Ballo Ousmane escaped Ivory Coast after the murder of much of his family. As an MP helps him battle to stay in the UK, he isn't allowed to play non-league football even for free. Dan Brennan reports
What a time to be an Ivorian footballer in the UK. Didier Drogba is suddenly flavour of the month again at Chelsea and half of that once most English of institutions, the Arsenal back four, now hails from Ivory Coast.
For Ballo Ousmane, another Ivorian footballer who has found his way here, the picture is somewhat different. Four years ago, aged 18, Ballo was in his second year as a professional with Sabe de Bouna in the Ivorian top division. It was the latest step in a promising career that had seen him rise through the ranks of the Africa Sport National academy in the capital, Abidjan. Had the fates shone differently he, too, might be causing a stir in one of the top leagues of Europe. Instead, UK government red tape is denying Ballo the chance to turn out for a club in the Northern League Division Two.
Ballo’s problem is that he is an asylum seeker. He fled Ivory Coast in 2003, but has since had both his application to re-main and subsequent appeal turned down. The Home Office do not deem his story credible. As things stand, he could be deported to a country that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office rates as one of the two most dangerous in the world.
His career was cut short in 2002, when Ivory Coast was polarised by an attempted coup and simmering civil conflict that pitted the government-held south against rebels in the largely Muslim north. Ballo’s father, a politician in the northern Muslim party the RDR, was killed, along with his two sisters. Ballo himself, though he claims no real interest in politics, had joined the RDR youth movement out of deference to his father. In July 2003 he was helped out of the country by family friends who got him to the UK. He spent his first days in England sleeping rough, before being guided to the Home Office where an asylum application was set in motion. He was initially housed in Kent and quickly made contact with Conference side Margate. They were keen to play him, but in December 2003 the Home Office decided to relocate him to Stockton in the north-east.
Ballo was befriended by former Middlesbrough captain Gordon Jones. “He was in a terrible state mentally,” says Jones, whose daughter, a local health worker, had met Ballo in a clinic. “It’s not surprising really. He arrived here with nothing and nobody and since then he’s been thrown from pillar to post. But he’s such a genuine character, with such dedication and enthusiasm.”
In 2004 Ballo answered a call for triallists at Marske United. The Northern League club could not believe their luck. “We were desperately keen to sign him,” says vice-chairman Janet Pippen. “We got him registered with the FA and secured international clearance from FIFA.” But they hadn’t counted on Home Office red tape. Despite Marske’s non-League status and Ballo offering to play for free, the fact that fans were paying to watch the team meant it was still a job. Instead, Ballo is merely allowed to train with Marske – which he has continued to do twice a week, in addition to carrying on with his own personal training on a daily basis. He has been a regular in the crowd and is still regarded as an honorary member of the club.
Ballo has also struck up friendships with Joseph-Désiré Job and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, both of whom have paid visits to Marske to sign autographs for the young fans at Ballo’s request. Marske’s Let Ballo Stay and Play campaign has gathered widespread support and a petition has been collected that includes signatories from a number of professional clubs. Local MP Vera Baird has taken up the cause in Parliament.
Anti-deportation campaigner Kath Sainsbury, who has been involved in the case from the start, says it is an all too familiar tale. “Often, in cases like his, people are being turned down over credibility of their evidence, when ‘credibility’ can hinge on things like inconsistencies in dates of the death of a relative. When you consider the circumstances and the state in which asylum seekers are making these testimonies, it is absurd that this should count against them.”
“[The Home Office] seem to think I came here for economic reasons. But I did not choose this life,” says Ballo. “I’d be proud to go back to my country if I could. But back there my life would be in danger.”
According to Leonard Vincent of Reporters Sans Frontières, the situation in Ivory Coast is likely to get worse, especially for someone of Ballo’s profile. “As a northerner and a Muslim he would be in danger in the south, whether or not he had any political involvement. And even in the north, he might be exposed to danger because he left the country. The killings are going on every day, especially in Abidjan, and the situation is deteriorating fast.
In September, Ballo’s solicitor submitted a new application for right to remain, bolstered by fresh evidence of the danger in which he would find himself if deported. For the Ivorian and his supporters it means more waiting and praying that the Home Office will finally play ball.
From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month