Migration from Africa to Europe remains very much in the news, so PAUL BREEN uncovers the story of one of the thousands who try – by fair means or foul – to make it into the big leagues.
André Bikey-Amougou, George Weah, Laureano Bisan Etamé-Mayer, Roland Duo, Collins John, Salomon Kalou. You may know the names. They all have one thing in common. They rose from humble beginnings in Africa to build careers for themselves in European football, at differing levels and with differing degrees of success. These are football’s migrants
Every day, we hear fresh news of boatloads of outsiders crossing from the north coast of Africa into the frontiers of the European Union – Greece and Italy especially. Last season, a team formed of African migrants, under the name of Koa Bosco, won promotion to the eighth tier of the Italian League.
For these guys, living and working out of squatter camps on the toe-end of the Italian Peninsula, Serie A seems a long way off. That’s the top division where the aforementioned George Weah once plied his trade, before eventually returning to Liberia as an extremely wealthy man.
Not everyone who makes the journey to Europe goes home with the same riches, or indeed ever makes it back ‘home’.
Among the names listed at the start, there are some lesser known than others. Amongst them there was a Liberian player by the name of Roland Duo who represents the tens of thousands of young players who harbour dreams of becoming professional and learn all too painfully of the fine margins between success and failure.
Roland Duo was born in 1982, seven years before the first of two civil wars turned Liberia from one of Africa’s most developed countries into a brutalised wasteland. Roland lived through the war in his childhood, surviving by a combination of parental care and sheer good luck. With his mother, he escaped to a refugee camp across the border in the Ivory Coast after travelling a distance that he describes as being “like London to Newcastle”, by foot so as to find transport. There, in the Liberian refugee camp, he played for a local team named Larissa and caught the attention of scouts and agents who promise young African boys the potential of a career as a footballer in Europe.
Having been encouraged by these agents, Roland then invested everything he had to follow that dream of going to Europe to play football. Firstly, he tried to get in by whatever means possible, much like today’s migrants crossing the seas from Libya. When that failed he went back to enlisting the help of agents, many of whom he describes as liars and cheats; playboys looking for a cut of every profit opportunity – much like the people smugglers of the Mediterranean. Corruption, according to Roland, was rife amongst players and officials struggling to make their way from “black Africa”, as he calls it, onto the pitches of Europe. Bribery, fake certification, altered dates of birth, marriages of convenience, sexual favours and even conversions to other religions were all part of the expected package.
Roland, though, chose the route of joining a club in Cameroon and attracting fresh attention with his performances on the pitch. Though his best position was as a defender, he found an agent who began touting him as a striker to European clubs, such was the level of duplicity on the part of agents and desperation of clubs to find somebody who seemed to be the right fit.
Eventually, Roland was granted a visa to play football in Portugal for a second division club who shall remain nameless in light of the behaviour above. Acting in the guise of the perfect centre forward, Roland marked his Portuguese debut with two goals. However, as time wore on, the club realised that Ronald’s best position was as a left back, which he didn’t want to play, and instigated a dispute. Relations between club and player deteriorated and Roland’s over-confidence cost him the chance to remain long-term in what – in hindsight – was a really good situation for him.
From Portugal, he moved on to Stade Lausanne-Ouchy in Switzerland’s lower leagues, which by his own admission was as much for the visa as the football. Here, his performances attracted the attention of the relatively famous Neuchâtel Xamax FCS, with whom he spent pre-season. However, despite a good start, as had been a feature of his career, he was not given a full time contract. Again, feeling sorry for himself, he was left to rue the fine margins needed for football success. For a period, he admits consoling himself in alcohol – as many before have done – and spent plenty of time in between bemoaning talent lacked or wasted.
Needing to sort his life out, Roland returned to Portugal a whole wasted season later, signing terms with Futebol Clube do Marco based in the Marco de Canaveses region of Porto. However, since he was out of shape and practice, they loaned him out to a third division team for a period before he returned at a time that was to become a crossroads in his life.
At Futebol Clube do Marco, he would meet two people who would have great bearing on his life in different ways. Foremost, it was here that he met the woman who would become his wife. Secondly, he developed a friendship with another young player from Africa who was down on his luck at the time, having failed to make the grade at Espanyol in Spain. That player was André Bikey-Amougou – a defender born in Cameroon who now plays in England with Charlton Athletic.
Yet, in the early 2000s, it was Roland who seemed destined for greater things at Futebol Clube do Marco; he sorted his life out, putting an end to his wilder, rebellious ways.
André Bikey-Amougou was the one with no club, no visa and no sense of where his career was going to take him. But, with Roland’s help and friendship, the big defender got himself back on his feet and started the slow journey to proving Espanyol wrong in their rejection of him as a professional. Like many, Bikey could have found himself on the football scrapheap at twenty, but worked his way back up through the ranks of Portuguese football before sealing a lucrative deal to FC Lokomotiv Moscow, after a spell at Shinnik Yaroslavl.
From there, he went on to join Reading, and acquainted himself with the riches of the English Premier League from 2006 onwards, taking in such places as Burnley and Middlesbrough after his days at the Madejski Stadium. Meanwhile, Roland’s career spiralled in the opposite direction, fading out of first team action and into anonymity, due to a combination of injuries and family commitments. The boy who set out from an African refugee camp with a dream never quite made it as a star. Every time he came close, fate or his own bad choices intervened.
It’s tough though, because he had to contend with migration before he could even begin to attempt to make his dreams real. The full details of that battle would make an interesting story in themselves, and is something that he may well share and tell one day. In my own job as a university lecturer, I have come across dozens of young men who had dreams of becoming a footballer before fate, circumstance or injury cut those dreams down in their prime or in premature haste. One has played for Bayern Munich, another for Porto, and a couple more for lower league teams in England after coming here and finding no other outlet.
Roland too is now based in London, studying a degree, building a fresh life for himself at the end of a career where he never quite fulfilled his potential, despite – in his own words – almost “losing everything for the dream of playing football at a professional level”. He did manage to get paid for playing the game he loved, but regrets that he never found stability, if such a thing ever exists in football.
André Bikey, for example, has spent most of his career as a football journeyman, moving across several clubs and countries of Europe. Not everyone can be like Salomon Kalou and spend half a dozen years at one of the most successful clubs in present day Europe. Indeed, there are few African players from Roland’s situation who ever make it to Europe’s top table. Even though there are several dozen African football migrants in today’s Premier League, a closer analysis of the statistics proves telling.
Firstly, there are those players such as Crystal Palace’s Yannick Bolasie or former Blackburn Rovers defender Chris Samba, who identify themselves as African, but were born in Europe with all the advantages this offers. Even Didier Drogba, one of the greatest African imports to the Premier League, spent a large part of his childhood in France where he began his career.
Secondly, and equally significantly, you will find that many of these stars who have made it tend to come from relatively peaceful parts of the continent; Senegal and Cameroon particularly – Bikey, for example, coming from the latter.
Thankfully, though, life doesn’t begin and end with the length of a career in football. Roland Duo may not have followed the exact path of his dreams but he is starting out on a new road now – the path of study and building a different form of successful life for himself.
He hopes, someday, to tell his story to a wider audience, so that a couple of lessons might come out of this. Opportunities are so few, young footballers should never spurn or waste them and at a time of so much fuss over migrants, he refutes the idea of them coming to Europe for an easy life. He says they are coming for stability, the chance to make something of their lives and to search for more. Nobody, especially when they are young, dreams of spending a life on the sidelines. They want to be on the pitch with a chance of becoming a star, hoping to emulate George Weah or Didier Drogba and maybe ending up as André Bikey if they’re very, very lucky.
Roland Duo is more typical of the broader experience. Within his story, there are echoes of every African child crossing the sea of dreams into the harsh waters of growing up and setting out on that search for adult success and stability. We can only wish him well as a student and hope stories like this teach somebody, somewhere, something valuable.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.