At a rundown football stadium in Istanbul, Nigerian team members huddled together to say a prayer as they prepared to take on Cameroon.
A star-and-crescent Turkish flag fluttered above them in the late afternoon breeze, a couple of hundred African fans were in the stands and, outside, a group of curious Turks looked on as the city’s own version of the Africa Cup of Nations got under way.
Now in its 10th year, the two-month-long competition aimed to bring together Istanbul’s black community: a mixture of refugees and migrants, among them many aspiring footballers lured to Turkey in the false belief that this is an easy place to make it.
“My dream is to become a famous player,” said Sony Olabisi, an 18-year-old Nigerian, his eyes glued to the game.
Olabisi arrived in Turkey about 10 months ago with a group of 15 teenagers from different African countries. They all fell victim to a scam after paying as much or more than $3,500 each to a false agent. Believing that trials and professional football awaited them, they instead found themselves abandoned in the city with no money or documentation allowing them to play.
Most Turkish leagues have strict caps on the number of foreign players, and until recently some leagues barred foreigners altogether. Now, Sony and others like him make a meager living by working as traders, or as illegal workers on construction sites.
“Since we came to Istanbul, there’s no opportunity to play football,” he said. “There’s not been the chance.”
The six-team competition included players from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Congo, South Africa and Ethiopia. Most of the players, however, come from Nigeria and Cameroon.
Sponsored by sympathetic African and Turkish entrepreneurs, the competition now draws Turkish scouts, and serves as a stage for the players to showcase their talent in the hope that a club might sign them.
In recent years Turkey has become a growing destination for African illegal migrants and refugees – even though the country routinely denies full asylum to all non-Europeans. “In order for people to live here they have to get a residential permit,” said Veysel Essiz, a legal advisor at the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly, a non-governmental organization working with refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey. “With that permit they are able to rent a house and apply for a job, but they cost 600 lira ($400) a year. This is a big obstacle since they’re coming with nothing to Turkey.”
For some, the country becomes a trap: unable to work legally, they cannot make enough money even to pay the fees of human traffickers to get them out. “For us, there is no future in this country,” said Velit, a 19-year-old Sudanese refugee, who arrived in Istanbul three years ago. He had boarded a boat in Libya in the belief he was heading to Italy, but instead was taken to the Turkish city of Izmir.
Now he works occasional shifts on building sites, getting paid $18 for a 15-hour day.
“You work, they give you 30 lira, you feed yourself and you sleep,” he said. “There is no life. If I earned the ability to leave I wouldn’t stay here for a single day.”
Human rights groups have also accused the Turkish police of targeting Africans. In 2007, Festus Okey, a Nigerian refugee and aspiring footballer who himself played in the tournament, was shot dead while being detained in an Istanbul police station. The trial of the officer charged with his killing is still pending.
Velit and other Sudanese refugees told EurasiaNet.org that they often endure insults by Turks and sometimes are targeted for beatings because of the color of their skin. “We’re black, and Turkish people, when they see us they laugh at us,” he said. “They don’t consider us human beings.”
For some, such as Kanto, 38, one of the organizers of the football tournament, Istanbul has become home. Formerly a schoolteacher, he fled Darfur six years ago and chose to come to the city because he remembered seeing it on television when he was a child.
“I love Istanbul very much,” he said. “The city itself is beautiful, and I like to be surrounded by the sea from all directions. The people are nice and I have my friends. Really I have a life here.”
In the tournament’s championship game, Nigeria and Cameroon again faced each other after playing a 1-1 draw in their first meeting.
Up 2-0 with 10 minutes to go, Nigeria seemed assured of victory. But there was a moment of consolation in defeat for Pierre Mounet, the Cameroon striker who, in the 82nd minute, scored on a penalty kick to make it 2-1. The game ended that way, a one-goal victory for the Nigerian squad.
Mounet, 21, was one of four Cameroon players to be scouted and offered a contract during the tournament, and a week later he left Istanbul to join a team in Turkey’s newly formed semi-professional fifth league.
“It’s not a surprise for me. I’ve always believed I can play professionally, and eventually I want to play for a bigger club,” he said. “It’s very difficult to be a footballer when no-one wants to give you a chance. But I’ve worked and worked and worked, and I believe in myself.”