Stéphane left the Ivory Coast hoping to play in a European club | Photo: DR / Pixabay
Stéphane left the Ivory Coast hoping to play in a European club | Photo: DR / Pixabay

Abandoned in Istanbul by a man who claimed to be a certified FIFA agent, Stèphane, an Ivorian footballer, arrived in France, where he became a sports educator in the Paris region. Undocumented for a decade but with a permanent work contract, Stéphane now wants to regularize his status. But he can’t get an appointment at the police prefecture office that handles immigration appointments. This is his story:

"I lived from football in the Ivory Coast. I earned €50 to €100 a month. I played in the Ivorian League 1, for the Stella Club of Adjamé, a commune of the capital Abidjan. I started playing when I was 10 years-old. The stadium was close to my school, and I used to escape to train with the club's big boys. My teacher would yell at me for returning to school with muddy clothes.

One day, the Stella Club director said to me, 'Come here, you like football.' They bought me an outfit, crampons and took me in. I grew up with this club. I didn't have a stable life, because my parents had left for France with my little sister who was a baby, and I lived with various tontons and tatas [uncles and aunts].

It was at the Stella Club that an agent spotted me. I was 17 years old. He told me that he had FIFA approval and sent me to Turkey on a five-month visa to take a test at the Galatasaray Club [which plays in the elite of the European leagues]. The club took me in on a trial basis, and then the agent disappeared. When the Galatasaray gig ended, I was left with nothing.

Luckily I met a shopkeeper from Burkina Faso who became a sort of big brother to me and took me in. I did odd jobs at the bazaar to get by. I cleaned café tables, I delivered goods, I was able to save a bit of money. I didn't want to go back to Abidjan, I saw it as a step backwards. It seemed logical to me to join my parents who lived in Paris.

In November 2009, I arranged to take a boat to Greece and then bought a plane ticket to France. Nobody checked my identity by some miracle.

'The club paid me under the table for every game I won'

At Paris Charles-de-Gaules airport, I stood in the European passengers line and again nobody asked me for my papers. My mother was waiting for me. She started crying when she saw me.

I didn't know France, and since I had come without papers I was very afraid to leave the house for fear of the police. I think I stayed at least a year without feeling like there was anywhere for me to go. Even going to a supermarket I would be accompanied by a parent or a sister. Then, little by little, I dared to go to the bakery by myself and then to the post office. Finally, I got acclimatized and I started playing football in a park in [the Parisian suburb of] Colombes.

A young man with whom I played a game told me that I played well and he offered to introduce me to his club in Antony [another Parisian suburb]. We took the [regional] RER B train a few days later to go to the training ground. I had the impression that the road was endless, I had never been so far from home.

The very next day, the Antony Club coach told me, 'We're keeping you. Again I was dressed and given some cleated football shoes. The club paid me under the table for every game I won. One day, one of the younger coaches was absent. I offered to replace him. I was already taking care of the youngest players in the county.

They appreciated my work and they financed a training course for me. I obtained a "Federal Certificate of Training in Football Level 1." I trained the children three times a week and accompanied them to the matches. Another training center – a private boarding school for sports studies – asked me for help from time to time and they ended up giving me work as a sports trainer. I was paid under the table, but I was also fed and housed. I did this for two years until this school closed.

No appointments available at the prefecture

My current employer has opened a new football school in place of the one that closed. He hired me on a permanent contract in 2019. The president of this school told me that my irregular status was not a problem, that he would pay the costs involved. Everything is in order, I am even declared to the URSSAF [Unions for the Collection of Social Security and Family Benefit Contributions].

Today, after ten years without papers, my file is ready. My lawyer told me that my regularization should not be a problem. But I can't find an appointment at the Paris prefecture. I spend nights trying to get an appointment to file my application, it's impossible.

I don't know what to do. I'd rather die than have to return to Ivory Coast, far from my children. In France I’ve had two little ones, they’re 4 and 7 years old now. I spend as much time as possible with them. I take them to the movies, to restaurants, which my parents couldn't do with me.

I try to stay positive. I'm going to try to move to a new place. If a new landlord accepts my file, I could rent an apartment in another area that will allow me to welcome my children more often and perhaps then I would be under the jurisdiction of another prefecture, where it might be possible to file my application for regularization."