Asia Life

Selling Dreams Along the Silk Road

A football slave or a naïve migrant?

Selling Dreams Along the Silk Road

After a hurried team talk, rendered by the young coach in a style of Russian more akin to prison slang, Olawale Sunday (“Wale”) joins me for a few moments before the start of the second half: “Thank you so much for coming,” he greets me, along with a hug usually reserved in the West for close family members. “Great goal,” I assure him, as he re-joins his teammates. It was the happiest I had seen ‘Wale’ in the six months we had known one another.

The Tsentralniy Stadion (Central Stadium) in Kyrgyzstan’s unexceptional town of Kant, a $10 taxi ride from the capital Bishkek, is a breathtaking yet improbable setting for a 23-year-old from Apapa, a port to the west of Lagos Island, to pursue a football career. As such, unlike football neo-colonialism, in which European nations such as Belgium and France mine their former colonies for talent, exploiting their cultural, historical and linguistic links in the hope of extracting the next “black diamond,” or in which hopeful footballers make use of established migration patterns, Wale’s case is quite different and perhaps a reaction to the problem of football trafficking being approached with more endeavor in the West.

Consequently, a nascent route – or dropping-off point – has appeared on the map, along the old Silk Road, where borders are porous and visas are often issued upon the flattery of a minor bribe.

All Roads Lead to Bishkek?

“I do not like it here,” Wale says, visibly unhappy to be returning to a familiar theme. “But it’s a lot better than Dushanbe,” he optimistically qualifies, a reference to Tajikistan’s capital.

Wale left Nigeria in 2013, having paid $3350 to a rogue agent who had promised him a trial with an unnamed club in Russia, a destination now revered among African football circles for its generous financial rewards. Accompanied by a group of similar recruits, they arrived in Dubai and were each given one-way tickets to Dushanbe, where they were then met by a Ghanaian merchant-of-sorts: “Charles [the Ghanaian] met us off the plane and told us we would play for Lokomotiv Dushanbe,” a side that has little in common with its Muscovite namesake. Quite why Charles was in Tajikistan was never properly explained, although his role in assuring the young players upon reaching Dushanbe, with hindsight, appears crucial in the process: “Charles married a Tajik girl so he is stuck there forever,” Wale reveals as if discussing a lengthy period of incarceration. “He uses players as slaves.”

After three months at Lokomotiv, Wale decided to break free and move north, having received a recommendation from his friend, Ebeneezer, who had arranged a trial with Alga, a side from Kyrgyzstan’s capital – a wheezing shrine to Khrushchev’s architectural legacy.

Having organized his Kyrgyz visa independently, like a wayward backpacker in Dushanbe, Wale then paid $60 to board a marshrutka (minibus) for two days, crossing several high-risk mountain passes, before reaching Bishkek, but not without the ubiquitous struggle most foreigners encounter with Central Asian bureaucracy: “I was detained on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border for several hours, for no reason,” he says.

Upon arriving in Bishkek, Wale was to discover that his passport was expiring, with Bishkek’s Alga offering a letter of invitation required for visa purposes in return for Wale’s services. “I flew back to Nigeria for four days to get my new passport, but I didn’t see anyone,” Wale admits, preempting my next question. “In Africa, we have such a mentality that if one is to leave, then that person should not come back empty handed.” Wale’s difficulties were never openly discussed, out of an element of embarrassment and perhaps shame, as he has never to this day received any form of remuneration from either club he has played for during his time in Central Asia: “My brother helps me,” Wale tells me, both with gratitude and anguish.

No Football in Kyrgyzstan

“The cameras were here today. That’s why I could score,” Wale explains, as his two goals deny their opponents, Kant’s Nashe Pivo, promotion to Kyrgyzstan’s First Division.

With his gentle manner, Wale describes his treatment in Kyrgyz football without using the word “racism” outright: “Sometimes just touching the ball is enough for a referee to award a free-kick against me.” It is an accusation I can corroborate. “One time,” Wale continues, “I was through on goal and the keeper came running out towards me. I was focused on taking the ball around him, but he flew at me and smashed my face with, I think, his knees.” On this occasion, Wale’s coach wanted his players to leave the field after the referee had awarded a free-kick against Wale as he lay on the edge of the box unconscious, his face covered in blood.

For 90 minutes, as the autumnal tones infest the picturesque stadium in Kant, Wale can forget where he is and simply concentrate on his football. His first goal comes from a perfectly timed run, cushioned touch, and half-volley into the goalkeeper’s right-hand corner, while his second involves intercepting a short back pass to touch it around the keeper, who keeps his legs firmly planted in the grass, to put Alga-2 two goals ahead with ten minutes remaining. Alga-2’s minor capitulation at the end meant little, with the travelling side enjoying the schadenfreude knowing that their opponents had missed out on promotion largely as a result of Wale’s brace.

On the team bus back to Bishkek, Wale feels more comfortable joining me at the front as his teammates create a racket at the back: “They speak to me in Kyrgyz even though I don’t understand this language.” As we near Bishkek, Wale is playfully heckled by his teammates, who call him by the names of famous African strikers from past and present: Adebayor, Drogba, Kanu, Martins. Wale is good-natured and smiles, but with a tinge of sadness: The jibes are a reminder that his own journey could not be any more different from that of those marquee players.

Celebrating with Wale after the match, we drink a couple of rounds of Nashe Pivo (literally meaning “Our Beer” in Russian and the sponsor and namesake of Alga-2’s opponents). Wale is uncharacteristically relaxed and jovially bullish: “I could have scored more today, had I not been on antibiotics.” Wale had suffered from a high fever, which prompted his housemates, approximately six other Nigerians with whom he shares a small two-bedroom apartment, to call for a doctor. “The doctor prescribed antibiotics but each tablet costs 350 Kyrgyz som (approximately $6),” Wale tells me in-between mouthfuls of chicken at Bishkek’s American BBQ Bar ‘Smokie’s’. “I bought as many as I could,” he adds.

Football Slave?

In many respects it would have been better had the agent abandoned Wale where they had met, in Lagos. But the ruse lies in the ritual of actually sending the players away to play football overseas, regardless of the conditions and venue. This gives the agent a sense of having technically executed his side of the bargain, absolving whatever guilt he may have, while opening an opportunity for any share of the spoils in the unlikely event any of the players actually progress to a higher and more profitable level.

For Wale, though, the “bargain” means he has effectively enslaved himself, with his obligation to pay back what he owes. Yet despite all the hardships he is determined not to return home until he has done that.

It is reported that 20,000 similar African hopefuls have had their football dreams exploited, with  Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), a French organization that raises awareness of the criminal recruiting and trafficking of young footballers from Africa, estimating that in France alone there are more than 7,000 young Africans living on the streets after failed attempts to play for a professional club: “It’s a modern version of the slave trade, and it comes in many different forms,” says Jean Claude Mbvoumin, CFS’s founder. Now, new routes are opening up in Central Asia, a region with little profile in the West, and one where corruption is rampant and regulatory enforcement lax. It is proving to be a particularly lucrative frontier for the expansion of “football slavery.”

As for Wale, the football season has finished in Kyrgyzstan and a bitter winter is already on the way. “I want to go and play in Kazakhstan or Turkey,” he tells me, tirelessly optimistic. “I have found an agent who can help me get a new club there.” I pause and consider how not to sound pessimistic as we sit in one of Bishkek’s many outdoor cafes, enjoying an almost palatable coffee. “Do you trust him?” I ask in a voice devoid of any particular tone. “Yes, I trust him,” Wale replies earnestly.

David McArdle is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews and the University of Oxford in International Security Studies and Russian and East European Studies, respectively, and is originally from Greenock (Scotland). Having also lived in Belarus and Georgia, David’s other (non-footballing) passions include dive bars, obscure geography, and Russian literature.