It’s a scene repeated from Cape Verde to Cameroon: televisions are set out on the sidewalks during Champions League matches and crowds of people gather around, rapt. The west of Africa is home to seven of the ten best national teams in the continent and, among African regions, it is the biggest sender of players to European leagues. You can see it on the screen: AC Milan’s Muntari; Chelsea’s Mikel; Marseille’s Djédjé; and Galatasaray’s Drogba were all born here.
But the region’s football is dogged with corruption and lack of facilities. Last year in Bauchi, Nigeria, four teams were suspended for match fixing after two games ended with 146 goals scored. The salary of a player in the Ghanaian Premier League varies between US$100 and $300 a month. In Bamenda, Cameroon, six teams share a single stadium to train. Faced with limited prospects and seduced by the success of their countrymen and fellow footballers abroad, most professional players fantasize about going north.
In early 2013, 21-year-old footballer Ibrahima Suri abandoned Guinea’s Premier League to climb the fence that separates Morocco and Spain. He dreamed of playing for Barcelona, passing the ball to Cameroonian midfielder Alex Song, but he landed in Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast and a common way-stop for illegal migrants bound for Europe. Now, instead of Barça, he plays with CETI FC, the Center of Temporary Stay for Immigrants Football Club.
Formed two years ago, the team unites footballers who were detained at immigration and now await a decision: to be sent back to Africa or accepted as refugees in Spain. Under Manuel Agulló, a military veteran turned football coach, they compete in Melilla’s local league. “There are a lot of good players in CETI,” says Suri. Perfectly fluid teamwork can’t be easy on a squad that grows and shrinks whenever new players are caught and old ones freed, but at least they are training, three days a week. For footballers who hope to try out for a major European club, staying in shape is vital.
But the odds of these illegal migrants making it into professional European football are low. “No one spotted them when they were young, now they are going on their own and sometimes they are approaching the end of their career,” says James Esson, a researcher at University College London, UK, who specializes in football-related migration. Although he estimates that only 1 in 100 African players ever enters professional football in Europe, the teammates of CETI remain optimistic. When released from detention, Suri plans to head for France, where he will get help from an agent he met once in Guinea: “If I ever manage to leave this place, if I manage to meet him in person...”