Football’s Slave Trade

Istanbul, Turkey, 2019

It is the “dream trip” for a young African footballer. Hundreds of them are lured to Turkey by unlicensed sports agents with promises of a professional contract. They pay $5000-$6000 for the package and are then abandoned shortly after their arrival. These boys, who come from countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Congo, soon find themselves in an illegal situation. Their tourist visa expires and they are forced to find poorly-paid, uninsured, illegal work, and, often, to live in conditions of extreme poverty.

Despite this, they continue to train daily, pursuing their dream of glory. For many years, the African community in Istanbul has organised an “African Cup” to give the boys the opportunity to showcase their skills to football scouts. They dream of a contract that could change their lives and extricate them from poverty. There are some who make it. Sani Gideon started like everyone else and now plays for Akhisar Belediyespor in the first division of the Turkish league.

Sani Gideon

Sani Gideon made it. He arrived in Istanbul from Nigeria to seek his fortune, to obtain a genuine contract as a professional footballer. He did the hard graft – the trials and the lower league matches. Then, he was discovered by Akhisar Belediyespor who have just been promoted to the Turkish Super League. He has had luck as well as talent. “I believe in hard work, being determined and in daily prayer,” he says. Today, his compatriots admire him and tell him that they want to be like him. When he has no professional commitments, Gideon trains young Nigerians to help them to get ahead. He says: “You don’t have to wait to be like me because you can manage to be even better.”

Yves Kibendo

Yves arrived in Istanbul from Angola. There, he was already a football immigrant. His trip begun in the Congo, where he was born and where he learned to play. But he could not make a living from football so he left his family and friends behind and made a promise: “I’ll make it.” In Angola, he played in a local league. However, they stopped paying him so he decided to leave. They had told him about Turkey. There, they explained, it was easier to get a European Union visa and there were more chances of finding a team. He arrived to the Bosphorus. However, for months he was forced to work twelve hours a day in a textile factory, earning what he needed to survive. “I realised that I couldn’t carry on like this. If I’m here, it’s to become a professional footballer. If I don’t succeed, there’s always a plan B. I’ll find a small boat to take me to Greece. It’s risky, but somehow I have to do it. I made a promise.”