Nicholas Birch meets players brought to Turkey on agents' promises that are swiftly broken
It was set to be the big grudge match: for Nigeria, the opportunity to repeat last year’s 2-0 victory; for Guinea, the chance of revenge. Then, 36 hours before the August 18 kick-off, came news of the big police swoop on the central Istanbul slum of Tarlabasi. Guinea’s entire midfield was among the 60 people arrested.
As reasons for postponing an international football final go, it sounds pretty far-fetched. But Istanbul’s African Cup never made any claim to be run-of-the-mill. Now in its third year, the six-week, eight-team tournament provides a stage for players united by only one thing: their illegality.
Some are migrants, unknown thousands of whom congregate in Turkey before heading west. But many more have stories similar to that of Boubakar Bah, who was brought to Turkey three years ago with a one-way ticket and the promise of a glittering career, such as that enjoyed by Ghana’s Samuel Johnson. The defender made more than 100 appearances for Fenerbahce and is now with Kayserispor. But Bah never even got a trial. “For two weeks, an agent called Ali Toraman trailed me around the big clubs he said were interested in me,” says this 22-year-old former midfield star of TED Afrique, a one-time first division club in Conakry, Guinea’s capital. “When he realised nothing was going to happen, he disappeared.” Stranded on an out-of-date tourist visa, with three weeks of hotel bills to pay, Bah couldn’t go back.
When Guinea beat semi-finalists Ghana on the artificial pitch of Ferikoy FC, just a mile down the road from Galatasaray’s former stadium the Ali Sami Yen, he sets up two of Guinea’s four goals. “It’s really only a half competition we’re playing here,” he says, “but if a footballer like me stops training and playing, it means he’s stopped hoping. I haven’t done that yet.”
Sitting by the rubble-strewn football pitch in another district of Istanbul where Nigerian footballers train almost every morning, competition organiser Donald Adekunle strikes a more pragmatic note. “The loneliness is one of the worst things about being stranded here,” says this 26-year-old central defender who now acts as secretary to the Africans’ unofficial football federation. “The tournament is like a sort of church – it provides a centre for the community.”
What it also does is to provide footballers let down by their original agents with a second chance to impress potential selectors. After last year’s competition, ten players were given trials by clubs, six in Turkey and four in Albania.
This year, the tally is even better: 15 Africans currently play with Turkish teams. “That’s the most so far, but getting clubs to take you on is the easy part,” Adekunle says. “What is far more difficult is persuading them to legalise your status.” After a stint two years ago playing with a club in southern Turkey, he knows what he’s talking about. When the time came for the club to sign a proper contract, the management shied away from paying the fine he owed for overstaying his visa.
The real problem is not the clubs’ stinginess. It’s that, in a country where second- and third-division sides are reserved for local players, the only realistic hope for outsiders such as Bah and Adekunle is the amateur league. “You’ve been watching the matches,” Bah says angrily. “You know we’re worth more than that.” He’s almost certainly right. But, in Turkey at least, there’s nobody out there listening.
At the Turkish FA, officials say they’ve never heard of the problem. Nor has the Turkish office of the International Organisation for Migration, a US-based non-governmental organisation specialising in investigating people trafficking. But the issue is attracting interest from Raffaele Poli of the Swiss-based International Centre for the Study of Sport, who regards some clubs’ actions as talent-spotting without paying for the intermediaries. “What you see in Turkey is a version of a pan-European phenomenon,” Poli says. “While it’s customary to blame the agents who ship them abroad on often false pretences, they wouldn’t be doing it unless there was a market for it.”
Released last week after nearly a month in detention, Boubakar Bah is talking of returning to Guinea. A month ago, he was talking of videoing his performance in the African Cup final and sending it to an agent in France. Now, he just wants to go home. “Legal or illegal, it makes no difference,” he says. “There is no life for us here.”
From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month