In Senegal, football players pay a high price for their dreams

In Senegal, football players pay a high price for their dreams

Ady Diouf, in the blue jumpsuit, coaching his team during a practice match in Pikine, Dakar, on 29 March, 2019.

(Stefano Fasano)

“Honesty is a good thing, but the truth is that you have many more chances if you change your identity,” explains C.B., a 33-year-old Senegalese striker, with a naughty smile on his face.

Or 26 years old, depending on which of his two IDs you look at. “And besides, my age might be higher, but you’re older than me,” he says ironically.

This somehow surreal conversation could have taken place with a number of football players living in Senegal. In this west African country, where almost half of the population lives under the poverty line and where prospects for decent employment are scarce, football often acts as a magnet for young destitute people hoping to improve their living standards.

“I’ve spent my whole life sacrificing everything to become a professional football player,” C.B. recalls, showing some pictures on the cracked display of his smartphone. “I was just waiting for my opportunity to ‘travel’, to go play in a more important league. The first chance came when I was 16 years old. My real age.”

“This agent said that OGC Nice was looking for a player like me, but my parents wanted me to finish my studies first and could not pay the agent fee of 800,000 CFA (US$1,400),” C.B. explains. “But when I finished high school, I was already 20 years old.” Too old to convince any European team to invest in him.

But a few years later, a new opportunity came up, he says: “A contact I had inside the Qatar SC team told me they might be interested in me. But I was already too old.” His contact gave him a very succinct solution: “You need to change your age”.

Six or seven years younger, enough to justify his appearance while still being an interesting investment for the club. But it didn’t come cheap: “700,000 CFA (US$1,200) for a new birth certificate and a new ID card, to be paid to a Senegalese intermediary.” Unfortunately his adventure in Qatar did not work out and after a few months he returned to Senegal.

Today he studies at university, but his story could have been worse.

For other players who didn’t ‘make’ it, the change of identity can have devastating consequences. “My life has been a nightmare since I quit football,” says A.D., who is 26, according to his papers, but in fact much older. “What’s the point of telling you my real age? That man doesn’t exist anymore, he’s gone,” he continues, staring into the void. Unlike C.B., his original identity simply disappeared the moment his new one began, thereby creating a series of problems he hadn’t expected.

“I lost everything that was linked to my old identity: my school diplomas, my family, my life,” he tells Equal Times.

“I was playing in an academy near Dakar, and a scout came to see me. He told me that a team in Italy, Parma FC, was interested in me. I could not believe it.”

The Senegalese talent scouting system is largely based on the work of football schools and academies who travel to different places, looking for the most promising talents. The players, who get room and board, have their studies paid for and often use this opportunity as a stepping stone towards a career abroad.

In most cases, academies maintain their pupils until they are about 18 or 19 years old. If, by that age, they are not selected by any team, they are usually sent home.

“My old academy put me in contact with this agent after I left,” A.D. recalls. “The agent suggested I change my birth date. A few years less was enough, in my case. The people who could make the changes to my papers told me that the alteration would be irreversible, but at that time I didn’t care. Forging the documents cost me 700,000 CFA (US$1,200). But a few weeks later I learned that I wasn’t going to Italy anymore: the team was no longer looking for a player like me”.

The original A.D. did not exist anymore. “I tried to enrol for university, but my school certificates were no longer valid.”

Getting married was also a problem: he was only able to marry his wife in a religious ceremony, but not in front of the state.

A way forward?

Some in Senegal have put forward various possible solutions to avoid these types of consequences in the future.

“It would be enough to create a ‘sport passport,’” argues Alpha Dabo, president of the National Senegalese Confederation of Football Schools (CONEFS). “It would be a document which would accompany a young player from when he first starts to kick a ball, usually around 5 or 6 years old, and could guarantee he keeps his real identity until he eventually starts his career as a professional.”

According to Dabo, this document could trace the footballer’s identity and age from the very first moments of his career and make document-forging virtually impossible. A player with a completely new identity wouldn’t have any sport history recorded on his ‘passport’, making him a very suspicious and risky investment for teams potentially interested.

However, this solution also presents several difficulties, not least of which is the fact that football schools need to be officially recognised as formal institutions by the Senegalese Football Federation (FSF), which has so far refused to embrace this idea.

Contacted by Equal Times, Bassoura Diaby, the deputy technical coordinator at FSF, said: “The real problem is chronic disorganisation in our country. There are almost 1000 football schools across Senegal. It’s difficult for us to follow them all, and all their players.”

Moreover, Dibay argues, “FIFA grants the serial numbers only to the official clubs, not to football schools”.

Defenders of the system of ‘sport passports’ reject these arguments and defend the right for their schools, which compete in various championships, to be recognised as clubs, regardless of the administrative requirements like serial numbers.

Moreover, the lack of formal recognition for football schools can result in significant economic losses. According to the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, when a player under 23 is sold to a professional team, the buying team has to pay a percentage of his transfer to all the ‘formal entities’ that contributed to his training between the age of 12 and 23.

For transfers worth millions of euros, these few percentage points can turn into large amounts of money, which would be incredibly useful to the often very poor Senegalese football schools.

In most cases though, these schools don’t receive anything in return for the transfers of players they helped ‘create’.

“We made many players, they are all in Europe now,” explains Ady Diouf, a former football player who currently coaches FC Solaire, a football school based in Pikine, on the outskirts of Dakar.

The ‘Thiossane ground’, where the team plays and practices, it’s no more than a plot of dirty sand and litter, delimited by an endless series of half-buried truck tyres, with two rusty goalposts on the verge of collapse.

Many professional players came from the ranks of FC Solaire. “Look, that’s Bamba Ndiaye, he was at Deportivo [in Spain],” says Diouf, proudly showing some pictures on his phone. “And he is Mouhamadou Sakho, he is in Italy, at Empoli FC”.

None of these transfers brought a single franc to the very poor coffers of the school. Apart from the last one: “We are waiting for the first part of CFA 36 million (US$62,000),” gloats Diouf. The transfer he is talking about is that of Pape Cheick Diop, from Celta Vigo [Spain] to Olympique Lyonnais [France] for €10 million (US$11.3 million). It has generated extraordinary hope for the little school.

But this is a completely voluntary contribution by the French team: given they don’t ‘formally’ exist, nothing would oblige the Lyon team to respect its commitment to pay money to the Senegalese school.

“I still don’t know what we will do with that money,” Diouf explains, confident that the money will arrive.

“Of course, here we are spoiled for choice: buying new materials, paying one or two coaches more. And maybe moving to a better terrain. There’s one nearby, made of astroturf, like the ones you have in Europe.”