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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