Midnight in Tashkent. A team of West Africans, who have found their way to Uzbekistan, try out in front of talent scouts. Photo: IOM/Joe Lowry

Field of Dreams

How four young West African footballers got stranded in Central Asia

 

Right about now, a boy is walking into a house on the edge of a big city in West Africa, his dreams hanging by a thread.

A couple of weeks ago I watched him sit in the stands as his friends played a fiercely competitive game of football at midnight, half a world away, in Uzbekistan.

I looked at his desolate face, and tried to imagine how smashed up he must have felt, how the smiles and confidence welling in his heart as he flew up and away from  Africa must have turned to dust. Promised stardom on the football field, he’s just realised he was tricked, swindled, used. The glittering stadia of Europe are just castles in the air.

I’m going to call the 17-year-old Kalidou, because his friends say he looks a bit like the Senegalese footballer, Kalidou Koulibaly. We decided this on a chill Thursday in February, when we sat around a table piled high with kebabs and fluffy Uzbek Naan bread.

 

A pile of Central Asian kebabs to nourish the footballers before the big game. Photo: IOM/Joe Lowry

 

Kalidou is the youngest of the four friends who we met almost by chance. Four friends, in deep debt, fed a pile of lies by cynics who relied on their naiveté, took their cash, left them high and dry.

Kalidou is  just waking up to the nightmare. Admitting that things have turned sour. He’s angsty, jiggling his feet, picking at his food. He wears his hoodie up all the time, like he’s trying to hide in a warm cocoon.

A West African in Central Asia. Seventeen-year-old 'Kalidou' ponders his options, on a sunny winter’s day in Tashkent, thousands of miles form home. Photo: IOM/Sanjar Toshbaev

His friends are in a better mood, either accepting their fate and dealing with it, or still in blissful denial. 

When we spot the likeness to Koulibaly, we quickly, laughing agree that the oldest and most vocal should  be Divock (Origi, from Liverpool F.C.). Another is dubbed Sadio (Mane, also Liverpool) and the last of the quartet Kolo (Toure, ex Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool).

Pseudonyms thus established, my colleague Sanjar (Toshbaev, IOM Country Manager) and I probe a bit deeper into how four young Africans have wound up at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains, swapping fufu for kebabs, and a loving home for a depressing dorm in a hostel.

It’s a bizarre story, with loops and sub-plots that I can’t really follow all the time. There are middle-men who pose as doctors, former footballers who set up fake contacts, and above all, the fear of going home as failures.

“We are good footballers. All we want to do is play football. Football is the first thing we think of when we get up and the last thing before we go to sleep”, says Divock.

Eighteen-year-old Sadio makes that unmistakably African “tsss” sound. Like a kiss. Agreement. Resignation.

“Football”, a wistful whisper. “Football, football, football”.

Detail from an anti-trafficking campaign designed by IOM Uzbekistan to warn of the dangers of irregular migration organized online. Photo: IOM Uzbekistan

They want to play. It’s oxygen for them. Euphoria. They become fully themselves when the ball is at their feet. It stops them thinking of the 3,000-euro debt they have racked up to get here, to a place where football takes a back seat to martial arts, where wrestlers are gods. 

“We are poor people”, continues Divock. “We didn’t have any war near us, we are ok, but we just want to make something out of our lives. It’s now or never”.

Sanjar and I ask the guys if they would like to be part of IOM’s Migrants as Messengers initiative. Would they agree to film a short message, telling other aspirant migrants what they might face if they followed the stars in their eyes.

We ask the question a dozen different ways, but the answer is always elusive. To say yes would mean making the admission that the dream was over. Taking the IOM offer of a plane ticket. Walking down the street towards home, with the chill of Central Asia still in their bones and mocking laughter ringing in their ears. 

The boys that didn’t make it. The 3,000 euro, scraped from savings and loans. Not just their dreams dashed, but the dreams of the families, the managers, the team-mates who didn’t have the talent or the guts to get on the plane.

“We want to go on. We want to go to another country”, says Kolo. “This is our dream. We don’t want it to stop.”

I thought that would be the last I’d see of the four footballers, but at 11pm, four hours before my flight left, I was invited to watch them play under the twinkling stars, as Thursday turned into Friday.

“You can take photos,” says Divock, “but you can’t talk to us”.

'Kolo' looks at IOM’s Migrants as Messengers campaign as the young West African finds himself stranded in Central Asia. Photo: IOM/Joe Lowry

We drive across the sleeping city and arrive to the dropped WhatsApp pin. Eleven versus Eleven. Africa versus Central Asia.

Central Asia starts strongest and there are two goals in the net before the African XI gets organised. But then it’s dreamland. Swagger and guile. Crackers from 30 yards, penalties slipped in with jinks and stutters, a worldie from half-way. Divock jumps up on the hoarding, does the whole chest-puffed statue celebration. It’s a romp. These boys can play.

We discover there are footballing agents in the small crowd, from Africa, Kazakhstan and Turkey. Some of these ballers might, just might, move to the next level.

But it’s a long, cold road. A road too far for Kalidou. He’s made the hard decision:

“This journey from West Africa to Tashkent came as a life-changing one for me. I learned one very important thing: when you plan a migration journey, it should be a safe one, which would make you fully confident. Do not let others play with your fate. Learn from others’ mistakes”.

“I want to go back home and spend the next weekend with my family and close ones. I have missed them so much. I cannot let them down. I return home to acquire more knowledge and skills. I already learned a lot”. 

As you read this, see him walking into his home, the prodigal returned. See the tears, feel the love and joy, and the anguish behind the hugs. Or maybe there will be silence, anger, accusations.

Either way, he wants to try again. The power of the dream.