Where is all of this going?

•October 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

 

Towards the end of my last stay in Antwerp I wondered into this small dimly lit African bar on the Koningsplein.  When I arrived everyone had almost stopped what they were doing to turn and stare.  But I’d been told by Benedict, or Chief, to just tell them I was here for him.  From the atmosphere it didn’t feel like mentioning his name would be enough, but the name was dropped and everyone was content, almost apologetic for questioning.  I was told to take a seat but I passed on the offer of a drink.  By the bar on a shelf, a picture of a white Jesus Christ looked up pleadingly above him a variety of bottles of hard liquor.  To the right of me, and hard not to look at, was a Polish man who stood out more than I did, he was with an African girl whom he kept trying to persuade to leave the bar with him.  She seemed quite keen to be around the strong matriarch who sat towards the front of the bar eating take-away chicken & rice whilst doing accounts.  Eventually Benedict arrived and his can-do spirit seemed to lift the place for me.  We were meeting to discuss the possibility of this project.  Benedict had watched a DVD I’d given him and he’d assured me he was my man to get this thing going.  As the leader of the African Cultural VZW in Antwerp and one of the first Nigerians to have played in Belgium, he seemed to be the perfect connection.  I went back to Sydney happy, but not knowing when/if the project would actually continue.

It’s about 4 months later and I see Aloys Kwaakum riding towards me on his trusty purple push-bike.  He’s one of the few players who rides a bike.  We walk into a chemist, where he needs to buy some sort of medication for this muscle problem he’s been having.  He talks with the mevrouw at the counter in a stilted yet impressive Flemish.  This is a guy who speaks fluent English & French as well as West African Dialects, I’m amazed that, with that repertoire, he’d go as far as learning Flemish.  However apparently it’s compulsory for players from SK Lierse.  We look for a place to go and chat and Aloys chooses the bet centre.  I ask him if a cafe wouldn’t be better, but he insists that the it’ll be fine to go here.  It’s definitely not another ‘artistic dialogue’.  While we initially chat 1-on-1, it’s not that long before Praise Otito joins us, keen to hear how my time in Poland went.  Praise played a couple of seasons in Poland, he was in a small town and he and the other African player in the team would stay in their apartments unless it was to go for training or a match.  One day when they tried to enter a Carrefour supermarket, they were denied by two big bouncers.

I’ve got my Football Diaries DVD out and am showing Praise and Aloys the trailer, hoping that they will somehow understand what I am trying to do, when Junior enters the room.  I’ve played against and with Junior at the park on many occasions, he’s a really good player.  I’ve seen the Scandinavian-looking jerseys he wears and prodded to hear more of his story, but somehow he’s never ever been approachable.  Now he’s sitting in front of me in a bet centre, because Aloys called him up 15 minutes ago.

– Junior, I have to speak to you about something, come to the Bet Centre, that was all he said.  And now he’s here.  I do my usual spiel, it’s the 3rd time now and this time there’s a bunch of random punters gathered round the laptop.  Junior turns out to be really receptive though he quizzes me on exactly what we will be doing, he also shows concern about exerting himself too much before training, but on the whole he is convinced.

I breathe a big sigh of relief and finally convince the guys to let me buy them a drink.  We sit around the table knocking back little cans of soft drink chatting about all the different experiences these guys have had and the countries they’ve been to.  There’s something so buoyant about the mood.  We’re supposed to start tomorrow and I’m unthinkably nervous whenever I begin to imagine it.  But I just know that if we can channel whatever energy it is in this room, then we’re going to do something special.

Everybody is a Star

•June 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The exertions of yesterday don’t really affect the mood of today.  I’m one of the first to arrive along with Pablo.  Pablo often carries that bad-ass look which can scare a new guy.  But when I talk to Pablo he is extremely nice.  Pablo is actually the brother of the guy who rocked up in a hummer some weeks back, Ibrahim Kargbo.  I’ve since discovered that he’s a Sierra Leone international.  I ask Pablo what happened to his brother and it turns out that he’s back in Sierra Leone to play an African Cup of Nations qualifying match against Niger.  Mohammed Kallon is the only Sierra Leone player I know of.  I ask if he’s still playing.  Pablo sort of grimaces.  Another guy rocks up and jumps in at once, slagging off Kallon.  He’s a player I had admired earlier.  But in the African footballer circles his reputation has diminished.  He now owns a club in Sierra Leone called Kallon FC.  Apparently he’s bad news.  Just about the money.  The other guy asks Pablo how come his brother doesn’t start a club and take ‘us players’ back to Africa.  Now Pablo really grimaces, offering a slide of the tongue against his upper row of teeth for a ‘no’.  His brother already runs a foundation dedicated to charity work.

Yesterday’s conversations by the car are implemented.  It’s decided that there will be 3 teams today.  The smell of competition in the air is rife.  Captains will choose their best teams.  Not their friends.  Bobsam drafts me onto a team with Bishop, Prince, Pablo, Aloys, Iidi, Achie and two ‘high-rollers’ who I don’t frequently see.  One of these is Eynock.  I saw him last year when I visited the park at its old location.  There was something which drew me to him.  His swagger probably.  But also his smart sense of positional play.  This is a team I am happy to play with.  We go down 1-0 to a stupid goal, but manage to get ourselves back into the game, 1-1, generally dominating.  We go through on the toss of a coin.  It’s the first time that I’ve seen this degree of ‘dressing-room atmosphere’.  Unfortunately we’re completely over-run in the second match.  Having to come back from 1-0 down takes its toll on us and the other team, with Ski on fire, steam-roll us 2-0.  Ski’s been in crackling form since I’ve been here.  He’s just had a good season getting promoted to the 2nd division with his club.  Of the younger generation, toiling away in the hope of ascension, he’s the stand-out player by far.  It pains me to hear he’s only  been playing 3rd-div.  Ski’s one of a number.  Guys who were at 1st div clubs but were forced to start again from the bottom because of their papers.

The Kargbo brothers 5 years ago when Pablo was a rising star. He realises his career has stalled, but can only hope for some sort of turn-around.

On the sideline there’s a marked difference.  Once knocked out our team sits chatting amicably.  Content.  The stories which you hear on these sidelines never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes you have to escape the odd ‘fan’ who is often more opinionated on football than the players.  Today I have to take my opportunity to avoid one rather large guy who is hammering home the point that Casillas is the best goalkeeper in the world.  This is a fact he says.  Because he was voted goalkeeper of the year.  Fact.  I made the mistake of giving my 2 cents to the argument.  Bringing into consideration the ranking systems etc.  It was a bad idea.  But I find my moment to make my way over to where my team-mates are seated.  While the discussion initially treads over the speed of Messi vs that of Ronaldo it slowly makes its way to African football.  The players wax lyrical about African stars of past and present.  Their perspective is so detached from that of the media when it comes to African football.  They don’t talk of them as stars, rather peers.  They talk about Beveren the small-town Belgian club which once fielded a team with 11 black players.  We briefly broach the topic of exploitation.  Beveren had acted as a first port for Ivorian players on their way to Arsenal and the Premier League.  If they were good enough.  Prince talks about the Nigerian system.  He knows that in the past any Nigerian player could get an international cap.  If he paid the coach 3000 euro.  Then went to meet him at a hotel.  The coach would take out a list of international fixtures, find a date where he had a place in his squad.  Voila.  Even if he player didn’t make it into the starting lineup, he could add this to his CV.  On that alone it was worth it.  If he had 3000 euro to spare.  The others continue talking about Beveren.  Many of them have played against them.  Yaya Toure’s name comes up.  Yaya Toure is currently the highest-paid player in the Premier League, he’s had a very impressive season.  –  Toure, he’s slow!!

–  He’s sloowww!

–  I’ve played against him, he’s average.

–  But, hey, he’s improved a lot physically…

–  Boka, he was a good player.

They all nod in agreement with this last one.  I remember watching Boka play for Ivory Coast.  He was impressive.

Finally I get my chance to speak to Eynock.  As is so often the case, he turns out to be really receptive.  A couple days ago he’d very briefly mentioned to me that  he’d given up on football.  His agent had screwed him over.  Sent him to Spain.  He was sick of it and had to go and find a ‘real’ job.  But I want to know more.

Game Abandoned

•June 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The weather has been warming up as of late, the numbers at the park have been swelling.  But today it’s also a public holiday.  Yesterday, with some players frustration already beginning to show, the guys had been predicting this today.  It’s amazing how some of the senior players can anticipate how many players will be there on any given day, as if calculated by a delicate formula of weather X recent turn-out / proximity to weekend.  The competition for game time has become evident by the general arrival time.  A few weeks back, if I left my house before 10, I was one of the first few players.  Today as I arrive, it really is a sight to behold.  It’s as if every African in Antwerp is here.  By the time the game is about to start, a quick head-count yields 60 players.  Of course it’s not going to be possible for everyone to play.  It takes a long time to choose teams.  Before that can take place a decision needs to be made on how many teams there will be.  There’s a dichotomy between choosing 2 teams – and then making substitutions at the 45-minute mark – and choosing 3 – whereby it’s a sort of sudden-death goal rule.  Chief firmly believes in playing with 2 teams, but Bobsam and a host of other more senior players find it stupid.

Before any match can actually there are a string of fierce possessed arguments.  There’s always a strong sense of rhetoric to these arguments and each point is closely followed by the Nigerian pigeon English, “You unastan? D’you unastaan?”  Lots of players leave the field sour.  It’s all a bit crazy seeing as the players left over are enough to start another match.  By the time the substitutions are actually made, you get this sense of all-round disillusionment.  The first game didn’t live up to expectations.  The politics in choosing teams, based on friendship or loyalty rather than the best players, makes it impossible to have a good game Bobsam argues, “you unnastan?”

It’s not much more than 20 minutes into the second game before it’s already over.  One team’s already up 2-0, not very common with the small, normally well protected goals.  An argument breaks out amongst the losing team.  There is forever general talk of ‘let’s not argue’.  Sadly it’s rarely upheld when the passion of the game takes over.  The argument grows and grows and there is no real conviction from any of the players arguing to continue.  Game over.

The once massive group of Africans disperses much quicker than usual.  Bitter.  I’m left standing at the car of Cisse, an old astonishingly skilled Francophone, with Pablo a player from Sierra Leone and Bobsam.  The way they switch from language (French to English) to language (English to Igbo) is beautiful.  At times, with the way they retain their African accents, it’s as if all the languages meld into one spicy hybrid.  They agree, we have to play with 3 teams, then people will choose the best teams so that they get to keep playing, people will play serious and then we will have a good game tomorrow, you unnastan?

Prince (right), Cisse (middle) and a guy who only spoke French, whose name I never caught. He told me didn't have a club, but the last I heard he training with the Paris St Germain reserve team.

 

The Fake Nigerian

•June 1, 2011 • 1 Comment

Asem isn’t a footballer.  You could probably tell him apart from the rest just by his boots, which are made of cheap synthetic plastic.  Or his shorts, which are from Aldi.  More stand out though is his slight, almost malnourished frame.  One of the players tells me he is a fake Nigerian.  He points to his pecs.

– Man, Nigerians are big.  You see this guy’s chest?  He says, attempting to pull his shirt off.  But it’s true.  My eyes almost explode sometimes when I see some of the ‘small’ guys here shirtless, it’s as if there muscles are trying to come out of their skin.  Asem collapses his chest, folding down to protect himself and laughing  an old man’s cough.

Asem barely gets on the field.  He chats with all of the players on the side.  Mostly the new guys.  Sometimes the players waiting for their turn begin a small piggy-in-the-middle/keep-ball.  He joins in, but it’s not long before you can hear the jokes beginning to erupt.  Mousa sings a TV commercial jig every time he manages to get out of the middle,

Thank you Asem for being so kind,

Thank you Asem you’re so kind to me!

as it is invariably Asem who ends up replacing him.  Asem takes everything on the chin and keeps playing, there is no sense of loss of pride through the barrage of friendly criticism.  He still argues when he is being cheated.  On this particular day he begins talking to me on the sideline.  I’m interested in his position here.  It turns out he didn’t come here for football, however I wouldn’t have been surprised if he did.  At the park in Johannesburg I saw players who were somehow convinced football was their way to make it, yet had no footballing ability.  Asem originally went to Holland to further his education.  The details he gives me are sketchy as is often the case.  ‘It didn’t work out there’.

In the end he came to Belgium he managed to get his papers sorted out through the spouse system.  The idea of Asem – skinny, big-nosed and awkward – managing to get a European wife – a dream for almost any man in Africa – excites me.  When I ask if he’s still with the woman, he gives a perfunctory shake of the head.  –  We were just living together, he says evasively.  Since arriving he’s been working stacking containers.  When we start talking about my project he’s more happy to elaborate.  He reveals to me very proudly that through a guy he’s met at work, he’s succeeded in getting the number of a manager at a club and the manager is keen on seeing some of the players here.  Asem’s really excited at the prospect of it.  If the manager signs a player based on his recommendation and the player turns out to do a good job, then they’ll come back to him next time.

Asem is sharp.  He’s happy to play the joker and be ridiculed, but he’s good at befriending the right players.  Next week the manager will be coming to look at Tall Junior.

The Summer

•May 25, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It’s just hitting the end of May.  Most of the clubs’ seasons are over.  Apart from a few who are in the play-offs.  More and more players are arriving at the park.  You notice that time has become more important.  Players arrive earlier in the fear of missing out on the match.  Chief, who was actually the Liberian national team goalie for several years, stands in the middle of the pitch blowing his whistle in sets of five, pah-pah-pah-pah-pah  He keeps repeating it, more and more frequently until all the players make their way to the middle.  You see some guys arriving late.  They know it’s too late.  They’ll have to content themselves running laps and waiting for an injury or substitution.  Some players leave; unimpressed.  The new guys which arrive come with a bit of an aura.  Often they’re the professional players returning to their stomping grounds with a swagger. They wear nice tracksuits covered in sponsors logos in foreign alphabets.

It’s a sunny Tuesday morning when a lustrous silver hummer pulls up at the park.  Most of the guys take the bus or tram to the park.  A few have bikes and a few have modest cars.  The hummer’s arrival makes an impact.  The guy that steps out is a fairly light-skinned African, he has tattoos and jewellery.  Bishop later explains to me that he is playing in Azerbaijan and he’s just returned to his wife and kids.  Often you can find links between the players career success and their style/fashion.  Maybe there’s also a correlation with integration into society.

I’ve now actually settled in quite well with the group and to my surprise I’m often one of the earlier picks in the pre-game ‘draft’.  Still on a day like this with so many new players it’s always interesting to see.  But today before the match starts we are called into the middle for a chat.  Bobsam begins to talk about last Friday.  I wasn’t able to come on Friday.  It turns out there was a fight.  Between Sumo and another guy who isn’t there today.  Bobsam talks about it as something which has happened before and then explains that from now on any players that fight will incur a 1-week suspension.  The discussion goes around a bit, another senior player explains his stance with a nice piece of rhetoric before the guy playing in Azerbaijan takes the floor.  The respect is quite evident as he speaks.  He proposes a 20 euro fine as well.  The players discuss and finally laugh with content agreeing with the promise of this solution.  Just like any society this one has rules.  It’s amazing for me to see how willing and progressive they are.

Bishop playing the ball quickly and simply as always

Introduction to Hierarchy

•May 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment
My first re-encounter with the group was on a Friday.  So I had to wait the whole weekend plus Monday anxiously.  I wasn’t sure if they’d suddenly be gone.  That had happened to me last time.  I came back to find one player just running laps in a slight drizzle.  On Tuesday morning it’s also slightly drizzling.  The first player I meet there assures me they’ll be training, I feel petulant for even asking.  He’s only been in Belgium for a few months.  Before that he was in Poland.  The woman there are beautiful, the men are just closed.  In between he made a short trip to Austria but couldn’t find any clubs.  He doesn’t elaborate too much.  When I ask him if he’s alright in terms of visas and papers he shrugs with a wry smile, ‘yeah, I’m alright’ it’s almost cheeky.  But he doesn’t have a club here.

The chosen field is always discreet and unassuming, anything more up market and the police will come

The game starts by teams being chosen in school-yard fashion.  Two senior players stand at opposite ends and pick players from the middle.  Their names are fantastic and evocative, Bishop, Star, Eynock, Old Man Bobson, if a player isn’t listening when his name is called people are quick to raise a fuss and they’ll definitely be a scolding.  There’s a definite pecking order.  I wait embarrassed in the middle, knowing all too well that I’ll inevitably be chosen last.  When I am, I’m called Surinam and the team-mates raise the cliched questions about black people in Australia and where-do-you-really-come-froms.

After a few sessions I start to understand the hierarchy.  You have your seniors.  These are the players who have played professionally in the first-division in Belgium, most are still playing at different levels, even 2nd div.  You’ve got your high-rollers.  These guys control the games in tandem with some of the seniors, they seem to be at the peak of their powers playing with 2nd div clubs, they’re dynamic and tenacious.  You’ve got your main-stays, not far from the high-rollers, except they aren’t as exuberant.  A bit more defensive or simple in their game play.  Less brash…     Unknowns.  These guys are a bit like the guy from Poland, they’re relatively new, in the country for maybe a few months, varying levels of ability, often still club-less, still trying to prove themselves and prone to receive outbursts for acts of carelessness.  Finally, the ring-ins.  They’ve obviously played a bit of football, but they’re not footballers, they’re from the community.

On Thursday there’s major drama after the match.  Amidst most of the players laughing  and joking about, two guys are in a heated discussion.  One keeps walking back and forth from the car to the field and eventually Sam gets involved.  Sam is one of the two most senior players.  He’s played first division for many years and it shows when he graces the pitch.  The discussion takes place in a mixture of a Nigerian dialect and English.  I hear money and I hear police.  The laps back and forth between field and car become more intense before they finally halt at the back of the car, boot open.  A sort of football-business office.

I start talking to a young ring-in who’s studying at the university.  Apparently it’s not uncommon here for some of the migrant community to pay friends/acquaintances to take a driving test for them, if they can’t read very well or speak very well, then a driving test isn’t really possible.  Sam sorts it out and as the group disperses, I end up with him and the guy who he was ‘representing’ in the argument.  Sam shows me his playing CV.  It’s impressive.  Belgium, Engand, Portugal.  He then takes out a contract, which he’s signed.  It’s to go to Vietnam and play.  1 year, 200,000 euros.  But he’s not impressed with some of the stuff they’re asking.  Contractual stuff.  He’s just told them he’s not going to go.  But his friend is interested.  He can play left, right, yeah anywhere he says dismissively.  Sam says he’s going to Skype with the agent that night, he’ll see what he can do.

The Park

•May 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In the 90s first waves of African footballers started to make their way into Europe.  Players from Nigeria paved the initial way.  Along with a few savvy Dutch and Belgian coaches who saw the potential.  Their success in the late 80s had led the masses to start believing they could do it too.  It looked easy.  Thousands of players simply made the travel on a whim.  No agent (not that that would unconditionally be a good thing).  Visiting Visa.  It wasn’t easy.  A lot of them were left frustrated.  Clubs said no, visas expired.  Clubs said yes, but then wouldn’t pay them. Contracts were signed in foreign languages.  Three guys were shacked up in dingy 1-bedroom apartments.  After a while they began to realise that there was a whole community of them.  And if they couldn’t train every day with a Jupliler League club as they had dreamed, they could still train every day as they’d hoped to.  They met at an unassuming park in the suburbs each morning, Monday to Friday.  Eventually they even formed a team in the provincial leagues.  They battered teams, 8-0, 15-0…  Then people started to pay attention to them, they also began to ask questions… Visiting Visas had expired.  Their precarious situation led to matches being forfeited, which led to fines compounding which eventually led to them being kicked out of the provincial league.  Still they trained.

It wasn’t long before savvy coaches got wind of ‘the park’.  The same coaches which had been spending small thousands on importing gems, realised that they could get the same diamonds right there in their own backyard.  For free.  Clubs had rules imposed on them regarding numbers of foreigners.  As the the start of the season neared, on certain mornings coaches from big clubs could be seen at the park scouring the full-field matches for their next potential signing.

This was in the 90s.  Since then laws have become stricter in regards to under what circumstances a player can be signed by a club.  Last year, in 2010, I happened to stumble upon ‘the park’ in Antwerp, Belgium.  I also was introduced to one in South Africa.  There was an amazing energy at both these places.  Years back I made similar journeys to these players, albeit from Australia, over to Holland, to Sweden and Germany, through Austria and Spain, in the hope of playing professional football.  Somewhere along the line I lost the desire.  Recently I have become fascinated by the plight of footballers in the lower leagues.  Players who genuinely don’t know where they will be the next season.  Players who move from Guinea to Egypt to Cypress, to Albania, to Germany, to Turkey, to Norway, to Guinea.

Nana warming up at the park

I met Nana at the park last year, but he seems to have moved on. He doesn't answer his phone or e-mail.

This is Michael Essien I want to play as you… It could just as easily be Samuel Eto’o or Didier Drogba I want to play as you… Or any one of the other pin-up boys of African football.  For me, Michael Essien I want to play as you…  is a look into the mindset of football mercenaries.  An attempt to grapple with such a transient existence.  And also an attempt to shed light on some of realities of football.  I’ve just arrived back in Antwerp, Belgium.  Over the next month I plan on training at the park every day.  I haven’t played proper full-field football in ages.  But I’ll be happy to go along, even if it’s just to watch and chat.