As soccer’s top stars arrive in Russia chasing FIFA World Cup glory, young African players lured to the country with promises of lucrative contracts say that for them it is a place of scams and shattered dreams.
“We are the team of false promises,” said Ismael Soumahoro, who was 16 and playing in Ivory Coast’s top flight when a scout convinced him that “soccer in Africa is good, but it would be better to take my chances in Europe.”
Soumahoro paid the scout 3,000 euros (US$3,536) only to find, like so many before him, that promises of a spot with a Moscow club disappeared like a mirage.
He ended up training with a local team in the southern city of Krasnodar until his tourist visa ran out, leaving him adrift with no income in a country with frigid winters and a language he could barely speak.
“It was tough. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “It gets you down as you’ve lost your home club and your dream. In a stroke, you have nothing.”
While teams in Russia’s Premier League can sign foreign talent, players in the lower divisions must be Russian or have a hard-to-obtain residence permit.
Ernest Akhilomhen was a regular in Nigerian youth squads before leaving at age 16 to try his luck in Russia.
He said coaches regularly tell him: “Ernest, we like you, we want to sign you, but you have to get the good documents.”
Without the correct paperwork Akhilomhen says he must break into the Premier League because it allows foreigners, a dream he stubbornly clings to.
“That’s the reason I’m still here: I still have hope,” he said.
Several times a week, Akhilomhen meets up at a field in the Moscow suburbs with Soumahoro, who coaches the Black Stars, a team he created for African soccer players “to stay in shape and keep their hopes up.”
Every year some 6,000 African minors quit West Africa looking to make it with a European club, the charity Foot Solidaire said.
Mouhamed Kone arrived in Russia with an agent’s promises of introductions to a top club and manager ringing in his ears. Two years later, he is still waiting and has run out of hope.
“I don’t have any papers. I lost my passport,” said the young Malian. “Each time I see the police, I get very afraid.”
Fellow Africans helped him find a small apartment that he shares with eight others. The 17-year-old hangs up advertisements in a town north of Moscow to pay the rent and eat. He can earn up to 50 euros per week at best, and often brings home half that.
“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to come to Russia to have career in soccer,” he said.
Other Africans find work cutting hair, washing dishes in restaurants or as extras in films to earn enough to eat.
For his part, Soumahoro earns his way with soccer, by training Muscovites, both children and adults, but eight years after he arrived in Russia, he still hopes that one day he will be noticed by a Premier League side.
“If you have your goal, with or without papers, you can achieve it. The solution is in your dreams,” Soumahoro said.
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