It was the dream of sporting glory that drew talented Cameroonian striker Salomon Bengondo to Indonesia — but his story ended in poverty, illness and an untimely death, in a country failing to pay its soccer players.
The withholding of wages by Indonesian clubs has reached “catastrophic proportions,” international players’ union FIFPro said — and Bengondo is the second foreign player known to have died after going unpaid.
In 2012, Paraguayan striker Diego Mendieta died of a viral infection after he too was unable to afford treatment, following months without wages. Bengondo arrived in Indonesia in 2005, a promising young soccer player who hoped to build a career in Southeast Asia’s biggest nation.
“He had every chance, he had great hopes,” his brother Beliby Ferdinand said this week at the modest house that they used to share near the capital, Jakarta.
Bengondo died last month at the age of 32, unable to afford hospital treatment for a mystery illness. His former club, Persipro Bond-U, still owed him large sums of money, his brother and Indonesian soccer officials said.
Like many African players, Bengondo came to Indonesia in search of a higher salary.
While the wages may not be in the same league as European clubs, Indonesian sides are generally better-paying than those in Africa.
He had been so incensed at his treatment that he took to the streets to beg in protest with his African teammates in 2012, apparently with little effect.
“The club still did nothing,” said Ferdinand, 27.
Brendan Schwab of FIFPro warned the issue of Indonesian clubs failing to pay players had reached “literally catastrophic proportions.”
“We can’t think of a country in the world of football where the problems of the players are more pronounced or more serious than Indonesia,” said Schwab, head of FIFPro’s Asian division.
It is not just foreign players going unpaid. The Indonesian professional footballers’ association (APPI) says 14 clubs in the country’s two top-tier divisions still owe salaries from the 2012-2013 season.
Bengondo played for several clubs and was signed by Persipro, based in Probolinggo in the east of the main island of Java, for the 2011-2012 season. The club is in the Premier Division, the second highest level of soccer in Indonesia.
However, according to his brother, Bengondo received only 20 million rupiah (US$1,650) when he started with the club, and nothing afterward. He was supposed to receive an extra lump sum and 16.63 million rupiah a month for eight months, according to a copy of his contract seen by Agence France-Presse.
Persipro could not be contacted for comment on Bengondo’s case, despite repeated attempts to get in touch with the club.
Despite the lack of salary, Bengondo played for the club until the end of the season, before returning to the city of Tangerang, outside Jakarta, where he lived with his brother. He was already feeling unwell, suffering from chest pains, as well as stomach problems, Ferdinand said.
In Tangerang, he continued to train with other Cameroonians and eked out a living playing in occasional matches between villages.
Toward the end of November last year, he began feeling increasingly ill and visited a local hospital and later a clinic, where he underwent tests and was given medication to help with his stomach problems.
As his health deteriorated, he would have liked to seek treatment at a bigger hospital or even return to Cameroon, but he did not have the means, his repeated appeals to Persipro to give him the money he was owed having failed, his brother said.
He died in the early hours of Nov. 29. His brother said it is still unclear what exactly he was suffering from and he is waiting for the results of an autopsy.
Bengondo’s body was flown back to Cameroon earlier this month with funding from the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI).
PSSI chairman Djohar Arifin Husin said clubs were suffering funding problems as competition for sponsorship was tough and since 2011, professional teams have been banned from getting local government funding, a vital source of revenue in the past.
Attempts to improve players’ rights have also been overlooked in recent years as Indonesian soccer bosses struggled to resolve a feud between two rival federations, which spawned two top-tier divisions.
Both sides agreed in March last year to reunite under the PSSI, after world governing body FIFA warned Indonesia could be banned from international competition.
Despite the distractions, Husin insisted the PSSI is trying to resolve the issue of players going unpaid, saying all clubs had been given a deadline of Jan. 15 to pay outstanding salaries or face being banned from competitions.
However, such commitments are unlikely to reassure Ferdinand after his bitter experience in the world of Indonesian soccer.
“Footballers are not respected in this country,” he said.