The Soccer Star

  • Hello son, how are you doing?
  • I’m fine, mom.
  • What about Bobi?
  • He is at peace.
  • Are you guys there yet, it is in Europe right?
  • Yes, In Spain to be precise.
  • Ah okay, I always forget the name of that place.

Poor mom. She thinks I’m in Europe playing soccer. She doesn’t know my so-called manager was a con-man. I’m stuck here and I can’t go home because I have responsibilities as the firstborn of my family. I don’t want to deceive her. I am a man.

My name is Patou, by the way. 

I love soccer – you have no idea. My love of soccer began when I was only five years old. Children in other countries have well-furnished parks and recreation centers for relaxation and amusement. Where I come from – we have soccer. You don’t need to have sports shoes or a jersey to play. All you need are legs and something round and bouncy. I enjoyed playing ball, no matter what the weather. During the summer we would play barefoot in the dust and watch as it floated up when we kicked the ball, then the dust would settle back down slowly on our faces and made us look funny as we walked home. We would be laughing at each other, basking in the ambience of brotherhood and love.

Soccer is symbolic in my country. You don’t need to have a TV to know when my country is playing a game. Just go out in the street and it seems like you are walking through the “valley of death” when we score a goal and the shouting erupts in an earthquake of joy. Soccer is the only subject a police officer and a criminal can discuss without any animosity.

I loved soccer more than my studies, but my parents wouldn’t let me skip classes until I had my High School Diploma.  For them soccer was a hobby and not a career. Money was tight, we didn’t have any connection to secure a seat in engineering school, so my dad suggested I should become a teacher. I wasn’t okay with his idea, and I kept on playing soccer until I caught the eye of a white man from Europe. He claimed to be a football manager, telling me how great my skills were and convincing me to go with him to Europe.

“If you come with me you will have quite a future – several clubs in Spain would love to have you play for them,” he told me. 

I was skeptical of his offer, so I introduced him to my best friend Bobi, who was also good at soccer. Bobi and I figured we’d convince our parents about the opportunity. While I discussed it with my mother Bobi was doing the same with his family. Dad was still adamant about a proper career, so I brought the manager to talk to him. After a lot of back and forth between the manager and our parents we finally decided to assemble the necessary paperwork for us to travel to Spain. The manager suggested we should first go to Lagos in Nigeria, meet up with the other boys, then leave for Spain.

We were supposed to be in Nigeria for a month, but after two months we called the so-called manager to inquire about our situation. He asked us to be patient. In the meantime we made friends with a modest little soccer club in Nigeria, where we were invited to train. A month later we still hadn’t heard from the manager. His phone was disconnected. When we went to look for him in his temporary lodgings, the lady at the front desk checked her computer and found he had checked out two days ago.

When I heard “two days ago” it felt like the walls were closing around me. I thought I was dreaming. I didn’t know what to say, what to ask, or where to even begin. And then, after checking our identities the woman added “Oh, he left a package for you.” With those words there was still a glimmer of hope. Maybe it was our money, I reasoned. Things hadn’t worked out as he expected and he felt ashamed to tell us the truth in person. That was it, I thought. I was too anxious to open the envelope so Bobi carefully opened it. All the envelope contained was our passports. No money, no checks, no letter. What were we supposed to do now?

Suddenly I felt dizzy. I wanted to cry but there were no tears for the terror I felt. I couldn’t shout either because we were in the hotel lobby. I simply looked around for a place to sit. I pictured my mom selling tomatoes under the hot midday sun in Cameroon. In my mind’s eye she held a broken umbrella, meticulously patched to cover up the holes, a little one on her back. In this daydream she is happy and confident that her struggles will soon end with her son’s success. At in the same moment I imagined my dad at the farm. Since he is always so quiet and never as excitable as anyone expects him to be, I knew deep down he was trying to convince himself he had made the right choice for the family by letting me go.

How could I tell them the manager they trusted had vanished from the scene with 5 million FCFA (about $8000) they raised for my soccer career? Most of the money my parents scraped together was borrowed from our village. Telling everyone what had happened was going to send someone to the hospital. And there was one thing I especially couldn’t forgive myself. Seeing my mother’s tears would have made me feel like a complete loser. 

So here we are. Our parents back home think we are on our way to Spain and we can’t tell them the truth. Soon enough they will start believing we’ve finally become professional soccer players and they will start expecting help from us. They don’t know we are barely surviving ourselves. We live in a swamp flooded by water. We can’t even invite someone to our house because it’s such a dump. 

When we were all told our manager had fled, Bobi wanted to go home. I convinced him we shouldn’t. What would we possibly tell our families? They would think it was just a scam to steal their money. My dad had never liked the idea in the first place. We were going to have our parents’ names tarnished throughout the village and they’d be imprisoned or lose their property because of the loan they took out for us. We were going to be the cause of our parents’ downfall.

Bobi and I remained in Nigeria playing with the little club, which at least provided for some of our needs. I knew it must have been for some reason. The coach said we were good and he promised to help us if an opportunity presented itself. Hope was all we had until, one day after training, I heard some of the boys saying they were planning to go to Spain. They were thinking of leaving from the Sahara desert for Morocco, traveling across the Straits of Gibraltar and crossing into Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa, which shares a western border with Morocco. What one boy said sounded pretty well thought-out and organized, so I asked him if anyone else could join his crew. He told me the person had to be psychologically and financially prepared. He also told me not everyone makes it there alive. That it was a matter of life and death.

Our conversation got me thinking. I have heard horrible stories about those who make that journey. Most die in the desert, others who succeed in getting to Morocco are tortured or killed by Moroccans. If you’re lucky and don’t die in the sea or are not murdered while trying to get into Ceuta, you have a high probability of making a living in Spain or in neighboring countries. I spent a lot of time thinking about going – or not going, praying for a sign from God. Two days later my mom called me.

  • Hello, mom.
  • Yes, son, it is your dad. He didn’t go to the farm, he is not feeling well. I wanted him to talk with you.
  • Okay, give him the phone (she turns over the phone).
  • Hi, daddy.
  • Hi son, how are you doing?
  • I am fine, dad.
  • What about your friend?
  • His is doing okay, he just went out to get some groceries.
  • How is the manager?
  • Well enough.
  • Good to know, I always tell your mom to leave you alone so you can focus. But you know how she is. She doesn’t listen. As I always said, please just be respectful, obedient and humble to your manager. You will get everything you need and sometimes even what you want. But if you behave like you know everything, you are never going get anywhere. That is all I have to say. I will give the phone back to your mom. (He gives her the phone back).
  •  Heyy…. my baby, I will let you go now, eeh? Do what your father said and everything will be alright. Your little brother says he can’t wait to see you on TV like Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o. Me too… I can’t wait.
  • Yes mom. I hope so too…. Mommy, I want to let you know that no matter what happens to me, know that I love you guys and will always be grateful for the sacrifices you made for me.
  • Hein, you talk like the people over there already. You just got there, oh. My son is already romantic. Okay, I have heard you. I don’t even know how they answer this one, but let me tell you something; you don’t need tell me how much you love me. I already know it. I will let you go now. My airtime is almost finished. God bless you. Bye.

When I heard that “bye” it felt like the last I would ever hear from my mom.

I have gotten this far and endured this much, and now is not the time to turn back. I will let my passion for soccer lead me into this darkness. It is true some have failed, but it doesn’t mean I will follow them. Our lives all lead to different destinations and I am eager to see where mine will lead me too.

Late that evening, I called Bobi to meet by the beach at dusk. I saw him sluggishly kicking the sand as he came from a distance. His pants were folded up to his knees and he was swinging his pair of sleepers back and forth from his right hand. I smiled as looked at him and remembered when we used to play in the dust back home. When he came closer to me, I told him to look North over the ocean and asked him what he thought was on the other side. As I walked into the ocean, I told him, since the manager couldn’t get us where we headed, I had found a ways to get there on our own. I told him about the other boys plan and asked him if he wanted to join the crew. He was afraid but I persuaded him, telling him maybe our coming to Nigeria to Lagos by the seashore was a sign, we were not meant to get there by plane but by sea. The answer had been right in front of us all this time. 

Three weeks later, we were ready to join the other boys. There were eight of us. First we went to Kano, a city in western Nigeria situated in the south of Sahara. There we met a man who advised us to hit the road at night, which was a grave mistake. We were ambushed by a gang with guns and knives who took all the money we had. We kept on driving until the car broke down. The driver told us he couldn’t go any further but if we kept on going we would get there. “It’s not that far away, now,” he said. Bobi looked at and me and said we could make it, so we began a trek that turned out to be much longer than we’d planned. Then we ran out of water. We passed by lifeless bodies as we trekked, stealing scraps of their clothing to wrap our heads since it was so hot. One boy passed out and Bobi began hallucinating. He would shout and cry and mumble to himself so softly I could hardly hear him. I was trying to save my energy since it was so hot and we were all dehydrated. Soon we couldn’t differentiate between North and South, and all we could see for miles was sand. There was nothing else to do but to keep moving forward.

After another hour Bobi fell to his knees and said he couldn’t go further. I tried to get him to move. It was hard to even swallow, our lips were so dry and cracked. We decided to rest and continue that night. I fought the urge to close my eyes because I could feel death coming. Then everything turned black. When I finally opened my eyes, there in a blur were Fulani and Bobi talking to me. I could barely hear what Fulani was saying, only his lips seemed to be moving. Then Fulani gave me water. When I had recovered, he said we were not too far from our destination, but that he was going back. He gave us a portion of water and said all we had to do was to follow the sun during the day and the moon at night. 

We spent another three days in the desert until we arrived at an immigrant camp in Nador forest, a coastal city in northwest Morocco. There immigrants were preparing to cross over the strait. Since we didn’t have money, we had to beg in the city’s market. Sometimes an immigrant would be caught by plainclothes police, then taken somewhere remote and severely beaten. We had just come from the market one night and noticed we were being stalked. One boy shouted to alert us, and everyone started running the bush. They caught up with us, dragging several of us into a pit — I don’t know how deep — and all I could hear were screams as each of us was sent down one by one. When it was Bobi’s turn, I began crying. My turn was next, I thought about my family and prayed I’d land on my feet. A second later, I was floating in the air.

With a crash I landed on  someone and felt life leaving my body. A voice in my head kept on saying, Patou, don’t sleep, wake up, wake up…. 

I was alive but in pain, a dead boy next to me. It was Bobi, his head cracked open, his body broken on a rock. I felt an ache deep down in my heart and began breathing heavily. What had I gotten him into? Warm tears were running down my ears as I laid faced up to the sky. I wanted to move but couldn’t. I cried for help – it must have been an hour. And then a black shadow appeared at the top of the pit, and again I cried for help. It was the head of the police, dressed completely in black. Shortly after the police captain called them, a team from Doctors without Frontiers took me and another boy from the Ivory Coast to the Hassani Hospital in Nador. There I told them my story and they made sure I was well taken care of.

So here I am – so close to the Straits of Gibraltar, my best friend lost forever. What will I tell his family? They will never see him again or even be able to claim his lifeless body. I am busy following my passion by destroying the lives of others.

Is practice going well? I hope your manager likes you guys. Do well, okay? You know how things are over here.

Yes, mom, I know. How is everyone? And dad?

–      Everyone is fine, but you can’t talk to your dad right now. Not for …  Just do your best and please come visit us when you can. We’re counting on you.

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