Standing on a rutted patch of ground in Yaoundé just after dawn one morning in May, Thomas Libiih, the coach of the Dauphins football club one of hundreds of amateur clubs in Cameroon's capital points toward a group of teenagers and says, "He is our hope." Even with about 15 youths sprinting across the dirt and kicking a ball into a rusted goal, I can guess which one is Libiih's bright light. With a shock of dyed blond hair, 17-year-old Patrick Talla stands inches above his teammates, and at that moment is leaping over a row of hurdles made of plastic cones, his thighs chopping the air like a propeller blade. Libiih smiles and says, "He is leaving."
Leaving. That word holds rare promise in this central African country. In a region with outsized corruption and limited opportunities, leaving Cameroon and the continent can transform lives of grinding poverty and rewrite an entire family's history. And among Yaoundé's one million or so residents, who live mostly in cramped shanties with patchy electricity and little indoor plumbing, it is football that holds more promise and potential peril than any other way out. While that also holds true for countless poor neighborhoods from Brazil to Ghana, there is perhaps no place that embodies both the hope and despair of football as savior so much as Cameroon and especially Yaoundé.
Buying into Hope
patrick talla got his chance to remake his fortunes last year when he was picked to play for Cameroon in a youth tournament in Kiev. A Ukrainian recruiter spotted him from the stands, and suggested that he return to train at the city's Arsenal Kyiv club. Talla spent eight months in the Ukrainian capital, training and learning to speak Russian, before his visa ran out. Back in Yaoundé in February he applied for a long-term visa to Ukraine, in a push to fulfill his life's dream and turn professional. The recruiter wrote to Talla to say that in order for him to return for a further two-week trial, he would have to pay $1,950. That's a fortune for Talla's family, whose six children were kept afloat by his mother's ice cream trade in Yaoundé's street market. After months trying to scrape together the cash, his mother finally sold her ice cream cart in May for about $4,000 more than enough money to send Talla to Kiev.
Proud as coach Libiih is of his protégé, he says he has begun to despair at such choices made by parents desperate for their sons to have a shot at becoming professional footballers. "So many families are prepared to sell their homes just to send their children to Europe," he says. "I say to parents, 'These children are too young.' But they have all seen television."
It's what's on television in every bar in Yaoundé that has helped fuel the frenzy around football recruiting: almost continual screenings of big-league European football matches, beamed live by satellite and then repeated for weeks on videotape. Cameroon's devotion to the beautiful game dates to the 1920s, but soared after the national team (known as the Indomitable Lions) fought their way into the 1990 World Cup quarterfinal, and the under-23 squad won the 2000 Olympic gold medal in Sydney. But the consuming drive by thousands of Yaoundé teenagers to play professional football has truly taken off in the past few years following the spectacular success of West African players like Ghana's Michael Essien, Senegal-born Patrick Vieira (who plays for France) and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba major stars for Inter Milan and Chelsea. The current superstar is local boy Samuel Eto'o, one of FC Barcelona's hottest players. "Eto'o Fils" (Junior), as everyone in Cameroon calls him, is beloved not only for his superb goal-scoring (he helped Cameroon win the gold medal in Sydney) but for his astonishing rags-to-riches life tale; Eto'o's mother once sold barbecued fish on the sidewalk to help support her six children. Eto'o completed only primary school, because his family could not afford the fees for his secondary education. When I arrived in Yaoundé in May the city was abuzz with news that Eto'o's transfer to London's Tottenham Hotspur had stumbled over his asking salary: about $214,000 a week more than 5,000 times Cameroon's average income.
A Wealth Gap
that dizzying contrast between africa's dire poverty and the opulence of Europe's top football leagues has proved fertile ground for recruiters many of them simply small businessmen with few football contacts or credentials. The European clubs to which young Africans head for training or trials appear to be unaware of the financial arrangements the teenagers have entered. "Their only role is in accepting to take a look at the player," says Mark Dillon, president of FC Orlando in Florida, whose training program has links with several European clubs. FIFA officials have condemned the practice of charging youths to go to Europe.
One May morning on the Omnisport fields Yaoundé's largest dirt clearing, where scores of teams play daily I meet Marcel Bayou, a 19-year-old midfielder for a club called the Young Angels. After a local radio station announced last year that clubs in Dubai were holding trials for new players, he and four friends raised thousands of dollars to pay a local entrepreneur to arrange their trips there. They arrived in Dubai shortly after the trials had ended, returning empty-handed and deeply in debt. Then there's Claude Bessan Bessa, a wiry 16-year-old who tells me how a Spanish recruiter had asked him to fly to Qatar to try out for a club. The cost: $4,000, which the recruiter said would cover Bessa's airfare and the expenses for his stay in the Gulf. His family borrowed heavily and bid Bessa farewell. But after a month the club sent him home, he says. Herve Mballa, a local recruiter and club manager who condemns the practice of charging youths to travel to foreign football clubs, says Bessa's story is common in Yaoundé. Although it is unlikely that the football clubs know about the steep charges levied by local football businessmen, these operators in Yaoundé say that some clubs abroad try to have them steer their best players their way. Bessa's coach Pierre Ndoum says recruiters tap into one prevailing sentiment, which he sums up this way: "The only thing that is important is getting out."
in europe, hundreds of african youths have told immigrant-support groups that they have been brought to the Continent by unscrupulous agents, who seemingly had acted as freelancers with no authority from European clubs. Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, who played for Cameroon's national team until 1997 and now lives in Paris, says he wandered into the Cameroon embassy in the French capital a few years ago and found several teenagers sleeping in the passage. They all told Mbvoumin that their parents had paid recruiters to take them to Europe, and that the men had abandoned them on the Continent with no working papers or money to return and so they had taken shelter in their embassy. Shaken by their stories, Mbvoumin founded an organization called Foot Culture Solidaire to push European governments and football clubs to crack down on the trade in underage African players, which Mbvoumin calls a form of human-trafficking.
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