Many children in Africa dream of making a career as a football player in Europe. Having realized that dream, Kenyan international Johanna Omolo set up a foundation to help kids back home with life on and off the pitch.
To this day, the words "nothing good comes out of Dandora" ring in Johanna Omolo's ears. The outlying district of Nairobi is where the Kenyan international grew up. It is also home to Kenya's largest dump.
"I lived pretty close to the dump, walking distance, three minutes. So, it was really, really close. And the stench, it's unbearable," Omolo told DW. "We played football just next to it. We used plastic bags from the garbage to make a football."
Some of his friends would also scour the dump to find recyclable items to resell. Some joined gangs to feed their families, though dozens died in gang wars.
"A lot of families live with less than a dollar a day," Omolo said. "So the only thing was football or crime. I got lucky because I stuck to football."
‘Four or five out of 6,000' will make it
At 17, Omolo left home to play professional football in Europe in order to support his family. Over his 14 years as a professional, he has played in Belgium, Luxembourg, and now Turkey. The 31-year-old knows just how lucky he has been.
"You have like 6,000 kids coming from Africa. But out of those 6,000, I can tell you maybe four, five will make it," he said.
The vast majority of those who can’t make a career out of football still try to stay in Europe and muddle through. For some, the shame of returning home is too great.
Dr. Ernest Yeboah Acheampong, from Ghana, once dreamt of a career in professional football. Instead, he spent his years in Europe as a student, researcher and assistant coach. Now Dr. Acheampong is a lecturer in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (HPERS) at the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana. Last year, he published a study entitled "African Footballers in Europe: Migration, Community, and Give Back Behaviors." As part of his research, he spoke with several African footballers, including former stars Samuel Eto'o and Abedi Pele, about their experiences moving to Europe.
Obligations and challenges
"Most African players have a modest education," Acheampong told DW. "That means they don't even have a formal education. Most of them are school dropouts."
One example is Nii Odartey Lamptey, who won the Under-17 World Championship with Ghana in 1991. He could neither read nor write when he came to Europe, which made it difficult for him to understand what was in his contracts. He said he was duped by his agents for years.
According to Acheampong, in the 1980s, African parents were skeptical about the idea of their sons trying to make a career out of professional football. But that changed in the early 90s.
"After the African teams' success at the FIFA World U-17 championship (Ghana 1991, 1995, and Nigeria 1993) foreign agents flooded the continent to recruit footballers to the European football market," he said.
But a move to Europe comes with the obligation to give back to everyone who helped you along the way.
"It's not a voluntary action, because they are obliged to do that," Acheampong said. "Because within them they feel that they had been supported in various ways."
Those who don't comply, he added, are branded as "ungrateful or ridiculed by society."
'You can only learn to think in school'
Omolo also felt this sense of responsibility, which is why in 2017 he established a foundation designed to give young people in Dandora a better outlook for the future.
The Johanna Omolo Foundation supports poor families with school uniforms and regularly distributes sanitary pads to 500 schoolgirls so that they don't feel the need to stay at home during their period. The foundation also operates a football academy to further develop the skills of talented boys and girls who are hoping to turn pro. If they don't make it in football, they will wind up with a decent formal education, which will improve their chances of being successful in another field.
"When I was growing up, they used to tell me that guys who play football don't know anything in school. But when I came [to Europe], I realized that that's not true," Omolo said. "We give them an opportunity. If sport doesn't work out, education can help. I want these kids to succeed."
Omolo also cares about children outside of his hometown. Along with 11 other African players, he joined the Common Goal initiative in 2019, which includes some 150 professional players from around the globe. They donate 1% of their salaries to social football projects.
"African players have raw talent, but they are not organized or tactically disciplined," said Acheampong, who added that much of the problem had to do with a lack of qualified coaching.
"Most of the coaches, especially former players, think that they can be a coach. But coaching doesn't work like that."
Omolo said he believes that in the long run, it would be better if more budding African players stayed in their home countries.
"We're trying to put into place a structure back home because if we do that, a lot of them will be able to earn a living," he added. "It's easier there than here. But the difficulty is that when they see you here, they think: 'Yeah, but you're there and you made it."
A tough half season
But now Omolo is finding out first-hand that the life of an African player in Europe isn't always easy. Since the start of the year, he's been playing for Turkish Super Lig club Erzerumspor, meaning he now lives some 4,000 kilometers away from his family in Bruges, Belgium. Only if Erzerumspor manage to avoid relegation will his wife and two children join him in Turkey in the summer.
Author: Matthias Frickel
Translated by: Chuck Penfold
First published: February 25, 2021
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