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FIFA recently banned clubs from importing players younger than 18 from foreign clubs. But among the legitimate recruiters are conmen circling the Yaoundé fields freelancers operating outside FIFA or club rules. They dispatch teenagers, for a price, to trials in Europe largely without the knowledge or approval of club managers. The players arrive simply as tourists or students, not as international transfers. Because of this, "the rules are very difficult to enforce," says Pierre Lanfranchi, a consultant to FIFA and a professor of history at De Monfort University in Leicester, England. Indeed, in 2005 Belgian Senator Jean-Marie Dedecker uncovered a massive fraud operation in Europe among Nigerians who issued passports with false birthdates and names to hundreds of underage football players and then signed them to clubs at low wages. When the clubs let them go, the players, said Dedecker, "just disappeared in Europe."
One morning before leaving France for Cameroon I meet Simon, a 20-year-old from Yaoundé who rents a tiny room from a Cameroonian woman living in a high-rise building in Epinay-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris heavily populated with immigrants. As we sit in the living room, Simon tells me how a Cameroonian scout had spotted him playing in Yaoundé late last year and sent him to train at Athens' Panathinaikos club. When the club let him go after a few months as is common enough in clubs after training periods the agent was nowhere to be found, he says, and he had no money to return home. He slept on the streets of Athens for a few days before making his way to the Cameroonian community in Paris, where he has applied for French working papers. "I look for casual jobs, one day here, one day there," says Simon, who was too scared to give his last name for fear of retaliation from the agent, and because he is working illegally in France.
Joel Emile Foka has a similar story. On the phone from Lorient, a town in Brittany, Foka describes how a scout approached him in Yaoundé three years ago, when he was 18, and suggested he play in Europe. There was a steep price about $7,000, which ostensibly covered Foka's air ticket and his student visa for Switzerland, where he trained for a while with clubs in Geneva. By the time his training was over, the agent a man Foka says he knew only as "Monsieur Deda" had vanished, along with Foka's dreams of a professional career. Foka has yet to tell his parents in Yaoundé that he is unlikely to become a professional player. "I am still the hope of my family because I left," he says.
it's easy to see how so many teenagers have been drawn into the recruiting web. Football is simply everywhere in Yaoundé. From 6 a.m. until darkness falls about 14 hours later, every patch of open ground no matter how cramped, littered, potholed and uneven is transformed into a football pitch. With high unemployment, crowds of people, some of whom play one or two games a day themselves, spend hours along the edges of the makeshift pitches discussing the play, even of casual pickup games, since there is no knowing where the next Eto'o might emerge. In Yaoundé's Cité Verte neighborhood, 24 local teams played a two-week tournament in May hosted by Armand Malitoli, a former footballer, who paid the winner about $1,200 from his own funds. The teams played on a muddy field with bumps and ditches, using a ball whose leather had peeled away in parts. Conditions were scarcely better at that weekend's quarterfinal for the Coupe du Cameroun, the national championship. The few spectators who could afford it rented plastic chairs for about $4 each, while the rest of the crowd sheltered from the blistering sun under a narrow metal roof.
Away from the field there is football, too. Hours after I arrived in Yaoundé, thousands of people poured onto the streets to watch television, jamming bars and sidewalks for the city's biggest event in weeks: the European Champions League final in Moscow between Chelsea and Manchester United. No matter that a violent thunderstorm drowned out the commentary and soaked the crowds on the streets. About 200 people squeezed onto the patio of Le Printemps bar, where a large screen was bolted to the wall. As the match dragged on, the crowd's shouts grew louder. A fierce argument erupted about a missed goal by Chelsea's forward Drogba, who is adored by thousands in Yaoundé, and whose name is painted on dozens of the city's battered yellow taxis. When Drogba was ordered off the field in the 118th minute for pushing a Manchester player, the shouts of "Non! Non!" could be heard from a block away.
It is that combination of passion and skills, despite the pockmarked football pitches, that lure foreign recruiters including trustworthy ones with real deals to offer. They arrive in Yaoundé hoping to find genuinely raw talent, rather than players who hone their skills through years of formal training. "No one in Asia plays like this," says Jovinus Carolus Legawa, an Indonesian football recruiter who had flown in from Jakarta to catch Malitoli's tournament and to look for new players to sign. "They have this killer instinct. They will do anything to win." Orlando's Dillon says he was stunned at the playing conditions when he first visited Yaoundé in 2002. "They have no showers, the water is brown, the equipment is appalling and half of them have not eaten," he tells me on the phone from Florida. "They play on places that no American kid would jog on."
It was in one of those places that Dillon met Christian Nankap, a contemplative 17-year-old, to whom he was introduced by one of Yaoundé's more respected recruiters Fernand Taninche, a former national player. Taninche had spotted Nankap when he was just 8, kicking a ball with neighborhood friends, and concluded on the spot that he had major potential. "He's a genius," says Taninche, a tall, bearish man with an infectious enthusiasm for football. "He is destined to be bigger than Eto'o Fils." For years Taninche has trained Nankap, guiding him not only in the game, but in how to create a football career. That close attention could soon pay off big. Dillon has arranged to have Nankap travel to Orlando in July to begin intensive training, with the aim of signing a professional contract in Europe next January when he turns 18. Dillon says he has already discussed Nankap's prospects with some European clubs.
One morning Taninche takes me to meet Nankap and his family in Nkomkana, one of Yaoundé's poorest neighborhoods, where locals draw water from a communal tap on the narrow path cutting through a labyrinth of tiny houses along an open sewage ditch. In the family's cramped living room Nankap's mother Jeanette tells me she was fleeced in 2004 by a local recruiter, who offered to send her other son Jojo to Croatia to play football, for a fee of about $2,000. She borrowed the money and paid the agent, who absconded with the cash. Now the family fortunes rest on Nankap, whose planned move to the U.S., she says, is "like a dream" for the family. Nankap's new life might soon seem dreamlike to him, too: Dillon says he has arranged for him to live with the family of a biotech executive in "a large house with a swimming pool" while he learns English, attends a top-ranked high school and trains in football. If Nankap does not join a top European club, he is certain to get a full soccer scholarship to a U.S. university, says Dillon. "I don't have any doubts about it."
Christian Nankap might yet have his Cinderella ending, with a professional career and material comfort. So too might Patrick Talla the blond-haired dynamo hopes to leave for Ukraine by July, once his invitation letter arrives from the Ukrainian agent (who is registered with FIFA). If they do make it, their stories will be the rare ones in which dreams come true.
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