The Bewildered Chasing A Broken Dream

Published 9 years ago
The Bewildered Chasing A Broken Dream

They must have sat bewildered as the van drove them out of the city. The Johannesburg skyline petered to bush too quickly. For the six teenagers, and their football hopes, Ghana was a distant memory. The red dusty fields of Thohoyandou, in South Africa’s Limpopo province, a distant uncertainty.

They flew thousands of miles south from Accra on a false promise, at their parents’ expense, to become lost boys of the broken world of African football. They arrived in South Africa thinking they were on their way to the moneyed Premier League grounds of England. But they were not and the agent who promised them this has disappeared along with their parents’ money. The South African coach they’ve been dumped on is trying to find their parents back in Ghana in a bid to send them home. This is the ugly side of the beautiful game in Africa where the youth are being misled through a murky world.

It was the weak word of agent Francis Nkrumah that took these youngsters far from home. They heard him on the radio calling for trials in the coastal town of Cape Coast, three hours west of Accra. Out of 50 footballers, only seven made the cut. Skinny and dark in complexion; 15-year-old Richard Sogbadzi-Eddo was one of them. The midfielder says that he merely glimpsed Nkrumah during the trials. Most of the communication between the agent and family was over the phone.

“He was very dark and tall but he only talked to my brother on the phone,” explains Sogbadzi-Eddo.

The footballers, between the ages of 13 and 18, were told they would get a trial in South Africa leading to another with a Premier League club in England. They arrived in Thohoyandou, a small town in northern South Africa, with little idea where they were or what they were supposed to be doing. Nkrumah made big promises, says 17-year-old David Lawson.

“He said it would be a better place to play football and in three months we’ll go to Europe and we’ll probably be rich.”

Each family paid Nkrumah a little under $2,000 for their son’s chance for a brighter future. For all, the money was hard to come by.

“My mother is not a government worker, she’s a trader in the market. So she had to take a loan for the money,” says Sogbadzi-Eddo.

The family lost their father five years ago and his mother has been supporting him and his four brothers with meagre earnings. Nkrumah’s promised them a way out of poverty. Lawson’s mother, a headmistress, borrowed money from her church to pay for her son’s passage.

This is part of the growing trade in young footballers between Africa and Europe that often ends in broken families and shattered dreams. South Africa is becoming a way station within this strange and exploitative system, says Dan McDougall, an investigative journalist, who has covered what he calls the trafficking of West African players to Europe.

McDougall has met many young Ghanaians like Lawson and Sogbadzi-Eddo, lured from home and stranded in Europe. He believes that the nature of the industry encourages many to prey on promising young players from impoverished families in West Africa.

“This is an industry that stinks from top to bottom.”

Agents, like Nkrumah, often run informal football academies across West Africa with hopes of supplying the wealthy clubs of Europe with another Didier Drogba or Michael Essien. In Ghana, players as young as 10 are sent abroad in the hope of securing trials. Others take illegal routes to Europe huddled on boats in search of a better life. The journey is dangerous and often deadly. In 2009, the Nazar, a fishing vessel carrying hundreds of African migrants capsized off Tripoli, killing 300. Fifteen of its passengers were believed to be young players on their way to the pitches

of Europe.

Reaching the shores of Europe doesn’t guarantee a future.

“This is a deadly business, families are being extorted and most of the time these kids don’t have the ability to make it,” insists McDougall.

Unlike the Ghanaians in Limpopo who at least have a roof over their head, many football hopefuls who make it to Europe from West Africa are forced to survive in ghettos and back alleys. Bernard Bass, a young player from Equatorial Guinea, whom McDougall met, made his way to France from Ghana. Living in the Paris ghetto of Clichy-sous-Bois, he was threatened with the police by the club he hoped to try out for, Metz in eastern France, because they didn’t know who he was. He stayed on in France illegally, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment.

Back in Thohoyandou, the youngsters from Ghana have landed on the doorstep of unwitting former English professional footballer, Bally Smart. The former midfielder for Norwich City, who returned to Polokwane – the city of his birth – to set up his dream football academy is now lumbered with six  youths abandoned in South Africa who were merely given his address.

“He didn’t know anything [about Nkrumah]. But he asked us to stay and take the time to learn football. He said everything would be fine,” Sogbadzi-Eddo recalls.

It isn’t fine. Smart is trying to contact their parents back in Ghana and is at a loss. The agent has disappeared and could not be reached by the boys or by FORBES AFRICA. The boy’s visas expire in less than a year and they are running out of time.

“It’s frustrating to have them here because I am footing all the costs. I am just trying to make sure that they’re OK,” says Smart, who has never met Nkrumah.

Despite grim realities in Europe, the Ghanaian boys in Thohoyandou are hopeful.

“In West Africa, there are no chances. It is difficult to make it,” says young Sogbadzi-Eddo, who still has his sights set on Europe. “I am still positive that it will happen.”

This is just one of the problems on Smart’s plate. His dusty pitch has become a microcosm of the problems and divisions in African football. His academy, Polokwane United – where the Ghanaian boys live, learn and play – is facing a five-year suspension allegedly imposed by the Limpopo arm of the South African Schools Football Association (SASFA) which regulates the sport’s academies in the province. The academy has been barred from all competition. Smart insists that the suspension has no basis and that it was delivered unofficially. In early September, he filed an official complaint. FORBES AFRICA obtained a copy.

“It is clear that our strong teams and style of play is a thorn to the soccer politics in the district (Vhembe) and as a result our school has been targeted to be sabotaged (sic) and unfairly sidelined in an unscrupulous and corrupt manner,” Smart wrote in his complaint.

SASFA were unavailable for comment.

The suspension was a kick in the guts for all at Polokwane United – South Africans and Ghanaians alike.

Veteran football journalist, Mark Gleeson, believes that this is endemic in South African football.

“South Africa is notoriously bad for not promoting young football players,” he says.

“We need to understand how a society works as far as football is concerned. The Dutch and the German way of doing things reflects their society. We need to understand how African society works for the development of African football.”

It is not for a lack of money. South Africa has some of the most moneyed leagues on the African continent but these teams depend heavily on patronage. Smart has had no sponsors since he started his football academy two years ago. He’s been running the school from his own pocket unlike the other teams and academies around him which are owned largely by businessmen with political ties.

Smart and his boys have many challenges ahead. But he remains optimistic. One of his protégés is preparing for genuine trials in Britain in late September. As for his Ghanaian wards, although let down by the game they love, they are glad they landed on his doorstep.

“We eat three times daily here. I am happy here, everything will be OK,” says Sogbadzi-Eddo.

Unfortunately, optimism alone is not enough to cover the miles to the trials in Europe.