• Mike Hand

Field of broken dreams: football’s slave trade

For months, Yves Kibendo woke up every morning at 6am. He would leave his house in an ancient area of Istanbul, returning late in the evening, after working for 12 hours in a textile factory.

He was paid under the table, or sometimes not at all.

But Kibendo didn’t come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to work long shifts in a factory, he came to play football.

Fast and talented, Kibendo plays on the right wing. Hundreds of young African football players like him arrive in Turkey every year to seek their fortune. In many cases, intermediaries bring them with the promise of a trial at one of the big clubs in Istanbul. The players pay up to $5,000 (£3,800) for a “full package”, including visa, accommodation and contacts with talent scouts.

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But many are left deeply disappointed. Shortly after Kibendo arrived in Turkey he found himself with an expired visa and none of the opportunities he had been promised.

Communities often invest all their money in these young people, hoping they will become rich and lift those at home out of misery. But in most cases these young men find themselves stranded soon after they arrive.

Sometimes there is no one waiting for them. In other cases, the trials are nothing but a show, with no real link to a football club. The young hopefuls find themselves alone, in a country they don’t know, whose language they don’t speak. None of them want to go back, having invested and risked so much just to get here.

Even when the “trial” does take place it is often a sham. The footballers are brought to small pitches on the outskirts of town to show their abilities. But actually there are no scouts to watch. After a few hours, it is all over. They are simply told they have missed their opportunity, even though no opportunity actually existed.

When their visa expires they are stranded and turn to Istanbul’s African communities for help. They are ready to do any kind of job just to survive. Many start working illegally in factories – mostly producing shoes and T-shirts – or selling fake watches and perfumes to tourists. They are vulnerable and often blackmailed by criminal gangs.

Julius Kugor has been fighting these scams for years. A former footballer, he is now a leading figure in the African community in Turkey and campaigns to stop the trafficking. “We have written many times to the Turkish embassies in African countries, but nothing has changed. The boys keep coming,” says Kugor.


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