They thought they were signing up for a dream but it turned out to be a trafficking nightmare.
Like thousands of football-mad teenagers in Mali, Aboubacar Sidibé dreamed of one day playing for Chelsea. So when a football manager approached him with the promise of a contract with a club in India – a launchpad, he was told, to the European clubs – he jumped at the chance.
It didn’t matter that he was just 17. Or that he would have to pay the manager more than £2 700 (about R45 000). It seemed a price worth paying to kickstart his football career.
Weeks later, Sidibé was indeed playing football abroad, but he was no closer to Stamford Bridge. Instead, he found himself kicking a torn football around a dusty pitch in a country he had never heard of before: Nepal.
“When I arrived it was not at all what the manager had told me … Every time I get in touch with him he says it’ll be OK. But it will not be OK. I hate him. He cheated me,” says Sidibé.
Ranked 162 out of 207 nations by FIFA, Nepal is an unlikely destination for aspiring footballers. But it does have an entry policy that allows visitors from almost any country to get a visa on arrival.
And so they come: a small but steady stream of young men from West Africa, hoping Nepal will be the first step on the road to football stardom.
They follow an exodus of tens of thousands of African players, often teenagers like Sidibé, chasing their footballing dreams to the most remote corners of the world.
In 2017, more than 100 people from Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Benin and Togo entered Nepal.
Some paid their own way, but most – up to 80%, according to the players – shelled out thousands of dollars to a shady network of “agents” in both Africa and Nepal.
They were promised the chance to play in Nepal’s football league, an offer that comes with a club, contract, and work permit. On arrival, however, they learned they had been sold a lie.
Football in Nepal has been almost completely on hold for the past three years; first interrupted by the 2015 earthquake, when the national stadium was damaged, and then repeatedly postponed by mismanagement and a dispute between different factions of the All Nepal Football Association (Anfa).
“We are totally aware that [Africans are coming here]. If Nepali clubs invite foreigners they must follow the rules; issue an international transfer certificate and arrange a valid visa,” says Indra Man Tuladhar, Anfa general secretary.
But most of the Africans in Nepal have no invitation and no club.
As the months slipped by, Sidibé gave up going to football practice. Instead, he whiled away his days watching Premier League matches on his phone in a cold basement flat on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu.
On a clear day he could see the towering, snow-clad Himalayas from his window. “I had never heard of Nepal before I came here. It’s a country for tourists. It’s not a place to come and earn a living,” says Sidibé, sitting on a foam mat that doubles as his bed.
Without a contract and regular league games, many of the young Africans are struggling to make ends meet. Anything they do earn goes on food, rent and extending their visas. “I was earning more in Mali than I earn now … I’m trying to get out and play in another country,” says Sidibé.
But that too is difficult. Like almost all the west African footballers in Nepal, Sidibé only bought a one-way plane ticket. Without the money to survive in the country, or to buy a flight home, he is trapped. “I have to pay back my debt. I’m so demoralised … We don’t have enough to eat. At night, we lie down but we don’t sleep.”
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Sidibé shares the flat with five other West African footballers. There is no furniture, so they sit on the concrete floor or perch on upturned buckets in the kitchen. Kande Sidibé, another young Malian who paid thousands of dollars to the same manager, seems to express everyone’s mood. “I really regret coming here … I’ve only played four or five matches in five months … We are suffering here. It’s very difficult.”
The group only comes to life when they talk about football. An excited argument breaks out over who will win the World Cup. Most are putting their bets on Germany or Brazil. No one thinks England stands a chance.
“Our dream is to play with big teams in Europe,” says Die Lekpahisaira from Ivory Coast. “European managers come to Asia to scout for talent, so we come here to get exposure … if they see we have talent, they will tell others.”
While they wait to be spotted, the only way they can earn anything is to travel the country playing in small knockout tournaments for as little as £18 (about R300) a match. It’s a grueling routine.
“You finish a match at 6pm, get on a night bus to the other side of the country, and are expected to play again at 3pm … And if you lose in the first round you are out, so we pray we win the first match,” says Leo Mballa, a footballer from Cameroon, who lives in a small room on the other side of Kathmandu.
Mballa sits on blankets on an otherwise bare concrete floor. Football boots are strewn across the room. A single rice cooker and a cardboard box with a few vegetables in it serves as the kitchen. A blanket and towel make do for curtains.
The only thing worse than playing in the tournaments is not playing. To get a game, the Africans typically need an introduction from a Nepali, for which they have to pay – either upfront or by handing over a cut of their earnings.
Mballa says Nepali “agents” demand up to £185 (about R3 100) to find them a place in a team. “If you don’t pay, you don’t play.”
The players are victims of an informal network of recruiters and brokers, which stretches from “managers” in West Africa, to Africans who have lived in Nepal or India for years.
“People here find any way they can to make money [from footballers]. They bring people here who don’t even know how to play football … They don’t think about the players who come, they only think about their own pockets,” says Mballa.
Philip Atanda’s case is typical. The Ivorian says he paid a “huge amount” to a manager in his home country, who had lived in Nepal for a few years.
“He told me there would be a league and I would have the opportunity to join a team … He said I could gets lots of money … But nothing like that has happened,” says Atanda.
“It’s like a mafia, but it’s not organised,” says Djibril Kabore from Burkina Faso. “Everyone wants to leave Africa, so it’s so easy to exploit their dreams. It really hurts to see lots of Africans suffering. The African [agents who live in Nepal] know what it’s like here, so how can they put their brothers in this situation?”
Everyone wants to leave, but no one wants to return home. “My family don’t know about my situation,” says Aboubacar Sidibé. “We took a big loan and I can’t return with nothing. I’d rather die than go home with nothing.”
A month later, Sidibé buckled. He called his family for help, and left Nepal. But instead of returning to Mali, his flatmates say he decided to try his luck in Morocco. His dream of playing for Chelsea is as distant as ever.