Sunday, April 26, 2015

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The Untold Story of Soka Africa

A film exposes the dark side of football: unscrupulous agents and human trafficking.
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The streets are paved with gold and the future is guaranteed to be bright: these are the thoughts that reverberate in the minds of thousands of young Africans who have chosen football as their pathway to a better life.

The early memories of fun and friendship that form the basis of a child’s interest in the beautiful game evaporate. After many youths leave their homelands to pursue the allure of a top-level career in professional football, the harsh realities it entails often set in.

The culture of promise

Physically separated by a thin stretch of water, the differences between African football leagues and their European counterparts brings sharply into focus the economic disparities that pervade the two continents.

Even the vastly disproportionate prize money between the African and European versions of the Champions League, some $1.5 million in comparison to the $12 million, does not tell the full story. Once TV revenue, advertising contracts and wages are taken into account, the leagues are worlds apart.

With greater infrastructures and opportunity, these financial matters are not alone in leading the exodus of African football talent. But the sad fact is that only a small number of those who make the journey to Europe find the dream they are chasing. And it was this less-told side of the story I was exposed to after watching Soka Afrika last week.

I had been invited by Kick it out to a private screening of this excellent film Soka Africa. ‘Kick it out’, a UK-based organisation that works for the promotion of racial equality and inclusion in British football, partnered with the film makers to bring to light the struggles that many Africans go through on the road to ‘success’.

Soka Africa

The story follows two footballers from different parts of Africa: South African youth international Kermit Erasmus and young Cameroonian hopeful Ndomo Julien Sabo. Despite sharing a vision, their paths could not be more different.

Kermit had been held in high regard since his time in youth footballer. Owing to increasing infrastructural capacity in South African football,  his team Supersports fostered links with Feyenoord of the Dutch Eredisive. He gained the recognition of a trustworthy agent who helped him secure a dream move to Dutch side Excelsior. After helping them secure promotion into the top-tier, a volatile disagreement led to the premature end of his sojourn in Europe. He returned to South Africa with the hope of developing his talent and re-emerging when the opportunity presented itself.

As the talisman of his local team, Ndomo Julien Sabo’s career was built on softer foundations. After one of his glittering performances, he was approached by an agent with all the promises he had always wanted to hear. He spoke of trials with European clubs and ensured him a safe and easy transition. Yet against all practices, the agent asked Ndomo to pay substantial transfer expenses to Europe. Ndomo and his family pooled together their resources and sold the majority of their possessions.

A small trade-off for the larger dream? An injury during a trial in France led his alleged mentor to abandon him, without returning his money. Without support in a foreign city, Ndomo would eventually return to Cameroon with the help of a French based NGO ‘Foot Solidaire’. Foot Solidaire, founded by Jean Claude Mbvoumin,  helps to return those in predicaments similar to Ndomo to some sort of normality. Jean Claude facilitated another trial, with Spanish club Deportivo La Caruna, where Ndomo is currently trying to realise his dream. 

Both scenarios were filled with ups and downs, laden with anecdotes that allow the viewer to gain a wider understanding and insight into the dark side of football. There are those who were not as lucky as Kermit and Ndomo. Stories of aspiring footballers who have had their dreams punctured one way or another still remain in their host county, left to work menial jobs as their potential remains unfulfilled. The film allowed us to understand the passion and the verve which thousands of young boys display in order to reach their goals, but we must ask the question, where did it all go wrong?

Structural malaise

The structural administration of football in Africa has come under close scrutiny throughout the years. The problems vary from country to country, yet it seems sub-Saharan Africa has come out worst. North African countries, alongside South Africa, benefit from increased levels of sponsorship and stable infrastructure which makes them the most attractive leagues on the continent. Issues such as age grade cheating, lack of training facilities, minimal financial incentives alongside delayed bonus payments discourages local talent from staying put and pushes them into the arms of rogue agents. If these structural issues are ironed out then there would be less of a need to run abroad. Soka Africa Producer Simon Laub told Think Africa Press that 'very little responsibility is taken for dealing with these issues, from large to small regulatory bodies, from FIFA, CAF and UEFA to local football associations'.  

The vast coverage of the Premier League, Bundesliga and other European leagues has opened the eyes of many local supporters who have pledged their allegiances to teams such as Arsenal or Real Madrid. Gone are the days when the rivalry of local teams such as Enugu Rangers of eastern Nigeria and their arch rivals Shooting Stars of Ibadan would fill the former National Stadium in Lagos. Attendance is low and interest in the local game has declined, while the English Premier League has gained cult status.

Role models such as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o provide a blueprint for success for those aspiring to be footballing greats. Stories of grass to grace and the abundance of African stars who ply their trades all across Europe will surely not stem the African exodus. 

What for the future? Tighter regulations to curb the high numbers of those leaving Africa need to evolve to a greater level in both Africa and Europe. Administration in countries which are at an obvious disadvantage should receive special treatment from footballs governing body FIFA. Trafficking in football should receive as much coverage as human trafficking, this will expose the best ways to challenge it. We cannot continue to allow escape routes built on false promises. One thing is certain, football is a growing brand and Africa must grow side by side with it, not sell itself short. 

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