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Racism, poverty: Istanbul's African

footballers risk it all


Bertrand-Joseph Ndongs team before a friendly match in Ferikoy
stadium, Istanbul, Turkey (MEE/Thomas Lecomte)--Bertrand-
Joseph Ndongs players during their daily training in Kurtulus
(MEE/Thomas Lecomte)

Alex Epome used to play in a first division club in Cameroon


(MEE/Thomas Lecomte)--Victor Nnah Nathan Ejekwu landed in
Turkey in 2014 for a test match but was cheated by a shady agent
(MEE/Thomas Lecomte)

Jeremie Berlioux-Thomas Lecomte-Friday 2 June 2017


ISTANBUL, Turkey - My father gave me all his savings to help
me come to Istanbul. He knows I am good at football and the
whole community is watching me, says Alex Epome, a 17-year-
old footballer from Cameroon.

Thanks to good airline


connections to Africa and flexible visa policies, Istanbul has
become the main destination for those who dream about better
wages and a career in Turkey, a gateway to Europe.
My father gave me all his savings to help me come to Istanbul
-Alex Epome, football player from Cameroon
Last year, Alex was a second division player with a local team in
his home country. Hoping to provide a better future for his family,
Epome packed up everything and moved to the shores of the
Bosphorus in pursuit of a professional football career.

Alex Epome dreams of being recruited into a professional team in


Turkey or Europe (MEE/Thomas Lecomte)
What I earned in Cameroon was just enough to buy bread. I had
to walk to the training [field] as I couldnt pay for the bus ride,
says Epome. For me any club would be great. I do it for my
family, with the help of God, he adds.
According to Bertrand-Joseph Ndong, Epomes agent and a former
Cameroonian coach, a fourth division player in a Turkish club
earns an average of $8,400 a year, in comparison to a few
hundred dollars in any African club.

Bertrand-Joseph Ndongs team is playing a friendly match against


footballers from Mali (MEE/Thomas Lecomte)
Epome is now training to compete in the African Cup of Nations, a
friendly tournament that takes place every year in the central
neighbourhood of Ferikoy.
But this year the municipality of Fatih, which has funded the
tournament for a few years, withdrew its funding due to the state
of emergency and other security concerns, according to Ndong,
who is one of the main organisers of the event.
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In 2016, Turkey was hit with a series of bomb attacks that killed at
least 385 people. In April 2017, Turkey extended its state of
emergency for three months, its third such extension after a coup
attempt last July.
However, the organisers say they will still go ahead with the
tournament taking place on 24 June. "We will still organise it
anyway, explains Ndong, adding that each competing team will
have to contribute around $140 to fund the event.
To prepare for the competition, Epome follows a strict daily
training schedule of three hours at Nndongs private training
centre, Soccer International Business Management.

Bertrand-Joseph Ndongs players during their daily training in


Kurtulus (MEE/Thomas Lecomte)
But other African players have not been as lucky as Epome, lured
by illegitimate agents claiming strong ties to Turkey and based on
void promises of fame and financial stability.
In 2008, 27-year-old Pascal Eneh gave up his career as a midfield
first division football player in a Nigerian club to pursue a
professional career in Turkey. An unofficial recruiter from Nigeria
convinced him that he had a shot with the football
club Muglaspor, in southwest Turkey. He was affiliated with a
Turkish manager who had helped gain the trust of Eneh, who paid
him $2500 in advance. "After three days in the hotel [in Mugla],
[the agent] disappeared - he had dumped me, Eneh says. Yet
returning to Nigeria was out of the question for Eneh. I was in
Turkey already, I had to try, he adds.
'What I earned in Cameroon was just enough to buy bread. I had
to walk to the training [field] as I couldnt pay the bus ride'
- Alex Epome, football player from Cameroon
In 2016, after years of trying to get recruited, Eneh decided to
start coaching other aspiring African football players, after
realising that he was too old to start a professional football career.
For a small commission, Eneh usually conducts his training
sessions three days a week in a public football field in the
working-class neighbourhood of Kurtulus. To make a decent living
for himself, however, he does other odd jobs on the side.
Since going back to their homelands empty-handed is associated
with shame and failure, players like Eneh who are stranded in
Turkey usually decide to stay.
Alex Epome used to play in a first division club in Cameroon
(MEE/Thomas Lecomte)
"If I dont succeed, my family wont either. My fathers dream will
be wasted, says Epome.
If I dont succeed, my family wont either. My fathers dream will
be wasted
- Alex Epome, football player from Cameroon
To complicate matters more, many risk staying in Turkey with
expired visas. If they are caught by security forces, they are
arrested and sometimes deported.
Germain Blaise Mbeh regrets staying in Turkey since he arrived in
May 2015. He constantly considers moving back to his home in
Cameroon, but admits it is difficult to actually go through with it.

If I fail, my family will be disappointed, says Mbeh.


He initially travelled to Turkey for a test match in Bursa, in the
south of Istanbul, but the match never actually took place.
'When I tell Africans that Turkey is difficult, they dont believe me'
- Germain Mbeh, football player from Cameroon
"When I tell Africans that Turkey is difficult, they dont believe
me, explains Mbeh.
Mbeh decided to stay in Turkey and depends on earnings his
family sends from a small family business back in Cameroon. He
is now training with Eneh for the African Cup of Nations in hope of
getting recruited by a Turkish team.
Victor Nnah Nathan Ejekwu, 22, had a similar experience to what
Eneh and Mbeh went through. Coming from Port Harcourt in
southern Nigeria, he landed in Istanbul in 2014 after playing for
mediocre local clubs for a few years.

Victor Nnah Nathan Ejekwu landed in Turkey in 2014 for a test


match but was cheated by a shady agent (MEE/Thomas Lecomte)
An agent told me to come to Turkey for a test match. I paid him
$1700 for that, he says.
When I arrived, the test never took place, he added.
Clement Lopez, a migration researcher at the University of Paris-
Sud, told MEE that most illegitimate agents depend on verbal
agreements and persuasion, although some use fake invitations
from clubs.
"Usually a lie well told can convince a player who has high hopes
to leave to Europe, [and who] totally lacks lucidity; same for the
families, he says, adding that they also take advantage of
inexperienced, naive players.
According to Lopez, controlling recruitment and preventing scams
is difficult. Legitimate recruiters should have an official licence
from FIFA, the body that runs world football, and they should
never be paid in advance by the players.
Struggling to find work
To be able to survive in Turkey, many players have to juggle
between a strict training regimen and work.
'Racism is the worst thing here, its all the time, small things,
insults, threats'
- Germain Mbeh, football player from Cameroon
Ejekwu landed a gig singing hip-hop and performing shows
imitating Michael Jackson in clubs and churches on weekends and
evenings, while he reserves his mornings for training with Eneh.
This helps him pay rent for the tiny flat he shares with four others,
deep in the basement of a crumbling building in Kurtulus.
The flat has no windows and no ventilation. The air inside is thick
and mould stains the walls.
Mbeh says that finding paid jobs is difficult for Africans.
The only jobs we can find here are difficult and barely paid, if
paid at all, says Mbeh.
I put on my music and let it fly
Racism is another recurring issue the African footballers face as
they try to make it in Turkey.
"I never fought in my life until I came to Istanbul. I dont want it
but some people are constantly bullying me, says Ejekwu.
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racism
Ejehwu recalls one night on his way home from work when a
group of people attacked and robbed him because of the colour of
his skin.
I had to beg them to let me at least keep my shoes, he says. It
was humiliating.
Mbeh says he has often been called a negro, compared to a
monkey and told several times to go back to his country.
I never fought in my life until I came to Istanbul
- Victor Ejekwu, football player from Nigeria
Racism is the worst thing here, its all the time, small things,
insults, threats, says Mbeh. What can I do? I put on my music
and let it fly.
But on the football field, walls dissolve and racist slurs
disseminate under the heels of a good game.
If you play well, they will love you, says Severin Brice Bikoko, a
football player with the Turkish team Kayseri Erciyesspor.
Bikoko is one of the African footballers that made it in Turkey after
a lot of training and perseverance.
I wasnt good enough for them
In the early years of his career, Bikoko tried many times to join
teams in Europe, but he was never selected. This included a test
with Monaco for playing in the French championship.
The reality was that I wasnt good enough for them, he explains.
When you fail, you should go back home and train harder to get
better.
Bikoko was eventually approached in Cameroon by a British agent
licensed by FIFA.
A few weeks later, Bikoko started training with Kayseri
Erciyesspor, a team in Turkeys second division. He now has sights
on Fenerbahce, one of Turkeys best teams.
Many African players come to Turkey with the idea of starting a
career, but some dont have the level at all
- Bertrand-Joseph Ndong, agent and a former Cameroonian coach
African players tend to underestimate the level of the Turkish
football scene.
I thought the level of the Turkish championship was low and that
I could easily play in first or second division, explains Dave
Stewe, 18, from Cameroon.
After a year in Turkey, Stewe has scaled down his ambitions, as he
has not been able to join a club yet.
It is much harder than I thought, he says, adding that he
realised it very soon after arriving.
Stewe is now training with Eneh, but also studies international
relations at Bilgi University, just to have a plan B in case football
doesnt work.
Many African players come to Turkey with the idea of starting a
career, but some dont have the level at all, Ndong says.
Nndong is currently training 20 football players at his training
centre. They all wear the same jersey stamped with the centres
logo.
'I believe in my talent. I will succeed'
-Victor Ejekwu, football player from Nigeria
"We only train people who have chances of being recruited,
explains Ndong, who organises regular friendly matches with
Turkish professional teams so his players can showcase their skills
to potential recruiters.
The players do not have to pay for training. If recruited, they give
Ndong a percentage of their fee, which is usually around 10
percent.
Many of the players hope to be recruited following the African
community football championship, in Istanbul. According to
Nndong, last year 200 players were recruited at the end of the
event.
I believe in my talent. I will succeed, says Ejekwu.
those who dream about better wages and a career in Turkey, a
gateway to Europe.
Posted by Thavam

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