Footballers = easy life, yes? Oh, hang on.......
The city is Prague in the Czech Republic. The setting is the famous Wenceslas Square, one of the most beautiful in Europe. A young African man is stopping passers-by, handing them leaflets in the hope they can be persuaded to sample the fare on offer at some of the city’s restaurants. It’s not an untypical scenario. Until you find out that the desperate youngster with the leaflets in his hand is Bassirou Dembele – a Malian U20 international and Slavia Prague’s erstwhile left-back.
This is the baffling story that Czech football followers were reading about back in April. Dembele had disappeared from Slavia’s first team squad and had, seemingly, fallen on hard times. It was quite a fall from grace for the once highly rated Paris St Germain defender, still just 21-years-old.
Six months on and speaking to the Czech newspaper Blesk, Dembele is angry. He explains: “At first it was all friendly. The [Slavia] coach Karel Jarolim wanted me and offered me a contract for three years. Slavia played in Europe and I considered it a good opportunity to improve my reputation.
“I was a stranger in the team itself. Jarolim spoke excellent French and patiently explained everything to me. It all changed when he left and Michal Petrous came in. I did not understand him at all and he was unable to communicate with me. I complained to a newspaper and penalties followed – transfer to the B team, then removal from the squad.
“For three months I was not paid. It was a terrible time as I didn’t even get enough to eat. I lost my club apartment and all this threatened my family in Mali who were expecting me to support them. I was unemployed. It was horrible and it’s impossible to forget. My agent robbed me of money too. I believed him, pretending to care about me, yet I was cheated.”
Sadly, Dembele’s experience is far from an isolated case. His story is typical of many African players brought to Europe who subsequently fail to make the grade.
As long ago as 2000, the BBC’s Jon Sopel reported from Paris St Germain - Dembele’s first European stop-off. Sopel wrote: “At the Paris St Germain training ground outside Paris, there are many young African players going through their paces. They all have agents and are well looked after by the club and put up in a smart hostel. There is a disciplined regime of football in the mornings and schooling in the afternoon.”
It’s a pleasant enough scene – until you find yourself surplus to requirements. Then the picture can change alarmingly quickly. There is no return ticket home and many young players find themselves outside the law, living as illegal immigrants. It’s a tale that has been repeated through much of Europe for years.
Mark Burke, a former English footballer who spent five months with Rapid Bucharest in 2001, has seen for himself the darker side of life for Africa’s trialists. Burke explains: “Agents bring over African lads for trials but then take their passports off them and if they don’t get a club they just leave them. There was this player near my apartment who I used to give $50 to because he had been abandoned with no money. It was just ridiculous.”
So what is the solution? They say the first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge that one exists and, here at least, FIFA appears to be making progress. Speaking in 2006, Sepp Blatter said: “I find it unhealthy, if not despicable, for rich clubs to send scouts shopping in Africa, South America and Asia to ‘buy’ the most promising players there. Europe's leading clubs conduct themselves increasingly as neo-colonialists who don't give a damn about heritage and culture, but engage in social and economic rape.”
They were strong words. But that was five years ago. And these FIFA platitudes were of no use to Bassirou Dembele – left abandoned and broke in Wenceslas Square. What next for the Malian? Dembele says: “I have no club. My new agent is trying to find me one. What will happen with Slavia? I do not know yet – it all depends on my new agent.”
And so the young player is set to put his faith in another agent promising dreams of lucrative European pay-days and the chance to provide for a family back in Africa. For his sake, one must hope this agent is more scrupulous than the last. But as long-term solutions go, it’s surely an unsatisfying answer to a problem that Europe has left unsolved for too long.