Dreams of football stardom dashed for young Africans
16 March 2016, 18:15
Nogueira do Cravo - They dream of being the next Cristiano
Ronaldo, but for many budding young stars who arrive in Portugal from Africa
and Latin America, Europe's football riches remain an illusion.
Abandoned by unscrupulous agents, some are unceremoniously
deported, others left to fend for themselves on the streets. Few top clubs are
Valentine Akpey, 20, trains tirelessly with his fellow
Nigerian Sunday Akoh, juggling the ball, passing and repassing, the snow-capped
peaks of Portugal's Serra da Estrela mountains in the background.
For two years he has been on the books of Nogueirense, an
amateur club in Portugal's third division.
"I work hard so I can win a place in a higher
division", he said.
His face drawn, and with well-maintained dreadlocks, the
young Nigerian has lofty ambitions.
"I dream of playing for Barcelona, like Lionel Messi.
The best football is in Europe, all young Africans want to come here."
He was not even 18 when he arrived in Portugal with other
youths, brought over by a Nigerian agent who spotted him while he was playing
in the streets of the capital Abuja.
In mid-2014, he was picked up by police as his visa had
expired. The Portuguese authorities gave him 20 days to get his papers in order
or face deportation back to Nigeria.
He was saved by Nogueirense, which offered him a modest
contract and now lives in accomodation in the stadium which he shares with
seven other young players, from Ivory Coast, Mali and Colombia.
Also read: Aubameyang scores again, brace for Manucho
- Football 'trafficking' -
While some see an escape from dire poverty, others like
Joaquim Evangelista, head of Portugal's professional footballers union, condemn
the "illegal trafficking of minors."
"There are parents who go into debt to finance their
son's dream and pay agents up to 3,000 euros ($3,300) in Africa, even 5,000
euros in Brazil," he said.
FIFA, football's world governing body, bans all
international transfers of players under 18, except those within the European
However, with Portugal's economic woes, "more and more
amateur clubs agree to train young players and act as nurseries. If the players
succeed and are transferred to big clubs, they can earn big pay cheques,"
But if they fail, "the young men are abandoned by their
agents and find themselves in the street, broke." Some turn to petty crime
or drugs, he said.
At least 15,000 African minors try their chances in Europe
every year, with the failure rate at around 70 percent, according to the Foot
Solidaire, an activist group which campaigns for young footballers. Between
1,000 and 1,500 young footballers are illegal migrants in Portugal, border
- 39 mouths to feed -
Ansumane Fati, a 24-year-old from Guinea-Bissau, was one of
the lucky ones, although it was a long hard route to success.
Dropped by the Sporting Lisbon academy after a three-month
trial, he was abandoned by his agent without any papers.
Fati then began a journey far from Ronaldo's rags-to-riches
tale in Portugal.
He ended up at a small amateur club in northern Portugal
where he slept rough under the stands.
Fati changed clubs twice before securing a place at second
division outfit Freamunde.
"Football, it's a passion but also a way of helping my
family in Guinea-Bissau", said Fati.
"Since my father died, I have 39 people that I have to
Wearing a brown leather jacket, an amulet round his neck, he
now earns 1,500 euros a month, 10 times what he made when he first started in
"Foreign players do not cost very much for clubs, who
supply accommodation and food, but the salary is often derisory," said
Joao Manteigas, a lawyer who specialises in sports issues.
Fearing expulsion or losing a job, few players dare to
Brazilian Alex Rambo, however, is one who broke the silence.
"I was scared, but I finally spoke publicly about my
case to obtain help," he said.
An agent had dangled a contract with top club FC Porto in
front of him, but when he arrived in Portugal the deal was never concluded.
Aged just 18 at the time, he found himself alone and
penniless in a hotel room for two months.
Returning to Brazil, he became a star striker for the
Osvaldo Cruz club.
He has never given up the idea of one day going back to
Portugal, "but only with a contract in my pocket."For
the latest on national news, politics, sport, entertainment and more follow us
on Twitter and like our Facebook page.