From Central Asia to Nepal to Indonesia you will find aspiring African football players working day and night to become the next football superstar. Unfortunately for many, chasing their dreams abroad also exposes them to exploitation, abuse and discrimination.
Visitors to the high Himalayas of Nepal, the steppes of Kazakhstan and the jungles of Southeast Asia will be surprised to find young African men playing in local, regional and national football leagues. There is a disproportionate number of (primarily West African) youth in Asian football leagues, as thousands leave Africa to pursue their dreams of becoming football superstars. With the European market oversaturated with aspiring players, more Africans are turning to Asia in the hope of landing a position with a football club.
How West African footballers became export commodities
The fact that football is basically a religion in Africa has long been established, and many young Africans aspire to emulate their heroes from the European football leagues. The path to football stardom is seen as a means to escape poverty and represents one of the few avenues for social mobility for many impoverished youth.
Even those lucky enough to secure contracts with local African teams often cannot rely on their jobs as footballers to make a living. Only a small handful of professional clubs can afford to pay their players, who in turn must rely on family support and handouts from fans to survive. Furthermore, salaried African footballers earn very low wages in comparison to foreign players: three-quarters of the continent's athletes earn less than $1,000 per month.
Consequently, “once a young man shows signs of becoming a good player, the talented player is recruited abroad with promises that his needs, and the needs of his family, will be met. Players prefer to go on the adventure [than stay in local positions],” notes Kazimir Makeh, a first division coach in Cameroon.
While eventually playing for a European club is the ultimate dream of most young players, African footballers are increasingly looking to clubs in Asia, which are considered easier to join and are viewed as a stepping stone to success in Europe. At the same time, many Asian clubs are looking to import African players for their play style and physical prowess.
Foreign players are expensive investments for football clubs, so Asian clubs are exploiting the massive interest from Africa as well as the limited number of places. “Many clubs take advantage [of the fact] that they can get these African players for close to nothing,” comments Gabriel Ken Gadaffi, president of the Nigerian Community Association in Laos.
Heading to Asia? Watch out for human traffickers posing as FIFA agents
Substantial demand from Africans for professional football opportunities, together with a far smaller number of available positions has led to the emergence of unscrupulous agents and other middlemen who take advantage of the dreams of young Africans.
Emmanuel Koska left a position with Cameroon’s second division team Menoua and sold his father’s land to pay for a trip to Thailand where a lucrative football job awaited him, according to his agent. When he arrived in Thailand his agent disappeared with his money and the team he applied to did not retain him. One Cameroonian agent, speaking on the situation in Thailand, describes how “out of forty players officially under contract and playing for a team there are fifty others in the street without [a] contract or means of living.”
In 2010, two Cameroonian players were arrested for claiming to able to counterfeit US dollars after they were left stranded in the country, having failed to secure a contract with a Burmese team. Other young footballers in Myanmar are also working as teachers or waiters in order to make enough money to survive. Even those with a contract can see salaries as low as $200 per month: this in a country where a pair of football shoes alone can cost $100.
Furthermore, many African players who arrive in Asia have unreasonable expectations, believing that the low standards of Asian clubs guarantees that they will accept players regardless of skill level. The host of corrupt agents only fan the naivete of young footballers, with many a player and club alike scammed out of signing fees only for the players to show up to practice barely able to kick the ball.
“African players who come here because they think they’ll find it easy soon realise that the [Myanmar National League] is not what they expected. On the face of it, the Myanmar football world seems easy but when you’re involved as a player the competition is very tough,” explains Jonathan Yamoah, the Ghanaian manager of Nay Pyi Taw FC. Yamoah travelled the world as a professional football player, playing in three continents, before arriving in Myanmar in 2009 when the Myanmar National League was created. Prior to his managerial role, Yamoah also played for Zeyar Shwe Myay FC.
Nevertheless every year more players arrive from West Africa, drawn by the promise of guaranteed contracts and higher wages. There is significant disparity regarding footballer salaries in Asia: foreign players can earn up to $2,000 per month in Bangladesh or $9,000 in Thailand; top players in Indonesia earn around $80,000 per year, with star players in Vietnam earning $200-$300,000 per year. Recruiters use these (compared to Africa) exponentially higher salaries to entice young footballers to make the journey to Asia.
While some find success in their new homes, many more are exploited; often left stranded in a foreign country after their agents have absconded with their money. A key problem is that it is very easy for anyone to claim to be a football agent, a fact made easier by changes to FIFA’s rules in 2015. Specifically, as of 2015 contract negotiations between clubs and players are no longer facilitated by licensed football agents, but rather by ‘intermediaries’. While agents were required to take tests runs by their country’s football associations, these new intermediaries need only self-certify that they have a good reputation.
Prior to the 2015 changes only 30 percent of transfers were conducted via licensed agents. FIFA's new system was intended to address this problem, but many claim that the changes only makes the situation worse. “I don’t know of many industries where intermediaries can self-certify their good character, where a broker isn’t properly vetted, regulated or has professional standards,” laments Jake Marsh, head of training and youth protection & sport integrity, at the Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS).
Life at football academy "like slave work"
A high profile case in February 2015 highlighted the failings of FIFA's system, as the global players union FIFPro investigated the illegal transfer of 23 African footballers as young as fourteen to an unregistered football academy in Laos, by Laotian team, Champasak United. The players were trafficked to the small Asian nation and forced to sign six-year contracts. Despite being promised $200 per month and accommodation, the players were never paid and confined to the club’s stadium, where they had to sleep on the floor in a shared room.
The youths were originally invited by former Liberia international player Alex Karmo, who insists that everything about the academy was above board and that the players had indeed been paid. Liberian journalist and sports promoter Wleh Bedell believes otherwise: “It’s an ‘academy’ that has no coach nor doctor. Karmo was the coach, the business manager, everything. It was completely absurd.” One young player described the conditions at the academy as “slave work” and noted that no medical assistance was provided despite some players contracting malaria and typhoid.
Speaking on the scandal, FIFPro “suspects that this case is not one of its kind, but probably the tip of the iceberg.” A similar scandal hit the Cambodian football league after Nigerian Wilson Mene collapsed during a game and died on the pitch from a heart attack in 2012. There is speculation that his death was due to ill health caused by the harsh living conditions and sub-standard care provided by his Cambodian club. Mene’s death sparked league-wide efforts to reform and improve standards, although many young Africans in Cambodia and across Asia continue to face unsafe working conditions.
Alongside being scammed by agents, many young African footballers enter Asian countries on tourist visas hoping to land positions with local clubs. Cambodia saw a huge jump in the number of African players between 2007-2010 when the league started charging for tickets and salaries jumped from $20-30 to $70-100 per month. This leaves over 100 Africans competing for just 30 foreign player positions (alongside players from the rest of the world) in Cambodia. Similarly, dozens of Africans arrive ahead of the football transfer season in Myanmar each year on tourist visas hoping to be signed.
Arriving as tourists, many linger waiting for their big break which results in their visas expiring. Stuck in Asia with no money and illegally residing in their host countries, many Africans footballers face poverty, with some turning to crime to survive. Even those who manage to get a position with a club find themselves at the mercy of their employers, who can demand unreasonable working conditions and pay because the players are in the country illegally.
With no valid visa players are also at a loss to report any abuse for fear of being deported. Even Louis-Paul Mfede, who played for Cameroon in the 1990 and 1994 World Cup and moved to Indonesia to play was jailed in the country after his visa expired.
Despite scammers, some success stories do emerge
Olawale Sunday left Nigeria for what he thought was a trail with a professional Russian football club. Instead he soon found himself playing for a fraction of the promised salary at a minor club in Tajikistan. His story is not unique, as Central Asia is becoming a dumping ground for scammed African football players, with “new routes of ‘football slavery’ [...] taking shape in [the region]” argues David McArdle who writes on football in Central Asia.
Sunday was one of the luckier ones, eventually making his way to Kyrgyzstan to play for for a second division team. Similarly, Daniel Togoe from Ghana moved to Russia to pursue a football career, but left disillusioned and ended up in Kyrgyzstan. Fortunately for Togoe, he is now one of four West Africans on Kyrgyzstan’s national team. FIFA rules stipulate that a player may play for another country after living in said country for five years and obtaining citizenship. Despite missing family and friends, Togoe and his fellow teammates are enjoying their time in Kyrgyzstan, as the team’s West African component has become a star feature.
“David Tetteh [from Ghana] scored all [Kyrgyzstan’s] goals at the Asian Confederation Challenge Cup in 2013. I have no idea how he found out about Kyrgyzstan,” ponders Krygyz journalist Bektour Iskender, “but (he and the other Africans on the national team) have helped our football a lot.” Similar sentiments are voiced by Bangladeshi football promoters, claiming that the sport’s rising popularity in the country is in part due to the energy and skill which African players have brought to the league.
Bangladesh’s premier football league was only established in 2007 and since then African players have consistently ranked as the leagues’ top scorers. In fact, Nigerian striker Elijah Obagbemiro Jr. scored the league’s first ever goal and hat trick in 2007. In 2013, the league had around fifty foreign players, the vast majority West African, like Ghana’s Awuda Ibrahim who has become one of the league’s star players. Cheap living costs, a familiar climate and the chance to make around $2,000 per month continues to draw African footballers to Bangladesh.
“Football is now growing in Bangladesh. That’s why it is attracting African players,” says Abdul Samad Yussif from Ghana - “Whenever I go home my friends ask me about this league, they want to come and play.”
Around 400 African players are also active in India's various football leagues, and almost every Thai Premier League team has at least one African player, with some boasting half a-dozen players. Overall, there were more than thirty African players on TPL teams and dozens more in lower leagues in 2015. African players are also popular in Malaysia where their prominent media profiles are helping counter negative stereotypes about Africans in Malaysia due to increased immigration: some 79,000 Africans immigrated to Malaysia in 2013 alone.
African footballers are even finding their way to the remote Himalayan nation of Nepal, with over fifty Africans now playing at various levels in Nepal. Situated on the roof of the world, and sandwiched between China and India, Nepal is perhaps the last place you would expect to find African footballers - even some of the players were surprised they ended up there. “I had never heard of Nepal,” reminisces Adewumi Joshua Femi from Nigeria, “let alone of football in Nepal."
Other African players in Nepal recount similar stories. Zikahi Leonce Dodoz, originally from the Ivory Coast, where he played for JC Abidjan in the country’s Premier Division suddenly found himself in Nepal after being scammed by an agent promising a spot in a big Asian league. Dodoz eventually managed to get signed with the Three Star Club, and notes that African players get paid a lot by local standards. Nigerian defender Peter Segan explains: “It’s a huge challenge for us Africans because we are paid more than Nepali players so we need to prove our worth every single day.”
Fortunately for Dodoz, (and despite his initial shock at being stuck in Nepal), he has since come to enjoy living in the country with his Nepali girlfriend and is learning the local language. Positive impressions of Nepal are also shared by Dodoz’s fellow African footballers who note the country’s welcoming attitude. So it appears that for some there has been a happy ending to their stories; however, they faced considerable odds in their perilous journeys from Africa to Asia.
Exporting young African footballers has become big business in recent years as Asian nations invest more in their football leagues, eyeing foreign talent to boost local teams. The massive disparity between the number of aspiring footballers and the number of available positions means that many fall victim to traffickers and scammers promising a route to wealth and fame. At the same time, an oversaturated market in Europe means more Africans than ever are heading to Asia in the search for a brighter future.
While some manage to acquire well paying jobs, many more either fail to land a contract with a club or are outright scammed by unscrupulous ‘agents’ hijacking a broken accreditation system. Duped out of their life savings and stranded in foreign countries on the other side of the world, many African youth fall into poverty or crime. Even those who manage to find a legal job are often stuck in limbo, not earning enough to save for a return trip.
The oversupply of potential players also means that clubs can wield immense power over the fates of African footballers, especially those without valid visas; with many subject to unfair contracts, harsh working conditions, and even football slavery. More needs to be done by FIFA, local football associations in Africa and clubs in Asia to combat the abuse of African players.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.