Football Slave or Naïve-but-Willing Migrant? – Selling Dreams along the Silk Road

Football Slave or Naïve-but-Willing Migrant? – Selling Dreams along the Silk Road

By David McArdle –

After a hurried team talk, rendered by the young coach in a style of Russian more akin to prison slang, Olawale Sunday joins me for a few moments before the start of the second half: “Thank you so much for coming”, he greets me, along with a hug usually reserved in the West for close family members. “Great goal”, I assure him, as he re-joins his teammates. It was the happiest I had seen ‘Wale’ in the six months we had known one another.

The Tsentralniy Stadion (Central Stadium) in Kyrgyzstan’s unexceptional town of Kant, a $10 taxi ride from the capital Bishkek, is a breath-taking yet improbable setting for a 23-year-old from Apapa, Lagos’s major port to the west of Lagos Island, to pursue a football career. As such, unlike football neo-colonialism, where some European nations, such as Belgium and France, mine for talent in their former colonies, fastening tight their cultural, historical and linguistic links in order to extract the next ‘black diamond’, or where hopeful footballers make use of established migration patterns, Wale’s case is somewhat different and perhaps a reaction to the problem of football trafficking being approached with more endeavour in the West.

Consequently, a nascent route – or dropping-off point – has appeared on the map, ironically but with little humour, along the old Silk Road, where borders are porous and visas are often issued upon the flattery of a minor bribe.

All Roads Lead to Bishkek?

“I do not like it here”, Wale says, visibly trying to refrain from this repetitive theme, “but it’s a lot better than Dushanbe”, he optimistically qualifies, which is a reference to Tajikistan’s hay bale capital, where Afghans are known to come across the border for the definition of relative hedonism.

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Photo by Bishkek-based photographer, Stephen Lioy

Wale left Nigeria in 2013, having paid USD$3350 to a rogue agent who had promised him a trial with an unnamed club in Russia, a destination now revered among African football circles for its generous financial rewards. Accompanied by a group of similar recruits, they arrived in Dubai and were each given one-way tickets to Dushanbe, where they were then met by a Ghanaian merchant-of-sorts: “Charles [the Ghanaian] met us off the plane and told us we would play for Lokomotiv Dushanbe”, a side with little in common with their Muscovite namesake, Wale elaborates. The unusual composition of a Ghanaian in Tajikistan was never thoroughly explained although his role in assuring the young players upon reaching Dushanbe, with hindsight, reads crucial in the de facto abandoning process: “Charles married a Tajik girl so he is stuck there forever”, Wale reveals as if discussing a lengthy period of incarceration. “He uses players as slaves”, Wale pronounces suddenly: The ‘s’ word I had painstakingly been hitherto avoiding.

After three months at Lokomotiv, Wale decided to break free and move north, having received a recommendation from his friend, Ebeneezer who had arranged a trial with Alga, a side from Kyrgyzstan’s capital – a wheezing shrine to Khrushchev’s architectural legacy.

Photo by Bishkek-based photographer, Stephen Lioy

Photo by Bishkek-based photographer, Stephen Lioy

Having organised his Kyrgyz visa independently like a wayward backpacker in Dushanbe, Wale then paid $60 to board a marshrutka (mini-bus) for two days, crossing several high-risk mountain passes, before reaching Bishkek, but not without the ubiquitous struggle most foreigners encounter with Central Asian bureaucracy: “I was detained on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border for several hours, for no reason” Wale says, pausing for my reaction, which never comes.

Upon arriving in Bishkek, Wale was to discover that his passport was expiring, with Bishkek’s Alga offering a letter of invitation required for visa purposes in return for Wale’s services. “I flew back to Nigeria for four days to get my new passport, but I didn’t see anyone”, Wale admits, pre-empting my next question. “In Africa, we have such a mentality that if one is to leave, then that person should not come back empty handed”. Wale’s subsistence was never openly discussed, out of an element of embarrassment and perhaps shame, as he has never to this day received any form of remuneration from either club he has played for during his time in Central Asia: “My brother helps me”, Wale tells me, both with gratitude and anguish.

They don’t play Football in Kyrgyzstan

“The cameras were here today. That’s why I could score”, Wale explains, as his two goals deny their opponents, Kant’s Nashe Pivo, promotion to Kyrgyzstan’s First Division.

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Tsentralnoy Stadion, Kant. Photo by David McArdle

In a gentle manner and not accustomed to complaining, Wale describes his treatment in Kyrgyz football without having to use the word racism outright: “Sometimes just touching the ball is enough for a referee to award a free-kick against me,” an accusation I can corroborate. “One time”, Wale continues, “I was through on goal and the keeper came running out towards me. I was focused on taking the ball around him, but he flew at me and smashed my face with, I think, his knees.” This was one of several such stories Wale unfortunately had to share about his time in Kyrgyz football. On this occasion, Wale’s coach wanted his players to leave the field after the referee had awarded a free-kick against Wale as he lay on the edge of the box unconscious with his face covered in blood.

For 90 minutes, as the autumnal tones infest the picturesque stadium in Kant, Wale can forget where he is and simply concentrate on football. His first goal comes from a perfectly-timed run, cushioned touch and half-volley into the goalkeeper’s right-hand corner, while his second involves intercepting a short back pass to touch it around the keeper, who keeps his legs firmly planted in the grass, to put Alga-2 two goals ahead with ten minutes remaining. Alga-2’s minor capitulation at the end meant little with the travelling side enjoying the schadenfreude knowing that their opponents had missed out on promotion largely as a result of Wale’s brace.

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Wale at Orto-Sai Bazaar, Bishkek. Photo by Stephen Lioy

On the team bus back to Bishkek, Wale feels more comfortable joining me at the front as his teammates are brazen and vocal at the back: “They speak to me in Kyrgyz even though I don’t understand this language.” Wale has a smattering of Russian, although being an African in Central Asia will reduce any form of communication to being automatically foreign. As we near Bishkek, Wale is playfully heckled by his teammates, who are calling him by the names of several different famous African strikers from past and present: Adebayor, Drogba, Kanu, Martins… Wale is good-natured and smiles, but with a tinge of sadness: his teammates jibes are a reminder that his own journey could not be any more different from that of those players with whom his teammates are comparing him.

Celebrating with Wale after the match, as we drink a couple of rounds of Nashe Pivo (literally meaning “Our Beer” in Russian and the sponsor and namesake of Alga-2’s opponents), Wale is uncharacteristically relaxed and jovially bullish: “I could have scored more today, had I not been on antibiotics”. Wale had suffered from a high fever, which prompted his housemates, approximately six other Nigerians with whom he shares a small two-bedroom apartment, to call for a doctor. “The doctor prescribed antibiotics but each tablet costs 350 Kyrgyz som (approximately USD$6)”, Wale tells me in-between mouthfuls of chicken at Bishkek’s American BBQ Bar ‘Smokies’. “I bought as many as I could,” he adds.

Football Slave or Naïve-but-Willing Migrant?

When Wale paid the agent, the crime of extortion had already been committed against him and in many respects it would arguably have been better had the agent abandoned Wale where they had met, in Lagos. The ruse however lies in the ritual of actually sending the players away to play football overseas, regardless of the conditions and venue. This fulfils the agent with a sense of having technically executed an element of the bargain, absolving whatever guilt he may have, while opening an opportunity for a ‘roll-of-the-dice’ and ‘share-of-the-spoils’ element should one of the players cattled across the world actually progress to a higher and more profitable level.

Wale is now indebted to his brother, and perhaps some other family members and friends, and has effectively enslaved himself, with his obligation to pay back what he duly owes. Until then, he is determined not to return home, at the expense of his happiness and, more significantly, his physical and mental health.

One issue with slavery, and the rhetoric with which surrounds the term, is the very specific image of the victim that many have in mind when discussing the issue, as well as the gendered nature this definition often entails. It is sometimes understood that men “migrate,” whereas women are “trafficked”: this is but one of many troublesome definitional issues one encounters when discussing victims of slavery.

It is reported that 20,000 similar African hopefuls have had their football dreams exploited with French organisation Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS), an organisation which raises awareness of the issue of the criminal recruiting and trafficking of young footballers from Africa, estimating that in France alone there are more than 7,000 young Africans living on the streets after failed attempts to play for a professional club: “It’s a modern version of the slave trade, and it comes in many different forms,” says Jean Claude Mbvoumin, CFS’s founder. As such, and due to the CFS’s hard work and progress, new routes of ‘football slavery’ are taking shape with Central Asia, a place with little popular awareness in the West, and where corruption is rampant and regulatory enforcement lax, proving to be a particularly conducive frontier for the expansion of so-called ‘football slavery’.

As for Wale, the football season has finished in Kyrgyzstan with a bitter winter already en route. “I want to go and play in Kazakhstan or Turkey”, he tells me, tirelessly optimistic. “I have found an agent who can help me get a new club there.” I pause and consider how not to sound pessimistic as we sit in one of Bishkek’s many outdoor cafes, enjoying an almost palatable coffee. “Do you trust him?” I ask in a voice devoid of any particular tone. “Yes, I trust him”, Wale replies earnestly.

David McArdle is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews and the University of Oxford in International Security Studies and Russian and East European Studies, respectively, and is originally from Greenock (Scotland). Having also lived in Belarus and Georgia, David’s other (non-footballing) passions include dive bars, obscure geography and Russian literature. You can follow David on Twitter @FrunzeAlba

Stephen Lioy is a photographer and travel writer based in Bishkek. To see more of his photography from Central Asia, follow Stephen on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


  • comment-avatar
    Seth 10 years

    Very interesting article. It would also be interesting to look at the contract conditions of “local players”. I have heard stories in various countries of players having to pay 90 % of their pay to coaches and team directors for the right to play. Not slavery as such but certainly exploitation.

  • comment-avatar

    […] het ook anders kan bewijst het verhaal van Olawale Sunday op Futbolgrad. Een Nigeriaan die $3350 betaalde om een kans te krijgen zich bij een Russische club te bewijzen. […]

  • comment-avatar

    A great piece! Really enjoyed it.

  • comment-avatar
    Andrew Fleming 9 years

    This article rings true to a lot of the less successful tales I have heard of in Nigeria. Young guys with dreams like Sunday and raw talent abound and are open to exploitation. For many this does not even result in the, getting out of Nigeria. I always caution young chaps who engage me about one offer or another to view any proposition with a healthy amount of scepticism. But the alternative of little hope means this often falls on deaf ears and of course the few who make it big are the inspiration for thousands of others.

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