Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Euro Dream

For the past few weeks, I've been crisscrossing West Africa and talking football. Here's a story I filed for MSNBC. The guy in the picture is Tony Chibuzor, described at the top of the story.

LAGOS, Nigeria

An oppressive mid-day sun bakes the pot-holed sand pitch where one of this mega-city's many informal soccer clubs is training.

On the sidelines, Tony Chibuzor leads his squad in a fervent prayer. His club, called the Zion Football Academy, is playing next.

"Oh, Lord, you are the God who remembered John Obi Mikel, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho -- remember us as you remembered them," the 19-year-old captain pleads to a chorus of "Hallelujahs" from his teammates.

"Connect us to people who matter. Let them come and see us play so they can take us to Europe."

Throughout deeply religious Nigeria -- and soccer-mad West Africa -- it's a prayer echoed by millions of young Africans desperate to escape the poverty at home and seek a professional soccer future -- and fortune -- in Europe.

Their dreams are fueled by the remarkable success that many African players have enjoyed in recent years in some of Europe's top leagues.

"They all want to be the next Michael Essien or Didier Drogba," says Christian Okpara, sports editor for Nigeria's Guardian newspaper, referring to the Ghanaian and Ivorian superstars who play for Chelsea in the English Premier League.

With the African conquest of European club soccer, there's a growing sense that Africa could become soccer's future powerhouse.

Next year's World Cup in South Africa will be the first time the tournament is held in Africa. There is a genuine conviction, even among some seasoned soccer observers, that the time may have come for an African team, say Ghana or Ivory Coast, to challenge Europe's and South America's traditional dominance in world soccer and lay claim to its greatest prize.

There's no doubting the African talent waiting in the wings.

Last month, Ghana became the first African team to win the under-20 World Cup, beating Brazil 4-3 on penalties in the final.

On Sunday, Nigeria was expected to retain the under-17 World Cup title it won two years ago. However, the "Super Eaglets," as the Nigerian team is known, fell by a lone goal to Switzerland in the final. The Nigerians had impressed in the tournament with their quick-paced passing and relentless attacking game.

But recent African achievements mask a grim reality: at home, African soccer is in disarray.

The migration of thousands of African players abroad has decimated domestic leagues, including Nigeria's. The country is the world's second largest exporter of soccer players to Europe after Brazil.

"This migration certainly benefits individual players, but the local game becomes bereft of high-quality talent and as a result people lose interest in it," says Paul Darby, a sports studies scholar at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has researched the issue closely in Ghana.

Twenty years ago, Nigeria's Premier League drew large crowds and offered heated rivalries. Today, attendance at games has plummeted. Many of the clubs are struggling financially. Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, no longer has a team in the top division.

Most of the fans prefer to follow African players in European teams.

During a recent Chelsea-Manchester United Premier League clash, the normally chaotic Lagos streets thinned out as fans, many sporting the team jerseys, headed for the hundreds of makeshift shacks set up around the city by local entrepreneurs cashing in on the locals' rabid interest in English soccer.

"People in Nigeria follow the English Premier League closer than English people do," says Felix Awogu, the Nigeria manager of Supersport, the continent's largest sports broadcaster.

"The typical man on the street can give you the line-up of the last three games for Man United or Chelsea."

In Ghana, Michael Essien, the combative Chelsea midfielder, is treasured as a national hero.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Essien, in Ghana for his country's final World Cup qualifying game, traveled to the modest village where he grew up, some 45 minutes outside of the capital Accra for what he had hoped would be a quiet visit.

Word of his arrival, however, spread like wildfire and within minutes hundreds of jubilant villagers began pouring into the village center to hug, touch, or at least catch a glimpse of their famous local son.

"When I was growing up, all I wanted to be was a professional footballer and play in Europe," Essien says. "I know how lucky I've been."

Essien broke through at the 1999 U-17 World Cup in New Zealand. He played one season for Ghanaian club Liberty Professionals before being drafted to Europe and French outfit Bastia.

For most of the African players featuring in the just-finished U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, playing in their country's domestic league, even for a year, holds little attraction.

"I want to play in Spain. I love Barcelona," says Abdulrahmon Azeez, the defensive midfielder for Nigeria's Super Eaglets.

"My favorite player is [Ivorian] Yaya Touré. I play in the same role as him."

But for many aspiring stars, their European adventure has ended in nightmares. Horror stories abound of unscrupulous agents taking young African soccer players to Europe -- often for fees ranging in the thousands of dollars -- only to abandon the player when a tryout doesn't work out.

"Most of these players don't know what they're signing," says Okpara, the Guardian editor. "When someone promises to bring them abroad, they fall for it."

Now, African players desperate to seek their fortune abroad are increasingly migrating to destinations in the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia. Many of the same problems appear to remain.

Twenty-year-old Franc Opara is back playing with the Zion Football Academy. Two years ago, he was approached by a man who called himself an agent who invited him to come to Singapore and play for a local club.

Opara soon realized the deal was fishy when he was asked to pay for his own lodging. After two matches, he was told to not come back to the club. He found himself stranded in Singapore.

"I had to give it a try," says Opara. "I would do it again."

Like his friend Opara, Chipuzor has no doubt that he will one day get a chance to showcase his talents in Europe. His belief in his skills and passion for the game remains undeterred.

"I live for football, I sleep with the football, the ball is my girlfriend," he says.

Without a job and any other skills, Chipuzor says he has no other options but to play soccer.

When asked if he worries that, at age 19, he may soon be too old for potential recruiters, Chipuzor shakes his head.

"God has been faithful to me," he says. "My time will come."

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