African soccer players: when the bubble bursts

The dream of a successful career as soccer player in the West often ends in nightmare for young Africans. Abandoned and left to themselves, they seem to lose their bearings completely when they go back home. Sports bodies in Cameroon are now helping them to reintegrate.

By Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, Douala

Cameroonian soccer player Noah Bakéna is 31. After spending nearly two years in Indonesia, he was repatriated to Cameroon, where he plays for Bonamoussadi Youth, a local club in the second division. « It’s just to keep fit until my injured knee fully heals, » he says.

From soccer field to prison
Bakéna’s injury dates back to 4 January, 2007, only a week after he signed a contract with the Indonesian club Persikabo Bogor from Jakarta. “It happened during a friendly. The doctors said I could not play for six months and the club decided to sack me without honouring my contract, » says Bakéna.

The young athlete approached the International Football Association (FIFA) and asked for an enquiry.

« I was living in Indonesia with neither papers nor money. On 1 October 2008, I was arrested and jailed for the fact that my residence permit was expired and therefore was illegal, » the footballer relates.

With the support of the Cameroonian Footballers Association (Afc), the International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro) and FIFA, Bakéna was released from prison a month later and went back to Cameroon.

Difficult reintegration
Since then, AFC has helped Bakéna to find a club in Cameroon. But after three years of inactivity, going back to work is not easy. The club trains every morning from 6 to 9, but the former professional from Persikabo Bogor has lost the rhythm of intensive training. There are also the extra pounds and the knee which is not yet fully healed.

But according to him, the hardest part is being judged by others. Bakéna said he is always being mocked. Coming from a large family, many rely on his financial support. « Coming back to Cameroon in these conditions was not easy. When you are outside of Africa, the family’s hope rests on you. But when you come back without any money after having been in prison: It’s a disgrace. »

The dream remains
It is thanks to the support of several sport bodies that Bakéna did not find himself in the same situation as many fallen African soccer players – alcohol, crime and isolation. In May 2010, the verdict from FIFA was pronounced: his former club Persikabo Bogor had to pay him $30,000 in damages for wrongful termination of contract. With this money he was able to leave the family home and buy himself a house and move in with his wife and daughter. It also helped to pay for proper treatment for his knee.

Before Indonesia, Bakéna also claims to have had negative experiences in Libya and South Korea. But despite all the trouble, he keeps dreaming of playing in a club abroad. « I will try my luck again as soon as my knee is healed, » he says.

“Cases like Bakéna’s arrive every day,” says Luc Noé Bengan, the Communication Officer at the Footballers Association of Cameroon. “But these athletes are always ready to leave: They hope to find a better life elsewhere, » he concludes.


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