On a run-down football pitch in the central Istanbul neighbourhood of Ferikoy, about 50 African players come together in the middle of the pitch to sing hymns before their morning training session. On the sidelines others warm up and do laps, wearing jerseys from Ghanaian, Nigerian and English Premier League teams.
They have come to Turkey in the hope of securing a contract with a big local team or, even better, with one in Europe. But for many Turkey is no longer a stepping stone to a professional career, but a dead end. Some of the players training in Ferikoy were stars in their home countries, playing in national and first division teams, but they have not played professional football since.
A sleepy groundsman makes his way across the field, greeting some of the players with a high five. When he starts to collect money from the players a friendly haggle starts: for many of them, the 2.50 Turkish lira (just more than R10) is a considerable sum.
For Adaquart Manubah, football was literally an escape.
“It was a possibility to get away from the chaos and poverty of Liberia.” His father was a football player and his 13 brothers all play football for a living.
Between 1994 and 1998 Manubah played in the Liberian national team, until the civil war forced him to flee to Ghana. After an odyssey that took him to Nigeria, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and India, he ended up in Turkey.
Now 32, he does not aspire to play in a Turkish team anymore. His dream, he says, is to become an official agent for the international football federation, Fifa.
“I know players and teams everywhere. I would love to connect talented players with teams all over the world.” But the licence is expensive.
“I would need to deposit $500 000 for an official Fifa licence.” He laughs. “I am still saving.”
His favourite team? “Besiktas — they wear black and white. That’s a nice metaphor, isn’t it?”
Edo, a Nigerian, came to Turkey more than five years ago. He flew in from Côte d’Ivoire where he played for a first division club for two seasons before a Turkish Fifa agent struck a deal with his team’s manager: “He wanted two good players for teams in Turkey, a midfielder and a striker. This is how I got to be here.”
But when Edo arrived in Istanbul after completing the visa requirements, the Fifa agent was gone and recruiting for Turkish clubs was over. “I arrived here in May, at the wrong time,” he says.
The date of arrival is crucial. “If the transfer season is closed, there is nothing you can do.”
It means being caught between a rock and a hard place: with visas only valid for up to one month, simply waiting for the new transfer - window is impossible and clubs usually drop initial invitations to move on to new recruiting lists for new seasons.
Edo did not pay the agent to bring him to Turkey, but many families pay thousands of dollars to fake scouts who promise contracts with major teams — only to disappear when the players arrival in Istanbul.
“It’s a form of human trafficking,” Edo says. “You arrive in a foreign country where you don’t know the language, you don’t know anyone. What are you supposed to do?”
Many find help in the community of African migrants in Istanbul. Without residence and work permits, some work as translators for businessmen from African countries; others engage in small-scale trading, sending clothes or toiletries back home for their relatives to sell and send back the profits. But most rely on their families back home.
“Their relatives send money; this is how most people survive,” says Edo.
Matters get worse when entry visas expire. “Many players stay put, even without a valid visa.”
If they are detained by the police, they risk arrest and sometimes deportation. “They don’t want to go back because they still have the hope that maybe some day, some time, something good will happen.”
Many cannot afford the plane ticket home and very few want to either bear the cost of another visa application in their home countries, or the risk of it being rejected.
Honour, Edo says, also plays a big part in staying.
“Their families, their friends and teammates back home all think they will go on to play in big clubs. They invested a lot. If they come back without having achieved anything, it would be a big shame.”
Edo thinks most players never get a chance to prove their talent. “One out of 100 gets the chance of a contract and a club. Many never even get to play in try-outs.”
The mentality of Turkish football managers has much to do with the situation, he says.
“Turkish teams look at players that have played in European teams before, even very small teams. They look at names, not at talent.”
European scouts are more open-minded, he says, but it is hard for African players to get a visa to Europe. “Most players’ standard here is way above the Amateur League,” Edo says. “Yet that is where most African footballers end up, if they get a contract at all.”
Why do so many players leave their high-profile African teams to risk getting stuck in Turkey?
“If you want to make a name for yourself in football, you need to play in Europe. And the facilities, the pay … is better there.”
In many African countries, he says, even first division players struggle to make a living.
Jackson Eyinga, a 24-year-old player from Cameroon, was lucky. With the help of his agent, former Cameroon coach Joseph Ndong, he managed to secure a contract with Ferikoyspor, an Istanbul Amateur League team: one season at a salary of R4300 a month. Of the transfer fee — R16 000 — Ndong got 10%.
In Cameroon, Eyinga played in the first division, and in the under-20 national team.
He arrived in Turkey a year ago, on the invitation of Kardemir Karabukspor, a first division club. But because of the delay of his visa, Eyinga arrived only after the transfer season was closed.
His visa ran out, but he decided to stay and trained in Ferikoy with other African players, hoping to be discovered by another scout. After the African Cup of Nations, a friendly tournament that takes place every year on the Ferikoy pitch, the club decided to sign him.
The transfer is both blessing and curse: should Ferikoyspor rise to the professional third league, Eyinga would have to drop out.
Ndong explains: “The third league does not allow any foreign players in the team, so African football players who secure themselves contracts in Turkish amateur teams are stuck there.”
Eyinga has a friend who played with Fenerbahce and hopes he can make it as well.
“He has talent,” Ndong insists. “All we need is someone to discover it.” —