“Since the Mozambican pearl fisherman “Eusebio” Ferreira da Silva migrated to play for Portugal’s Benfica in 1961 – and became a world superstar – African youngsters have dreamt of playing in Europe; Nigerians inclusive.”
Gbotie Akanni is wiser now. But his mind works like a coffin for spent lusts, a casket of hope through which fervour had raged. Back when he was a young adult, he dreamt of stardom and conquering hoops in a foreign land. He yearned for renown playing basketball in Europe or America.
In pursuit of his dream, he departed the country the way the housefly seeking to know its true nature, follows faeces into the latrine.
Akanni, a consummate basketballer, desired America or Europe as his ultimate destination while peddling his skills across as Maldives, Sri Lanka, Cote d’Ivoire and North Africa.
His journey was bittersweet, a roller coaster replete with intrigues and learning curves. For instance, he got caught and stranded in the Ivorien civil war 16 years ago while undergoing trials with ABT, a local club in Abidjan. “I forgot all about the trial results and fled Abidjan at the barest opportunity,” he said.
In 2006, he secured his first international contract with Victory SC, a club in Maldives, leading the club to win multiple league titles and winning the Overall Best Player award.
Akanni played “serious” games and won a string of laurels as a contract player in the Middle East and North Africa. Then in 2009, an Algerian diplomatic attaché in Abuja, facilitated his move to Constantine Sportive Monsurah (CSM) in Constantine, Algeria, on a temporary contract. Excitedly, he departed Nigeria’s shores to play for CSM in July 2009.
Shady contract terms in Arabic
But at his arrival in Constantine, they presented to him, a contract document written in Arabic. He said, “I couldn’t read the terms so I insisted that they furnished me one written in English.”
Then contrary to their initial agreement, the club offered to pay him $900 per month instead of the $1,500 initially agreed upon. Akanni protested and the team’s handlers told him scornfully to accept the reduced fee.
“They said they were sure I couldn’t get a better deal in my own country, Nigeria. They told me the pay was too poor in Nigeria hence they were doing me a favour but I stuck to my guns and eventually, they accepted to honour our initial contract terms,” said Akanni.
Life, however, turned awry for him when he attempted to leave CSM at the end of the season in 2012. Being a “free agent,” he wasn’t bound by any clause or “slave terms” yet the club sought to thwart his move. They made him understand that he couldn’t leave them to play for another club in Algeria.
“I had led them to win major league titles and they were scared of being at a disadvantage if I offered my services to a rival club. They tried to keep me with them. They pleaded with me and consequently threatened me but I ignored them, and joined a rival club, Biskra,” said Akanni.
Soon after he ended his contract with CSM, Akanni was picked up by the Algerian police in the country’s capital. “I had gone to a cybercafe to browse the internet in Constantine when fierce looking police officers stormed the cafe and arrested me. They hurled me into the booth of a police truck and drove me several miles to their division,” he said.
At the police station, they harassed him, questioning him in arabic. His protest and entreaties fell on deaf ears but just as they prepared to throw him inside a cell, Fred, his African-American team mate at CSM, barged into the police station seeking his release.
Fred raved at the officers leaving them flustered; nobody warned them that their quarry (Akanni) had an American friend. Wary of “the Americans’ trouble,” the detectives released Akanni, muttering profuse apologies.
“They said they arrested me because I looked like a person of interest whom they had been investigating for cyberfraud. They said they had been following me for one week or thereabouts. Although their story didn’t add up, I was only too glad to secure my freedom,” said Akanni.
‘Get a licensed agent to represent you’
Today, Akanni is back in the country and even though he no longer plays active professional sports, he organises basketball clinics and training camps for youngsters seeking a career in professional basketball.
If he could relive his youth as a basketballer, he would get an agent to represent him in his interactions with clubs instead of scouring the internet, personally hawking his skills.
“Getting a licensed agent to represent you is a worthy safeguard against the lure and perils of playing as a free agent without proper legal representation. I was lucky, however. Many Nigerian and African youth haven’t been so lucky. Many are roasting away stranded without clubs or serving slave contracts abroad,” he said.
The world couldn’t forget in a hurry the sad fate of four promising Nigerians who were lured to the United States (US) with the promise of basketball and college scholarships, but ended up with one homeless in New York City (NYC) and the other three in foster care.
The victims, Ene, Ben, Dixon and Kelvin, as initially identified by Alexandra Starr for Harper’s Magazine, arrived in the US perpetually hungry for stardom. They hoped to be groomed for college athletic scholarships, and their days were spent on intensive basketball drills.
But they learned the hard way that in the inclement economy of youth basketball, they were expendable commodity. They wouldn’t achieve their dreams of a rosy professional career. Like hordes of African youth lured overseas via an informal black market economy, they would be cast aside and left to fend for themselves, far from their families’ support, in a country with no formal safety net for undocumented immigrants.
Treating young African players as commodities isn’t unique to basketball; it’s emblematic of international sports’ shady, black market economy. For victims, the consequences are dire; having arrived at their destinations often as illegal immigrants, their status prevents them from applying for financial aid and social benefits.
They end up sleeping on the streets or a homeless shelter. Even when they do acquire legal status, and only very few of them get to do that; they end up jettisoning their dreams to embrace the drudgery and practicality of menial jobs.
If the trafficking of basketball recruits is partly a consequence of the globalisation of sports, the narrative gets grislier with football recruits.
Football’s slave market
In November 2011, bitterness was spruced up as a bouquet of blossoms, and handed to Olaoluwa Dare piecemeal, till he got utterly swamped by its scent. A dandy scout sold him a triumphant tale of success about the Dhivehi football League in far-flung Maldives, South Asia. The scout’s name was Chiedu and he claimed to be the go-to guy for Nigerian football hopefuls yearning to ply their skills in the global football arena.
“He told me there was opening in Maldives. He said he would get me a good team and lucrative contract to go with it. He said I could go to the English Premier League (EPL) from there,” said Dare.
But Chiedu lied. Now, Dare’s dreams of bliss are fettered by misery. As he narrated his ordeal, the once hopeful football enthusiast navigated the numbing crevices of grief, grimly, as if he was walking barefoot on broken glass.
His eyes bore tiredly from their sockets, and his sorrow knelled a mournful dirge through his narrative. Olaoluwa Dare was visibly distraught. His dreams would never come true; he will never play for the Super Eagles of Nigeria nor would he achieve his dreams of stardom in the English Premier League (EPL) or Spanish La Liga.
At 28, he is burnt out. His sinewy limbs bear tell-tale of an age when they rippled through trunks and jerseys that clung tenaciously to them. At a glance, they looked totally worn by the rugged pitches of Maldives, in South Asia, where he sought his luck in international football.
Dare used to be every coach’s sweetheart. At age 14, he earned for himself, the fascinating sobriquet: Iroko (gigantic hardwood tree), a worthy homage to his sturdy build and the steadfast cover he provided for his local team’s defence. Dare enjoyed a cult following from his Agbotikuyo neighbourhood in Agege to Ile-Pako mini-football pitch in Amoo, where he dazzled local coaches and football enthusiasts with his prowess. He dreamt of following in the footsteps of Taiye Taiwo, ex-Super Eagles of Nigeria defender. Taiwo played in Ile-Pako just before he chanced on success and international acclaim.
Thus following several stints as a contract player to various local teams in Lagos, Ogun and Edo States, luck smiled on the teenager in his prime – so he believed. Few months after he clocked 18, he was approached by a self-acclaimed football coach and scout who simply described himself as Coach Chiedu. The latter approached him at the finals of a local age-grade competition in Benin and promised to get him a lucrative contract with a first division football team in Maldives.
Dare was excited. He rushed home to inform his parents of his good fortune. “My mother was happy for me but my father warned me to be very careful with the scout. He warned that most of them are not to be trusted but I thought he was simply reluctant to support me with money I needed to pay my way to Europe,” said Dare. According to him, the scout charged him N550, 000 to process his travel papers and contract to the Maldivian football league.
“My mother struggled to get me the money but she could only raise N54, 000 by cleaning out her life-savings. My father bluntly refused to assist me. To teach him a lesson, I stole the papers to our house and used it to borrow N600, 000 with an interest of N480, 000 from a loan shark,” he said.
Even so, Dare didn’t return his mother’s life-savings to her. According to him, he needed the money as pocket money.
“Since the cost of processing my trip was N550, 000, I added the N54, 000 my mother gave me to the N50, 000 remaining from the loan I took. Thus I had N104, 000 with me as pocket money. Coach Chiedu told me I would need the money before I received my first salary from any club I signed for,” he said.
Stranded in Maldives
But it was a different ball game for Dare in Maldives; contrary to what his agent told him, there was nobody waiting for him at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).
Chiedu got him to Maldives quite alright but there was no lucrative football contract waiting for him over there. Alone and totally bereft of ideas, Dare ventured into the streets to look for accommodation, naively hoping to get signed by a club worthy of his skills, afterward.
He lived out in the cold for two days, sleeping in deserted alleys and parks until he met an elderly citizen called Mr. Ashfan. The latter sheltered him for a week and promised to help him get into B.G Sports, a football club. Dare considered himself lucky until his host began to loosen his belt and hump his buttocks in a fit of lust. Unknown to Dare, the 61-year old, who was estranged form his wife and six children, nursed a secret attraction for the male gender.
“He told me he would throw me back on the streets if I did not cooperate. He said if I cooperated, he would let me stay with him and get me into B.G. Sports. So I cooperated,” revealed Dare.
But the stranded and aspiring football star could only endure so much. He called off his host’s bluff soon after he invited a younger colleague home for a threesome with him. With misty eyes and a trembling voice, Dare recounted how both men held him down and serially raped him till daybreak.
“The last thing I remembered was that I screamed at Ashfan and told him I would never be part of their orgy. Everything that happened afterward occurred in a blur. They must have spiked my drink with something. They drugged me in order to rape me. When I woke up the following morning, I couldn’t sit properly. I felt excruciating pain from my anus to my spine. I cried as I silently packed my bag and left his house. He told me I should forget his offer to help me get into B.G Sports if I walked out on him. At that moment, I didn’t care,” said Dare.
Subsequently, he roamed the streets in the company of Najeer, another stranded African from Mali. Then tragedy struck Dare on a Saturday night, while trying to evade arrest by local police at an age-grade tournament in Male. Dare ran into a stone ledge and broke his right ankle. That put paid to his dreams of playing international football.
He said: “At this juncture, I only wished to get back to Nigeria. I stopped calling my mother when things became too rough for me. All she did was cry over the phone. My father divorced her after the loan shark took possession of our house. I signed an agreement with him that he could take over our house if I failed to pay up the loan he gave me with interest in 18 months. But it was my third year in Maldives, and I hadn’t sent him a dime.”
With a broken ankle, increasing strains and fainter breath, Dare’s youthful feet grew tired and the passion for football gradually deserted his heart. His road to fame got too rough for his tired feet to ply and he jettisoned his dreams of football greatness. Then, he met Gbotie Akanni, the basketballer, who was visiting Maldives to honour a second short contract with a local team. Akanni took pity on Dare and gave him some money with which he purchased a ticket back to Nigeria.
Abandoned at the airport
Like Dare, Tola Adebawo’s passion spurred him to embark on a trip to Turkey. At 18, he was tricked into believing that he would secure a contract with a top-flight club in Istanbul. A fraudster posing as a licensed agent persuaded him to pay $3, 500 to secure travelling documents and a lucrative contract in Turkey.
Adebawo, who claimed to be a natural left-footer and “fantastic striker,” in turn persuaded his widowed mother and elder sister to bankrupt their palm oil business to fund his trip.
It’s nine years since he embarked on the trip and Adebawo is back in the country with no certain means of income. According to him, having paid the fees demanded by the agent, he proceeded on the trip with him, only to be abandoned in a taxi at Ataturk Airport by his agent.
According to an estimate by Foot Solidaire, a Paris-based charity working to increase the protection of young footballers globally, up to 15,000 young African footballers are taken abroad annually under false hopes – and over a third of them make it to Europe.
Many end up stranded in Europe, Asia, North America or the Middle East as they cannot afford to return or are too ashamed to do so for fear of being ridiculed back in their homeland.
İstanbul as a transit hotspot for Nigerian football amateurs
There is no gainsaying Turkey has become an important transit destination for international football hopefuls from Nigeria. When invited by a club, some may enter Turkey with a three-month sports visa while others use the quite lax visa regulations and get short-time business or tourist visa, usually valid for a few days only.
A few footballers, who are not successfully signed up with a professional club within this time frame, return home to continue their football career. Others stay back in Turkey as their journey was paid by family members and friends, who invested in their attempt to establish themselves as professional footballers abroad.
Many of such victims in İstanbul use the opportunity to keep themselves fit at the training pitch of Amatör Lig club Feriköy SK. Three times a week, they gather in the small stadium and share the renting fee among everyone who is able to pay the required 250 Turkish Lira (TL).
Exodus to Europe: Trade or traffic?
The phenomenon by which local football players are lured to Europe is often described as human trafficking or even as a form of modern slavery. In this respect, the wording of the Council of Europe Convention is nevertheless clear: “trafficking in human beings is the modern form of slavery; it treats human beings as a commodity to be bought and sold.”
Today, it is praiseworthy that the discussion finally found a place on national and European political agendas. According to Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, president of the French organisation, Culture Foot Solidaire, it is for the first time that an official document as the European Parliament report on the future of professional football in Europe raises the issue of child trafficking in, inter alia, “the context of the implementation of Council Directive 94/33/EC on the protection of young people at work.”
Why Nigerian football players fail to secure their dream
Timothy Oyinsan, a local football coach and youth team manager argued that many Nigerian players are stranded in Europe because they do not possess the competency required by the big clubs. “Many of them cannot even make it into the small clubs because they lack quality and essential football intelligence,” he said.
“Many of them are too impatient. They fail to acquire the necessary skills and qualifications required to play for the big clubs in Europe. Many of them at their quality, cannot even make it into second division clubs in the local premier league. They can’t even make it into the age-grade feeder teams yet they struggle to make it to Europe to play for Chelsea, Barcelona, and so on. Most of them do not even seek the big clubs. They seek to play for lower division teams and earn paltry fees. They are simply awed by the possibility of donning a foreign club jersey. It’s a result of living for too long in poverty,” he said.
Few people would forget in a hurry, the sad fate of late Phillip Osondu. Osondu lifted the Golden Ball of the FIFA U17 World Cup in Toronto, Canada. His heroics at the competition earned him a contract with Belgian team, Anderlecht. However, he failed to shine at Anderlecht and was subsequently loaned out to RWDM, where he appeared 41 times and scored seven goals in two years. He later moved out on loan to La Louviere, in the lower league, where he scored five times in 20 matches. After one season, he transferred to Union Saint Gillis where he scored a goal in 13 matches. Afterwards, he played for FC Merchtem and Diagem Sports.
Just before his demise at age 48 in 2019, the late Osondu was reported struggling to become a cleaner at the Brussels airport. He reportedly filled in as a janitor too.
But while the former El Kanemi Warriors virtuoso enjoyed the good luck of temporary acclaim and seemingly lucrative contracts with foreign clubs, many Nigerian football hopefuls hardly enjoy such luck.
Henry Makinwa, ex-national team player, revealed that many Nigerian footballers are stranded in Europe in the search for greener pastures at European leagues. Makinwa whose 15-year career has seen him play in total of 10 countries, namely Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Romania, China, Israel, Malta, Egypt, Cyprus and Indonesia claimed he has seen first-hand, the travails of Nigerian and other African players who are finding it hard to make ends meet abroad. Many have refused to return home because of difficult living conditions, he said.
Corroborating him, Benedict Akwuegbu, another former national team player stated that many Nigerian players fail to get into their dream clubs in Europe because they lack required quality and standard sought by top-flight clubs in Europe. According to him, many Nigerian players are stranded in Europe because they lack an understanding of the basics of the game. They lack the competency to play for the big clubs, he said.
The African ‘cattle fair’
The glut of African players is illustrated by the African Cup, which is nicknamed the ‘cattle fair’ and even more so by the junior edition where European club managers, players’ agents and coaches are omnipresent. The proliferation of these tournaments is sometimes considered as one of the main causes of the increased outflow of African players.
The sad cases of Dare, Adebawo, and others, are instructive of the magnitude of the problem at hand. Football has no doubt attained the status of a religion or culture Nigeria. It defines neighbourhoods, strengthens tribes and in extremes, unifies them — bringing warring African countries to temporary truce so that the game could be played. But over the last few decades, globalization has altered the tradition of the game, moulding what once was the love of the sport into a means of escaping the continent to play professional football in Europe.
Out of desperation to play professional football, several amateur footballers have ended up in places like India, Romania, Israel, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Yemen, Albania, Thailand, Malta, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, China, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
Stemming the tide
Every year, scores of African players are lured abroad, most of them as victims of a burgeoning football or basketball scam. Spending their family’s savings on dubious agents and scouts, the youth are trafficked to several parts of Europe goaded by the belief that there are top-flight European teams awaiting their signatures in mouth-watering contracts. Many of them eventually arrive at their destinations and struggle to battle chronic poverty, unemployment and racism. They are left to jostle with the ever increasing batches of amateurs that show up, bags in hand, dreams afire.
Together, they illustrate the pitiless underbelly of professional sports in a world now more diverse and interspersed than Nigeria and the global sports community may be willing to accept.
To resolve the malaise, sports regulatory bodies may need to join hands with anti-trafficking security agencies, argued Suleiman Mosebolaje, a football enthusiast and football coach.
Bisi Agboluaje, a Maldives’ based agent would like the federal government to reestablish and institute local football academies. “That would provide young talents a good avenue to hone and showcase their talents to local and then international football clubs. When you play for a standard football club and you are represented by a licensed agent, you stand greater chance of being approached by the big teams. Those who pass through standard teams and football academies play better football and are endowed with better football intelligence,” argued Agboluaje.
As the stakeholders go to the drawing board, let them not forget the plight of the country’s stranded and scammed youth in Diaspora.
At the backdrop of their heartrending narratives, many more Nigerian youth, basketball and football athletes, fortune hunters alike, are making a beeline for Europe, America, the Middle East, and even North Africa, in a daze, dreaming of fame and glory on presumed greener pasture abroad.
Spurred by the fabled prospects and attractions of their destination, they will complain of crippling poverty, joblessness and persecution as their reasons for migrating from Nigeria.
Like Akanni, Dare and others, their fates may be predictable. Alone in the dark, dingy booth, a deep foreboding descended on Akanni like a wet sponge, drenching his hopes of becoming a world renowned basketball star. Today, the 44-year-old would tell youngsters to look before they leap.
For Dare, the dispossession is absolute. Stranded and severely cash-strapped, he was crippled fleeing Maldivian police. Now 28, he is burnt out. Besides watching his dreams die, his life seems bereft of balance and joy.
Dare cannot live in his old neighbourhood in Agege, where he enjoyed cult following and the admiration of die-hard football enthusiasts. He is afraid they will consider him a failure.
Notwithstanding, he dreams of “making it big” as a coach, talent scout and agent for English Premiership and Spanish La liga clubs.
He said, “I will show my face in my old neighbourhood after I hammer (make it) Right now, I am forming a youth team. I will find football talents and train them very well before I fix them in Premiership and La liga clubs.”
For the 28-year-old, what is left is a kind of theatrical pride – the necessary performance of will.
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