Fatima College in 2017 before moving on to St Anthony’s College in the 2019 season.
Garcia is a former Shiva Boys Hindu College player who can operate at either full back position. He has been a regular for W Connection over the past two seasons.
The two young men are talented, although neither has yet established himself among the marquee senior players within the local circuit.
McFee, who finished school last July, hopes to rejoin the Warriors and continue developing his game, until he gets another chance of an overseas professional contract. But Garcia still hopes to make something of this trip.
“I am not going home empty-handed,” said Garcia. “I am not turning back.”