Leaving Africa can be a culture shock – especially when you think living in Poland or on the Mediterranean are much the same, as Jonathan Wilson reports
Remember Julius Aghahowa? Lightning fast, multiple somersaults whenever he scores, linked with Arsenal? After a series of explosive substitute appearances at the African Nations Cup in 2000, he was Nigeria’s great striking hope at the 2002 World Cup, but essentially football has passed him by. In six years he has gone from teenage prodigy to a 24-year-old yesterday’s man.
Aghahowa still makes the occasional Nigeria appearance and does play Champions League football; his problem is that he does it for the Ukrainian champions, Shakhtar Donetsk. When he moved there from the Tunisian side Esperance in 2001, it was as the subject of Ukraine’s record transfer – but, as he acknowledges, it was by default.
“I had a lot of offers, but the club president didn’t want to release me,” he said. “Then when he did, the European seasons had started. Shakhtar had seen me in the Nations Cup and they sent an agent to tell me about the club. They didn’t want me to do any tests or anything; they just saw me and gave me an offer, and because I was desperate to leave Africa and go to Europe, I accepted it. I thought it would be a stepping-stone.”
But it hasn’t been. Aghahowa, assuming his stay would be temporary, never attempted to learn the language or to fit in with the local culture and, when the expected move further west didn’t materialise, he was stranded in the heart of the Ukrainian coalfield, his form fluctuating with the weather. “It can be very cold in winter,” he said. “So, so cold. So you get injuries in your toes.” His frequent appeals for a move west – and occasional sulks – have understandably resulted in an uneasy relationship with the fans.
There are many others in his position. Loneliness, exacerbated by the winters and the unfamiliar food, seems to be the biggest problem. Another Nigerian forward, Eduard Aniamke, who arrived in Europe first in Moldova with Serif and then went on to Karpaty Lviv in Ukraine, told me of sitting by a fax machine waiting for updates from the party his relatives back in Nigeria were having for his birthday.
Both he and Aghahowa insist they have not suffered overt racism, but it would be naive to believe none exists. Jerry-Christian Tschuisse, a Cameroon-born defender, would have naturalised and played for Russia had he not been threatened by far-right groups, while even Emmanuel Olisadebe, a Nigerian who did play for Poland, almost left his adopted country a week after arriving when a trial with Ruch Chorzow ended with him being abused by fans.
Talk of a “slave trade” is exaggerated, but every year there are dozens of African footballers who end up in eastern Europe with no real idea of what they are going to. GKS Belchatow forward Ferdinand Chifon, who left his home in Cameroon for the Polish club Odra Opde in 1999, is typical. “An agent offered me a deal to play in Poland,” he said. “I just thought Poland, that’s Europe. I didn’t know that Poland was different from France or Spain or Italy. I thought Europe was all the same.”
Chifon, though, is a player without either the talent or the expectation of Aghahowa and made the decision to do everything he could to settle down, even marrying a Pole. When I met him, he was playing for GKS Katowice with another African, the Niger international Moussa Yahaya. When I asked if he had any children, Yahaya laughed, grabbed Chifon’s crotch, then turned to another journalist and made a joke in Polish. If you can be funny about impotence in the local language, presumably you are pretty well adapted to the culture.
Yahaya, in fact, accuses Aghahowa of having brought his problems on himself. “If he has not learned the language,” he snorts, “he is not a true African. Africans must always adapt. I knew as a footballer my future was not in Africa, so I came here and I must do what I can to fit in. Maybe because he has scored a few goals in the Nations Cup he thinks he is too good for all this, that only the Premiership is good enough for him, but you have to take these things slowly.”
That is true up to a point, but then again he had been told that Shakhtar would be “a stepping-stone”. There probably are unscrupulous agents who exaggerate the potential of the east or obfuscate the differences between east and west, but there is a sense in which Aghahowa’s problems were caused by Esperance’s initial refusal to release him when his fame was at its peak in 2000. Intransigent clubs and less than straightforward agents, though, are hardly unique to either Africa or eastern Europe.
From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month