Africa

Ghana

Anything to Score

Okyere Missah, 16, dropped out of school at age 12, to focus on a game he hopes will catapult him to a European team. Author Gavalas (right) also made a documentary about him. (Photo: Courtesy of Christos Gavalas)

ACCRA, Ghana — For Okyere Missah, 16, the dream has just begun.

Missah is another young man dazzled by hopes of making it as a soccer star, on the heels of Ghana’s first-ever World Cup appearance in 2006.

Ghana lost to Brazil in the battle to enter the quarterfinals, but beat the United States. Instead of desolation at the team’s loss, pride and excitement at having come so far emerged in Ghanaian hearts. And a migratory dream was being shaped deep in their skin.

Most of the members of the national team, the Black Stars, built their skills in the European leagues, kindling among a generation of young Africans hopes of similar success.

As many as 4,000 young Africans, many of them minors, have in this way found themselves in Europe, with dreams of playing professionally.

Missah lives in Dansuma, a poor neighborhood in Accra, Ghana’s capital. It’s not every day that he can eat. His family earns less than $3 a day — which means he often has to choose between eating and cadging a ride to the nearest soccer park. Typically he picks soccer.

“If I have 5 cents, I can buy an orange, that’s my food. And if I don’t have money at all, I’ll drink more water. If I drink more water, I can regain my strength, and I’ll be satisfied,” he says ruefully.

At age 12, Missah dropped out of school, to make more time to play. It seemed impossible to attend both classes and training sessions. Now soccer is his life.

A few days after Ghana’s brilliant World Cup performance, Missah saw his brightest day. An unlicensed agent spotted him on the street. The 45-year-old man then approached Missah’s father, asking him for his son’s guardianship. The response was an enthusiastic yes.

“I want to be a star in my future, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this happen,” Missah said, a few moments after his father signed him over. With this agreement, common in Africa, the guardian will pay for a young man’s basic needs, like food and clothing, and will expect a much bigger return of his minimal investment, if the boy succeeds in joining a European club. But all this will be done in an unlicensed, unmonitored fashion.

Hadjia Habiba, one of only three licensed agents in Ghana, knows exactly what that means.

“The unlicensed agent doesn’t pay tax, doesn’t go to any police headquarters to clear his name, nothing,” she said. “But he takes a player from country to country, illegally. The parents know you’re talking about hard currency, dollars or euros. So, they’ll be glad to just let the boy go.”

The Ghanaian Ministry of Sports and Education has issued a warning, saying that if an unlicensed street agent promises to help a teenager go to Europe, Ghanians should turn him down, and also report him to the closest police station. But that’s hardly what parents do. For them, the chance for their child to have an international career in Europe is vastly preferable to any other option — and soccer is now held up as the safest way to migrate there.

Predictably, for many of these teenagers, a European soccer career turns out to be an illusion.

Most of these boys leave Africa without any contract — just a one-month visa. Their agents take them around for tryouts at the European clubs. But only if they perform exceptionally will they be offered fixed-term employment. Otherwise, they are expected to go back home. But that’s often not what happens. The agent, having lost his chance at a transfer fee, frequently abandons his failed star in Europe.

“When the players don’t pass their trials, they are left there stranded,” Habiba said. “They [the agents] don’t care, because they wouldn’t be held responsible. They wanted to protect their pockets with money, but it didn’t happen, so they don’t care. They will leave the player there. Whatever he will do to survive, that is this player’s problem.”

A first-ever conference about this problem took place in Paris last November. Experts, soccer managers and politicians considered ways to protect young African footballers victimized by unscrupulous managers.

In Thessaloniki, Greece, two ex-managers founded an amateur team, the Black Diamonds, out of compassion for stranded African players they noticed wandering the streets. The managers, Giorgios Makropoulos and Panagiotis Tatoglou, organize friendly matches with professional teams, to give the aspiring players a second chance to be seen.

Occasionally it works.

“We started playing with them, and suddenly they were seeing us and they were asking, where did you get these guys? They have a big talent,” said Manam Abdul, 23, a Ghanaian interviewed in Greece. Abdul managed to land in a professional club through his involvement with the Black Diamonds.

Most soccer migrants aren’t so lucky. After being rejected at the trials, they are ashamed to go back home, and start walking across Europe, taking whatever jobs they can find.

“They wake up at 5 a.m. and go to the factory, only to get $650 a month, and send back $250 to their families, and tell their parents they earned them through soccer. What soccer?” said Makropoulos, who urges parents to put a halt to this migration, and keep their children home in Africa at least until they’re old enough to represent themselves in contracts.

“Now that Ghana has done so well, I predict that this will become even worse,” he said, with a gesture of worry.

Missah keeps jogging to the nearest pitch, and praises God for sending him a guardian. But for thousands of children like him, who have seen their dreams shattered, his prayer has a long and perhaps treacherous road to travel.

Christos Gavalas, a Greek broadcast journalist, has produced a documentary, "The Unscored Goal," about Okyere Missah and other Ghanaian boys who aspire to European soccer stardom. This article was first published on NYU Livewire, a biweekly service supplying newspapers and magazines with feature stories about and for young people in college and their twenties.

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