Football is more then just a sport in Africa. It has come to define neighborhoods, tribes and even nations, bringing some warring African countries to a temporary truce so that the game can be played. Over the past few decades, African globalization has challenged some of the traditional ideas of the game, refocusing the joy of play to a dream of playing professional football in Europe.
Every year, scores of Africans players are lured to Turkey in a growing football scam. Spending their family’s savings on false agents, these men are trafficked to Istanbul with the belief that professional football teams await them. Now finding themselves abandoned in Turkey, these men struggle to assimilate into society as they battle poverty and racism, only to fight amongst themselves as more African players flock to Turkey, further lessening their chances of ever escaping their modern-day hell.
The New York Times Lens Blog
Beyond The Pitch
One evening in the basement of an Internet café in the Sisli neighborhood of Istanbul, a small group of Africans stare fixated at a television screen, out of sight of residents and the local police. The Chelsea vs. Tottenham Football match is on and the young men have each paid .50 Kurus (28 cents) to watch the game. At one time, these young men huddled together in this damp and dark basement dreamed they would be playing professional football in Turkey, a stepping-stone into the European leagues. Following rogue agents, many players left high profile teams in their home countries, only to find themselves battling poverty, police brutality and racism in Turkey, something none of them expected when they arrived with promises of football stardom.
“In my country, no one would ever treat me like this” says Akeem, a Football player from Lagos, Nigeria as he’s heckled by a group of Turkish boys. “Here, in Turkey”, says Akeem, “I’m just another Nigger.”
Over the past few decades, Turkey has become an economic and political power within the region, carrying strong international influence over the Mediterranean Basin, Black Sea and the Middle East. Turkey’s also increased its influence in Africa, where exports to African nations have increased from 1.2 – 16 billion USD between 1996 – 2008, a little over 10% of their total exports. Their recent re-discovery of Africa not only influences trade and foreign policy in the region, but migration and asylum into and through Turkey as well. Migrants have also become more aware of Turkey’s economical, political and geographical influence in the region. This knowledge became an overweighing factor for migrants using Turkey’s border with Greece when in 2010 alone, an estimated 90% of migrants heading into Europe crossed through Turkey.
In Sub Saharan African countries, fake football agents posing as FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) scouts have capitalized on the political and economic success of Turkey; creating recruitment camps for footballers looking to play professionally in Europe. Attracting seasoned professionals and aspiring young players, these camps promote Turkish football leagues because their sports visas are much simpler for Africans to purchase then the European ones. Using Turkey as a gateway into Europe, the players, many with families still in Africa, have paid upwards of 5000 USD to scouts who promise a contract with a Turkish football club. This fee doesn’t include the bribe money that players have to pay to local officials in their home country. Too old to be considered for professional football anymore, many players must change their birth certificates to a younger age so they are more attractive to the Turkish football teams.
Since the spring of 2010, I have been documenting the plight of these young African players in Turkey as they struggle to assimilate into Turkish society, battling poverty and racial stereotypes while relying on small-scale scams to earn money. I’ve spent time with them, watching as they train to stay in football shape, walking miles to the field because they don’t have money for the bus fare, only to be turned away most days because they can’t afford to play. Abandoned by the scouts that brought them to Istanbul, the young men don’t have the proper papers to work or play in Turkey nor the money to move forward to Europe, let alone live a life outside of poverty. Their only chance to play for professional teams now relies on the yearly Africa Community Cup, played on a rundown field in Istanbul. The cup gives the players an opportunity to showcase their skills to Turkish scouts while played in front of a packed crowd of African fans and curious Turkish onlookers. This tournament is also responsible for the large influx of new African players to Turkey every year, creating tensions within the community as opportunities become slimmer with more players vying for a spot on one of Turkey’s small amateur teams.
With a desperate growing community of Africans in Turkey, I plan to continue to document and tell their story, following their progression as they strive to move towards Europe while others return home. These players, once heralded in their home countries as the potential next great stars are now only a statistic, mashed together with the other Africans vying for their chance at their own European dream.
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Awards & Accolades
Leica Oskar Barnak Award Finalist, 2012
PGB Photo Awards, 1st place Sports Story, 2012