Category Archives: Histórias de vida

Histórias de vida

A Possible Escape

A son in Europe chapter I

The following day, at 6am, his phone rang again: “mother’s dead,” his brother said. Mother’s dead. Mother’s dead. Mother’s dead. Even today, four years later, this sentence echoes in Francisco’s head. The flight from Senegal to Portugal – alone, scared, without a visa. His body was shivering from the cold, as he waited in just a cotton t-shirt at Lisbon Portela Airport for the bus that would take him to the Benfica training ground. The matches in which there would be no one there to support from the audience, the loneliness of holidays spent with the doorman. Suddenly the main reason he had, at the tender age of 15, gone all in for a football career in Europe had vanished. “She was everything to me. What I wanted more than anything was to give her a better life. I dreamt of building her the house she deserved, sorting her out some decent clothes, doing things so that my mother could say, ‘Francisco, what I did for you was worth it.’”

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Francisco Junior is from Guinea-Bissau; he was born in the capital Bissau 23 years ago. At the age of ten he started to receive offers from the agents who take boys from Africa to try their luck at European football. He is one of at least 226 Africans (the majority from Guinea-Bissau) now playing in European competitions who left their continent as minors, chasing the dream of one day becoming professional footballers. One of the 294 African and South-American players who dodged the International Football Federarion (FIFA), and arrived in Europe as minors.

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“FIFA has a general rule: the international transfer of players under the age of 18 is not permitted because it is understood that before they reach adulthood they need to develop areas of their personal life. What happens is that each country’s migration law [which, in the majority of cases, allows the free circulation of minors as long as they have parental consent] takes precedent over FIFA. In my opinion, the people who are not doing their bit are the National Football Federations who should force clubs to follow the rules,” says João Diogo Manteigas, a lawyer specialising in sports law.

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Mother always said no, that he was too young. Only if they took them all. However, Francisco’s father, Francisco da Silva, never denied that it was what he had always wanted: “to have a son in Europe earning money to invest in his country is what all Bissau-Guineans want,” he confessed while sat on an imported leather sofa, in the new house that his son paid for him to build in Bissau.

It seems that promises of easy money to a seven-person family who live on less than a euro a day can buy anything – even a son. Football was always a dream, yes, but also the only opportunity that Francisco found that would enable him to help himself and his family. “Life in Africa isn’t easy. Every day is a struggle to survive. Life in Africa isn’t easy at all.” He repeats this cliché countless times, as if repeating it might alleviate the situation, as if it could change something.

Francisco Junior grew up in the Bairro Militar, on the outskirts of Bissau. Ever since he can remember, he was up at six to sweep the house. Afterwards, with a tray that his mother placed on his head, he would go out onto the streets to sell whatever they had: bananas, bread, salt. “Money went directly to mother so she could buy something to go with rice. Most of the time we just had white rice. She achieved the impossible to put food on the table,” he tells us from the top floor of a building with a 180-degree view over the city of Liverpool, England, where he now lives.

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It used to take him two hours to walk to school, crossing a river. As he had no money for transport, he used to take a spare pair of shorts to change into when the others got soaked crossing the body of water. At the end of school, it would take him another hour and a half to get to training sessions at the Lino Correia stadium, where Sport Benfica de Bissau plays. On a still empty stomach, with tired legs and sore feet from the plastic shoes he used for playing. He used to train hungry. Dinner was often his first meal of the day.

Sellers of dreams chapter II

When Francisco, aged 14, started making waves at Sport Benfica de Bissau, the first serious invitations arrived: Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto were interested. Portugal is the first port of entry for these players. Forty-nine African and nine South-American minors played in the main European clubs during the 2014/2015 season. Over half were playing in Portugal. The three big championship clubs – Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting – are the clubs which had the highest number of minors from these continents on their squads. “Portugal is, for better or worse, an exceptional platform for this type of business,” explains Joaquim Evangelista, the Chairman of the Portuguese Professional Footballers’ Union (SJPF).

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“The first agent who hired me was Juca Fernandes (also from Guinea-Bissau). The news that I was going to be brought to Europe was on the radio at all hours. Getting to Europe was like reaching the sky. I thought ‘I’ll never come back’. I had the notion that people here [in Europe] didn’t need to try, that they didn’t have to do anything… But in the end it didn’t work out,” Francisco says.

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More than selling a boy with talent, what agents really want is to earn as much money as possible, and Francisco’s family had nothing to offer. “As we were poor, they would come and negotiate the invitation that had been offered directly to me with families who had more money. They would take another boy in my place.”

“Catió has treated people the same way for years and he is still successful,” he says. Catió Baldé is the agent responsible for a large proportion of the footballers from Guinea-Bissau who play in Europe; as João Diogo Manteigas puts it “the nerve centre for transfers in Guinea-Bissau.” “He is the most influential agent with the greatest success rate in Guinea-Bissau’s history in terms of player transfers to Portugal,” the lawyer adds. Often it is the families themselves who go to the agents asking for help. “They can show more interest than the agents themselves. Their only concern is making money from the players. They take their cut and they don’t want to know anything else. Knowing that their son is going to Europe makes Bissau-Guinean parents happy,” Francisco explains. His father was no exception.

Catió Baldé’s invitation arrived in January 2008, while Francisco was playing in the Guinea-Bissau national team in Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal. It was the first time that the agent had contacted Francisco directly:

“Benfica is interested and is going to send someone to Senegal to bring you over.”
He had been hearing the same story for four years. By now he didn’t believe that it would ever happen. The telephone rang again:
“Francisco, you know what to do. You either go, or you stay. Either you go back to Guinea-Bissau or you stay in Senegal and travel to Portugal,” Baldé finished.

Francisco had no money on him apart from what the Bissau-Guinean national team coach, Pedro Dias, had given him to get back in case anything went wrong. Stuck in his mind was his “obligation” to give his mother a better life. Mother, always mother. It was dreaming of everything that he would be able to buy – food, clothes, the new house – that he boarded that plane without a visa. “Even today I don’t know how I got through… I arrived, showed them my passport and everything was fine. When I got to Lisbon, they stamped my visa.” He was 15 years old.

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Goodbye Bissau, hello Lisbon chapter III

 

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When he left Lisbon airport, he knew for the first time what it felt like to be cold. He spent thirty minutes waiting for the bus that would take him to the Benfica training centre in Seixal, dressed in just a cotton t-shirt and trousers. “I don’t think I’ve ever shivered so much in my entire life. Afterwards, I was welcomed; there were other Bissau-Guineans there, lots of Africans…,” he remembers.

One day in Portugal and he already wanted to go back. He missed everything, even washing with cold water and the bedroom with no lighting. In his new house chats on the porch with the neighbours were conspicuously absent, as was the noisy laughter, his mother’s love. “People were different. In Guinea, when we woke up in the morning, we were all together. Here everyone slept separately. Only God knows what I went through. I called my mother and she started to cry. ‘If you aren’t happy, come back. Come back, come back, please,’ she said. I was always a very spoiled boy.”

After two, three months, he settled in: bed, food, clean clothes, training and language lessons – French, English and Portuguese. “I even started to go to Year 9 classes, but I had to give them up because of training.” He didn’t think about going back anymore. Benfica paid him 400 euros a month; he used to send 300 to Guinea. Catió Baldé never paid his family the amount he had promised and Francisco felt obliged to help them. This is a cycle of dependence that continues today.

“When I signed my first contract, the document said that a part of the money should go to my parents and to Benfica de Bissau (the club where he started out), but this money never arrived. The agents took it. When signing, they offered clothes and material goods, but then you never see them again. Years pass and you start to understand that you were and are being exploited.”

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In various public statements, Catió Baldé has said that he feels like a “father to these boys.” But Francisco swears that he never saw him like that. He was forced to grow up, he experienced many difficulties, but he doesn’t regret it: “Benfica got me out of Africa. I owe the club an eternal debt. Catió was the man who brought me and I thank him for that, but I never thought of him as a father.”

His worst moments were when Christmas or other important holidays came around: all his team mates with their bags packed waiting for their family who arrived, smiling, in their cars. Meanwhile Francisco would be sat on the kerb, watching from a distance this affection that he also longed for.

He knew of some people who had come to Portugal from Guinea-Bissau and he tried to contact them on Facebook, but few responded. Despite everything, he swears he was “lucky”. His “luck” was to never be thrown out of the club where he played. To have always had somewhere to sleep, clothes to wear and things to eat. To never have been chucked out onto the streets in a country that is not his own and where he knew no one. “I know many agents who choose the boys, take the money, leave them in the clubs and then leave. You cannot pick up someone else’s son, take him, and then never think about him again just because he’s African. They tell us they’ll change our lives and then, when we get to Europe, they take the money and they’re not interested anymore,” he says. After a short period of time, a lot of these children are let go. They get injured, they don’t adapt quickly enough or they fail to meet expectations. They are completely alone, with no one to take them in; sometimes they sleep on the streets.

Francisco recognises that coming to Europe was the best thing that happened to him, but he doesn’t agree with the current system. He swears that he won’t stop speaking out until he has no voice left: “I’m not scared of anyone. I don’t depend on anyone – just my own two feet. It’s wrong to bring kids over from Africa and abandon them in Europe. Because when I say abandonment, it is abandonment. Utter abandonment. We are talking about children. I repeat: a child! A boy who isn’t old enough to be a man.”

He is not against aspiring footballers coming, but he is revolting against the way they are brought, being treated as “merchandise”, being enticed by the promise of a future that may never become a reality.

The weight of a family capítulo IV

He is now, he declares, “old enough to be a man”, but this doesn’t lessen the emptiness he feels inside. For a long time loneliness has been his greatest ordeal. “I live alone, I have no one. If I have a problem, I am alone; if I am sick, I am alone; if I am sad, I am alone. If I need to vent about something, I have to vent at myself. If my families have problems back home, I have to resolve them. They have to go to school, to dress, to eat. It’s a lot of things for one person to have on their plate,” he admits.

He has realised his dream: he plays for Everton, a club in the English Premier League, he lives in a two-bedroomed apartment on the marina in Liverpool, he drives a BMW X6, he wears Nike trainers. For special occasions, he wears Armani. Some months he can send up to a total of ten thousand euros to Guinea-Bissau, split between his father, brothers, uncles, cousins and neighbours. More than 20 people depend on him. “Africans think that anyone who goes to Europe automatically becomes rich. Many don’t go back to their country because they didn’t get rich enough to look after those who are going to ask them for money.”

Francisco built a house for his family in Bissau, he bought a taxi for his dad – which he rents and adds to his teacher’s salary (around 150 euros) -, he pays for the school, food and housing for his four brothers who study in Senegal and he sends money whenever there is an emergency. Even so, his father, Francisco da Silva, says that “in his heart” he is still not satisfied.

Francisco earns 30 thousand pounds per month (about 40 thousand euros), not counting any sponsorships and player awards. “I try to save as much as possible; I’m here today, but I don’t know about tomorrow.” He doesn’t permit himself many luxuries. His routine doesn’t stray far from training, Playstation games and his iPhone, a seemingly inseparable extension of his body. Music – that varies between Kisomba, Rap or Pop – is also ever present, as if life ceases to exist without a constant soundtrack. Having a few whiskies and singing karaoke in private clubs, smoking shisha or having dinner at Nando’s are his escapes. He lives a monotonous and frugal life.

“To be a footballer, you sacrifice a lot. The first thing is your youth: you don’t have fun like a normal kid. You only have ten, or a maximum of fifteen years, depending on how you look after your body. At any moment you might get injured, and you may never be the same again. When you are an African player, it’s even more complicated.” After nearly ten years in Europe, now he doesn’t pay any attention when people use the colour of his skin to insult him on the pitch. “Even today during training they called me nigger mother fucker. I’m immune, I let it go over my head.” He got it into his head that to achieve the same thing he would have to work twice as hard. Is that fair? “No, no it isn’t. But the world isn’t fair. Anyone who thinks it is should find another planet.”

I’ve never been richer, I’ve never been poorer chapter v

Francisco hasn’t forgotten everything he has been through and feels that he should help other children who, like him, came to Europe chasing a dream but ended up without a club. He worries about them, takes them in, and cares for them. Batis is part of the furniture in his house in Liverpool. He was one of the promising young stars at Benfica in 2012. He got as far as playing in the Portuguese national youth team. Then he got injured and ended up without a club. This same story repeats itself times without number. Batis cries when, on the other end of the line, his mother asks for money to buy a bag of rice and he can’t help her. In Francisco’s apartment, he eats, sleeps, plays videogames, listens to music, goes on the internet. When he wants to go home, Francisco either pays for a taxi or takes him back; he also gave him money to send to his family in Guinea-Bissau. “I understand the desperation he must feel. In life you can be fine today, but not tomorrow. I like to help. Money can help sometimes.”

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Money for money’s sake doesn’t interest him. When he left Guinea-Bissau, he never imagined that his bank account would ever reach so many digits. When he left Bissau, he also never imagined that he could feel so poor. He has never been back to the house where he was born; he rejects everything that reminds him of the person he loves the most. The only thing he wanted was to have seen his mother dressed in the clothes he had bought her in a European shop, to live in a brick house, to serve her a rice dish full of all kinds of fish. If that afternoon he had not been so lazy, if he had gone to the Western Union in Lisbon to send the money, perhaps it would have still been possible. He’ll never know. Theses ‘if’s are the ghosts that he has had to learn to live with. “The only thing that I wanted was to see my mother smile, to say ‘thank you’. But I didn’t manage it. So I will never be happy for the rest of my life. I can have everything, but I will never be happy for the rest of my life.”

Histórias de vida

Brazil’s Messi

Conquering Barcelona chapter I

Catalonia, Spain. Ten o’clock one night in December 2012. A cold that chills you to the bones. Cassiano was getting ready for training at the Cornellà ground, one of Barcelona’s surrogate clubs, where many foreign football stars start their footballing career. Francisco shivered on the bench. When he saw the size of the other players, he thought his son wouldn’t be able to do it. “I saw all the two-metre tall Africans and thought, ‘these boys can’t possibly all be the same age.’” Cassiano started to play and the temperature rose: he artfully dribbled past one, and another, ran towards the goal and scored. These were the seconds that father and son preserve in their memory; the moments that they chose to summarise one of the most important days of their lives.

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“Am I speaking with Cassiano Bouzon’s father? I’d like your son to come to train and attend the try-outs for Barcelona.” The person on the other end of the phone, the other side of the ocean, was Josep Maria Minguella, the agent responsible for taking Lionel Messi from Argentina to Spain. It was October 2012. Cassiano was 11 years old and lived in Salvador, Brazil.

Francisco Jesus was speechless. He had dreamt of this moment since before Cassiano was born. Of the day in which his “little man” could achieve what a knee injury had robbed him of, putting an end to a career – one that he remembers as “brilliant”- as a left midfielder. A childlike, inexplicable happiness rushed through him. But he quickly came back to reality: what if, in the end, his son wasn’t the “star” that everyone in Salvador said he was? It was one thing to play at the starting level for E.C. Vitória in Brazil, but professional football in Europe was another thing entirely. Whatever the outcome, he had to try.

Francisco’s plans for his son are to achieve what he never did: to be a professional football player. “If Cassiano plays 10% as well as you used to play, this kid will go far,” his friends, who saw him on the pitch 20 years ago, tell him. Since his son was born, every year his father has given him a “little” football. “Cassiano is the only man in the family: the only male nephew, the only male grandson, amidst five girls. He was always the spoiled one, the favourite.”

“I needed to know once and for all if it was worth continuing to invest in this. In the end we are talking about Minguella, the man who took not only Messi to Europe, but also players like Maradona and Rivaldo,” Francisco explains. The video he had shared on Youtube, in which Cassiano dribbles past half the team and scores six goals, had paid off. This is how many lads make their talents known and get themselves onto the scouts’ and agents’ radars. This was how Francisco got the spotlights to focus on his son.

Sharing video on Youtube is just one of the ways to show off these lads’ talents. In Colombia, for example, there is an annual football tournament called Pony Fútbol, in which children between 10 and 14 years compete to get noticed by coaches and the press. The parents of the most talented kids are approached directly by agents. “Discover how you can participate and be great from the start” is the event’s slogan.

Giants are also told no chapter II

“Cassiano passed. If he stays with us, he’ll be placed with a host family here in Spain. He’ll study during the day and train at night. We’ll cover all his expenses.” The proposal, both father and son assure, came directly from the then president of Barcelona, Sandro Rosell, less than a month after Francisco and Cassiano had landed in the city and slept in Josep Minguella’s house for the first time.

“I can’t explain the immensity of the whole thing: when I saw that they’d created a fan club for Cassiano in Spain, I couldn’t believe it. All this left us scared but, at the same time it was really flattering,” says Francisco. Cassiano’s mother, Irtes, interrupts, “Scary. That’s the word: scary.”

Cassiano didn’t think twice: he wanted to stay. Saying no to the club where Messi plays seemed crazy, even if it is Cristiano Ronaldo who he would really like to share the pitch with one day.

Francisco didn’t need his son’s answer to decide: “In the press it came out that Cassiano’s father had said no to Barcelona. Who am I to say no to Barcelona? But I couldn’t leave an 11-year-old child alone on another continent, far from his family. I even suggested that they brought us all over to Europe: Me, Irtes and Maria Cecília [Cassiano’s sister]. But it was at the time when the club started to be involved in the hiring of minors scandal and nothing concrete materialised.”

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In April 2014, the International Football Federation (FIFA) banned Barcelona from hiring players for a year on the understanding that the Catalan club had failed to comply with the law that regulates the transfer of players, with the acquisition of ten athletes under the age of 18. According to a press release from FIFA, “the investigations concerned several minor players who were registered and participated in competitions with the club over several periods between 2009 and 2013.” For João Diogo Manteigas, a lawyer specialising in sports law, the FIFA rules are clear: “International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.” There are only three exceptions: if the family move for work and the minor accompanies them; if the transfer takes place within the EU/EEA and the player is over 16; if the transfer involves a distance of no more than 100km and the player continues to live in his home country.

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Barcelona’s management team agreed with Cassiano’s father: “He really is very young. He can’t be registered with the club because he’s not old enough and bringing the family from Brazil to Europe is impossible,” they told him. Two years later, in the 2014/2015 season, a number of Spanish football clubs continued to have African and South-American players on their squads.

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The Moroccan forward Oulam Abou is a case in point. He swapped Casablanca for Catalonia in 2007, the same year in which he started to play for Barcelona Under-10s at the tender age of 9. At the beginning of the 2014/2015 season, aged 17, he signed with FC Porto. This last transfer complies with FIFA’s rules, which allow the buying and selling of players over the age of 16 between European Union member countries, as long as they guarantee “all the conditions necessary for the minor to have adequate access to education.”

The majority of African and South-American boys involved in this type of invitation come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In these opportunities they see a way to escape poverty, to get a better life for their parents and siblings. They don’t say no, they can’t say no: they nearly always have very little to lose. With Cassiano it’s different. He grew up in a middle-class family, with parents who let themselves dream of the possibility of having a “football star” in the household but they swear they never forgot – they repeat this countless times – that first and foremost they have to “bring up a man with values, principles and an education. Only after this can the football player be born.”
 

Clinging to a dream chapter III

The Bouzon family’s life is divided between before and after Barcelona. When they returned, Francisco took his son’s career into his own hands and became a kind of full-time agent. He delegated the running of the metalworking business that he managed to his business partner and Irtes swapped her position at Varig, the aviation company where she had worked as a secretary for over 10 years, for the roles of mother and housewife. Maria Cecília, 14 years old at the time, had to leave the city where she was born, as well as her school, her friends. Francisco, Irtes and Maria Cecília accepted that first and foremost they were the father, mother and sister of Cassiano Bouzon.

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“A number of European clubs, FIFA officials and agents contacted us. In the end we settled on Rio de Janeiro, RC Flamengo, where Cassiano is very happy,” Francisco said in June 2014.
Cassiano’s sister reflects on the change:
“I’m not going to say it was easy. I cried a lot, I felt that no one was taking my feelings into account. Leaving my family, my friends, my city. But then I thought: ‘Who am I to stifle my baby brother’s dreams? I had no right to do that.’”

Francisco likes to show off about how his son “became famous overnight”, of how he was “the most talked about boy in all Brazil.” Of how Nike sponsors all his sports equipment, although Cassiano prefers flip-flops to designer football boots when he plays ball on the patio at home. Then he comes back to earth. He remembers that his son is still a child and that all the megalomania that surrounds him should be handled carefully.

He lives in limbo, never certain if continuing to fight for his dream – which is as much Cassiano’s as his father’s – is the right path to take. His words jump around, switching constantly between excitement and reason: “When a father loses sight of the truth, thinking that his son could represent financial safety for the family, I think that this leads to the kid’s downfall. There’s lots of happiness, lots of joy, there’s a quick financial return, but there can also be a very sudden deflation, disappointment. When the big talents get lost – because Cassiano is not alone in the world, there are thousands of them – the parents are nearly always 100% to blame.”

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Cassiano went to Flamengo after being rejected by Fluminense: they questioned his stature; what future could a player aged 12 and measuring less than five feet have? “The expectation is that, with medical and hormonal monitoring, he should reach between 1.60m and 1.72m.” The paediatricians and endocrinologists who were responsible for Cassiano’s care in Barcelona gave this assessment. “My son needs to mature, to get strong, to grow. All famous players are dependent on this,” says Francisco, without knowing if the future will really take him down this path.

RC Flamengo [also known as the Rubro-Negro, the name given to the club as a result of the red and black kit the team wears] took care of the move from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro. The club sorted out a school for Cassiano, the renting of a house in a private condominium on the outskirts of the city and a “monthly allowance” that would pay for the family to live. “With a 12-year-old boy, you can’t draw up a contract. We have a document that proves the link,” Francisco explains.

The agreement lasted little more than a year. “The player didn’t develop as expected and Flamengo reduced its number of players. We performed an evaluation and kept the best performers. It was a technical issue, boys often come with a lot of hype but they don’t adapt. There was nothing out of the ordinary, he’s a great kid, really sweet,” the Flamengo junior teams director, Carlos Noval, told site Globo Esporte about Cassiano Bouzon.

This was hardly a big surprise. Cassiano was nearly always on the bench. Francisco already expected the worst, but he regrets having found out about the decision through the media. It wasn’t the first time that boys who had used internet videos to get noticed had had a short lifespan at Flamengo.

Back to Europe capítulo IV

Nearly two years after having rejected Barcelona, in October 2014, father and son crossed the Atlantic once again. They intended to stay in Europe for a week, but this turned into nearly two months. To keep up with his school work, Cassiano studied with his mum via Skype and did his exams in absentia. They received an invitation from the agent Héber Miranda, who opened the doors of Arsenal, Charlton, West Bromwich and Tottenham to them, where Cassiano did try-outs.

Two months later, Maria Cecília finished the academic year and Irtes decided to board a plane to Lisbon with her daughter. She was fed up of waiting for a response from afar, so the family would meet in Portugal and spend Christmas in Europe. They had plans to stay; “lots of European clubs were interested,” they said. But the same problems as always continued to surface: “we need papers to get work here, the world of football isn’t set up for families to come along,” Irtes explains.

Maira Cecília, who, after having swapped Salvador for Rio de Janeiro, had said that she didn’t want any more changes in her life, now seems willing to do anything for her brother: “An aunt once said to me: Do you want to fly with me? So don’t tread on my wing. I want to fly with Cassiano.”

“The best don’t always win, they don’t always get to the top, but I’m sure that Cassiano will,” his mum hopes. Deep down, Irtes and Francisco know that repeating countless times that their son “is going to be a great football player” is nothing other than more or less realistic guess work.

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Today, the family is back living in Salvador, far from São Paulo, where Cassiano is undergoing a “growth treatment”, Francisco explains in a Facebook message. Without a club it’s calmer, as he says, “it’s Héber’s [Cassiano’s agent] big plan”: “We came back to Brazil, and from February, Cassiano will be living and training with Santos. There, he’s undergoing a growth hormone treatment with somatotrophin, the same medication that Lionel Messi took at Barcelona. The aim is for him to be playing in the championship for Santos under-15s next year. He is currently sponsored by Nike,” his agent explained via email.

Histórias de vida

Limbo

My house is a stadium chapter I

Valentine spent his childhood playing with a plastic ball in the small square in the neighbourhood where he lived in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. He still fondly keeps the football boots his father got him as a child. Football was his “pipe dream”. His parents wanted him to study and he, a child, never had the courage to say out loud what was going through his head.

Nobody would have guessed that, at the age of 19, he would be playing at Associação Desportiva (AD) Nogueirense and that he would be living in Nogueira do Cravo, a small village in the district of Coimbra, Portugal, with just over 2,300 inhabitants. The day that agent Tersoo John told him that he had “the heart to play the game”, that “so much courage is not normal” in a boy of his age, it changed his life. He remembers it as if it were yesterday.

We meet him inside the AD Nogueirense Stadium, in a house about 20 metres from the pitch and the changing rooms, which he shares with two other Nigerians, a Brazilian, an Ivorian, a Malian, a Guinean and four Portuguese. “I know they were in there, the house wasn’t very clean, it was the cleaner’s day off,” Rui Fernandes, the club sports director says. “It’s easier for us to get foreign rather than Portuguese players. A foreign player who comes here wants to excel, to be as successful as possible. We are a small club with fewer connections, we have our difficulties, the team we have now is the best we can maintain with our resources. That’s the reality.”

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The realities that the sports director refers to are food and board. “There’s one player who has been here for two years without receiving a thing. I was lucky, I am one of the two who have a professional contract,” Valentine tells us. The club actually goes above and beyond its obligations: “the first month, they gave me an envelope with 100 euros. I don’t know how much the others received because they called us all in separately,” he remembers.

Although the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) requires all players to be registered for the National Adult Championship, the league AD Nogueirense participates in, it does not require that players have a professional contract. “It’s an amateur competition and legislation dictates that contracts are only necessary for professionals,” confirms lawyer João Diogo Manteigas.

Valentine is an exception, because, as the AD Nogueirense sports director explains, “he doesn’t have Portuguese nationality or Portuguese residence.” Giving him the contract was the “only alternative”. Besides this, the technical team identified him as one of the players with the most potential. Were he to be sold, his contract guarantees the club their share of the transfer fee.

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Of the AD Nogueirense players who share a house with Valentine, only the Malian Sydou Ouilly is not, and never was, registered with the FPF, according to the search tool available on the institution’s website. This is despite having been in Portugal for four years and having spent time at clubs such as Leixões Sport Club, Oliveira do Hospital Football Club and Sport Clube Mineiro Aljustrelense. As Manteigas explains, the registration forms required for the FPF, for either amateur or profissional players, provide this loophole.

Valentine is a prime example. Three months after having arrived in Portugal – in 2013 – with a tourist visa, he found himself in an illegal situation. He only received his first residence permit in December 2015. Despite this, his name has been registered on the FPF as having played for Paços de Ferreira and now AD Nogueirense.

The FPF deny knowledge of these cases and say, “registrations that break FIFA’s rules are impossible in Portugal.” The institution guarantees that it also “monitors the transfers of players and cooperates with the Portuguese authorities in order to identify possible irregularities.”

The second time it was for good chapter II

Valentine Akpey formed part of a group of eight young people who left Nigeria for Portugal in 2013. He wanted to make his “pipe dream” a reality. Hope came to him in the form of a promise from Portuguese trainer Sérgio Daniel and his Nigerian agent, Tersoo John. He had to show what he was worth, give his all and they guaranteed that if he did this, he would get into a good club. He was 17 years old.

European Dream Came True was the name of the project promoted by Sérgio Daniel and the De’ Elite Sports Group, academy, a talent-scouting company. When the group still had a website, the Nigerian agent Garba Tijani was introduced as the president, Tersoo John as the vice-president and Sérgio Daniel as the technical director.

You can read the call for participants in the project on the Nairaland online forum, where it was published two years ago: “This project consists in choosing the best […] Nigerian players under the categories U12 to U23 s for AC Milan of Italy, AS Monaco of France and SC Olhanense of Portugal. The selection process will be done by scouts and representatives chosen by the teams, led by Sérgio Daniel. Will be fully filmed so that the teams in question can see DVDs of athletes.”

Valentine, introduced on Sérgio Daniel’s Youtube account as “Spider Man” and one of the academy’s “brightest stars”, was one of the ones selected. He had been selected in 2012 and the then president of SC Olhanense was expecting him in the Algarve, but at the time his visa was denied.

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A year later, fate nearly played another nasty trick on him: on the way to the Portuguese embassy in Nigeria for a visa interview appointment, the bus he was travelling on with other players was stopped by a group of armed assailants. The thieves went through all their luggage and took all their mobile phones and computers.

Valentine was convinced he would be late: “First I thought I was going to die, then I just thought about how it could be that I was going to turn up to the meeting in the clothes I was wearing, without having had a wash, without brushing my teeth. I was nervous.”

When he finally arrived, he remembers that there were a number of different offices, and a man took him through. He described the conversation as if it were yesterday: they asked him where he wanted to go, why, who was taking him, who would pay for this flight and for what club he was going to play. He answered all the questions. At the end, “he checked on the internet if Sport Clube Estrela was a real club and he told me the interview was over.” It took two weeks for the decision to arrive.

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No club and no plan B chapter III

Valentine arrived in Portugal on 13 November 2013. Three months away from turning 18, he could not sign any professional contract. “Before coming, my academy bought a district club, Sport Clube Estrela. We knew we’d stay there until we got used to the climate.” They trained for a month, played some friendlies and even played with Benfica and Sporting.

It was during one of these matches, in the Algarve against Olhanense, that an agent noticed him: “he told me I was a good player and that he wanted to take me to other clubs.” A week later, Valentine was training with the FC Porto Youths. This is how what he calls his “career as a professional footballer” started.

After FC Porto, he moved to the Paços de Ferreira Youth team, where he played for a season, but he was let go before signing the promised professional contract. “The trainer Paulo Fonseca said he would put me in the first team, but he left for SC Braga before the end of the season and club management never said anything to me.”

He was left without a club and no Plan B. During the summer of 2014, while he spent the holidays in Portalegre, he was “caught” by the Portuguese Borders and Immigration Control (SEF) who gave him 20 days to rectify his situation or leave the country: “I was with Nigerian friends, who played for the SC Estrela [the club owned by De Elite Sports Group]. At that point I went to Paços, so I had no more problems, but they got taken to court in the end.”

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A short while later, at the end of 2014, the SEF investigated 104 sports clubs and associations throughout the country and identified 508 foreign athletes, of which 203 were in the country illegally. Athletes without a visa or resident’s card were found in at least 25 clubs, reported the weekly newspaper Expresso in February 2015. That same month, the sports paper Record published a news item entitled, “SEF detains players training at Estrela de Portalegre [name by which the SC Estrela is known]” and the club management reported on their Facebook page that they would not continue to participate in the Male Adult District Championship.

In an attempt to control the increasing number of undocumented foreign footballers playing in Portugal, the Portuguese Football Federation, the Borders and Immigration Control, the Portuguese Professional Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Union signed a protocol in June 2015, to “extend the scope of cooperation with regard to obtaining residence permits for foreign players”, to create a work group that monitors cases of particular importance and promotes clarifications together with agents and sporting associations as regards the legislation on the “entrance, permanence, exit and removal of foreign citizens from the national territory.”

I don’t want to go back; I can’t go back chapter IV

In August 2015, Valentine accepted an offer to play for AD Nogueirense. “My agent had to bring me here.” You can’t get any further than the only coffee shop in Nogueira do Cravo on foot. He only leaves the village when the trainer, Rui Vale, is available and takes them to the closest town, Oliviera do Hospital. His day-to-day life consists of sleeping, watching films, training and “staying focused”. “I have to keep myself focused” is the phrase that he repeats the most.

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Ever since he arrived in Portugal, he has always had housing and food, but he has never earned more than 250€ per month, paid by Paços de Ferreira after five months of complaining. “When I left Nigeria, I hoped that it was going to be easier, it’s not how I thought it would be… It’s difficult, but I need to keep going to be strong, to struggle, because I have to get to where I want.”

“Many of my friends still don’t understand that things here aren’t as easy as they think. They think that as soon as you arrive in Europe, you’ll start to earn money and you’ll get rich, but it’s nothing like that. They ask me to send them money and I say: ‘When I have some, I’ll send you it, but at the moment I don’t have anything.’”

Even so he says that he didn’t come with false hopes. He repeats that his agent, Tersoo John, is a “great friend”, and he is “different from other agents”: “he helps me and he sends me a bit of money. I am still young, I don’t need much.”

Valentine left Nigeria without the knowledge of his family and friends, a short time after his younger brother, who was also preparing to leave for Europe, had died. “He was playing football, it was raining a lot and lightning struck. When the lightning strike hit the ground, all the players fell down. Slowly they started to get up, one by one. All of them, except my brother.” He doesn’t regret his decision, but he does miss home, a lot. He misses the food, his girlfriend, his mum. If he wanted to go back to Nigeria, he’s sure that Tersoo John would pay for his ticket. But he doesn’t want to, or he can’t, or he can’t even imagine the possibility. Not like this, having nothing, yet to fulfil his dream.

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