Dreams of football stardom dashed for young Africans
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 interested. 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 accommodation in the stadium which he shares with seven other young players, from Ivory Coast, Mali and Colombia. 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 Union.
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,” said Evangelista. 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.