Lagos, Nigeria – In Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, Moshood Afolabi, a 24-year-old aspiring Nigerian footballer, is stranded.
As an undocumented migrant, he has lost the occasional construction work that helped offset his rent of a shared apartment and internet bill.
He arrived in Mongolia on May 10 last year in search of a football career, with the help of an “agent”, at second-tier outfit Khovd Western FC, intending to use the east Asian country as a stepping stone to Europe.
“I didn’t plan to get to Mongolia because I planned to go to the UK [or another European country],” he told Al Jazeera by phone.
Afolabi’s agent lived near his home in Osogbo, in the southwestern Nigerian state of Osun. According to him the agent ran his agency scheme on the side, as he maintained an active football career.
“I know [the agent] from the street and helped him for [18 months]. From 2017, I helped his family, did some house chores, cut the grass around the compound. He used to send me out to buy some things. Sometimes I washed his car,” said Afolabi.
For every Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o story, there is always the story of this young man. I've seen players who have been abandoned. Some in Europe.
“I’m not doing anything right now,” Afolabi said of his football ambitions. “Just training, and returning home because, without a visa, I cannot work.”
Most of the promises made by the shady agent were not fulfilled, including extending his visa, which expired a month into his stay.
He was also told he would receive a monthly salary of $200, a sum that never emerged.
With a closer look at his contract, which was drafted in Mongolian Cyrillic, it stated that he was only entitled to shelter, food and a small income from a second job for other basic needs.
“We met the club president [but] the contract was written in [the] Mongolian language,” he said.
Afolabi called his agent to complain, but the response was unhelpful.
“He told me that the Mongolians don’t understand English, that’s why they wrote it in their language.”
The football club provided him with a second job, cleaning dishes at a local restaurant.
But that job and his accommodation ended when the contract was terminated and the season closed in August last year.
With just $150 in cash in his pocket, he tried to contact his agent but discovered he had fled the country and blocked him on WhatsApp and Facebook, the only means of communication between them.
Abdelrahman Kurdieh, an American coach-turned-agent, said he has heard of many similar tales – hopeful African footballers being spun a tale, ultimately robbed of money, lured away from home, and abandoned in a new country with their sporting dreams left in tatters.
Six years ago, he established Al Nisr FC, a now-defunct amateur club in Dubai, with a collection of African players who were victims of football trafficking.
“The biggest problem here, really, is education,” he told Al Jazeera.
Shady agents have mastered the art of “selling lies”, he said, meaning the footballers and their families do “crazy things, from taking bank loans, selling businesses and land to basically going bankrupt.
“[Agents] come up with fake invitations that they sell to these families. They put the logo of these clubs and add some very convincing terminology.”
In a bid to try and catch one of these agents, a former Nigerian youth footballer who used his status to scam young men, Kurdieh said one Al Nisr player was encouraged to make an official complaint to the police.
“But it didn’t really work. I don’t think any were arrested as most operated from inside Nigeria anyway,” he explained.
“Even though my club in Dubai doesn’t run again, I still get contacted to help [stranded players].”
In Afolabi’s case, his agent allegedly digitally altered his invitation, which Al Jazeera has seen.
His father and maternal grandfather footed the $1,600-travelling expenses bill, after selling off two plots of land.
Now living without a visa, Afolabi said interest from three other clubs has not led anywhere, even after his pleas to the Mongolian Football Federation.
“[The clubs] took me to the Federation, they insisted I should get my visa before I can play. Because of the tourist visa, I can’t get a visa here until I return to Nigeria.”
Afolabi sought help at the United Nations base in Ulaanbaatar last month but was asked to visit Mongolia’s immigration department – a move he fears would lead to his imprisonment.
Overstaying a tourist visa in Mongolia incurs a $2-a-day penalty, meaning Afolabi now owes about $1,000.
There is no Nigerian embassy in Mongolia; his only option is to continue to appeal to the clubs that have shown interest and ask them to communicate with the immigration department on his behalf.
It is not clear exactly how many hopeful African players are stranded across the world but according to some estimates, the number is in the thousands.
British media reported that an estimated 15,000 players are trafficked to Europe annually.
In Russia, there are at least dozens of cases.
“Our players need a lot of education,” Mojeed Adegbindin, a board member at Lagos State Football Association, told Al Jazeera.
“Maybe because of the economic impact of the country, even when you talk about a country as close as [the] Benin Republic or Togo, they’re ready to go out and play.”
I'm happy for my country seeing many young players perform well but for me, I was sad. I had dreamed of playing for the national team and playing in Europe, for Chelsea and Real Madrid.
In the Nigeria Professional Football League, the country’s top-flight division and one of the continent’s most popular leagues, a footballer earns a minimum 150,000 naira ($415) a month. This is not competitive and several players say they are owed many months’ salary, while benefits are reportedly poor.
Regardless of where they go, Beverley Agbakoba Onyejianya, a Nigerian lawyer specialised in sports and entertainment, said: “Every footballer must have a legal adviser.”
But because of the stigma it carries, victims fear being judged or ridiculed and often do not report their cases to police.
BBC sports journalist Shina Okeleji said: “For every Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o story, there is always the story of this young man.
“I’ve seen players who have been abandoned. Some in Europe. This story would not end until we control the source. If you don’t fix the source, you only fix one.”
Tackling shady agents
The Football Intermediaries Association of Nigeria (FIAN), a regulatory body, is among the organisations attempting to stop unregistered agents by reporting them to authorities.
“We’ll publish their names [in national newspapers] and we’re also embarking on [grassroots] awareness,” said Ayodele Thomas, FIAN chairman.
“We’re talking to embassies all over Nigeria to ensure that for any player to be given a visa, they must request an association letter backing that application.”
Meanwhile, Footballers Connect, a Nigerian initiative launched by Lagos-based sports management company Hay Sports, is concentrating on education and fostering safe networks.
Amos Joseph, who leads the scheme, said it aims to “bridge the wide gap between up and coming footballers, professionals and ex-internationals, and relative industries.”
At a recent Footballers Connect meeting in Lagos, John Ogu, a midfielder for the Nigeria national team, said: “Young players should be wary of bad agents who are only concerned about money and not the development of the player.”
Ogu won a series of accolades during a five-year stint in Israel and was part of the Super Eagles squad that scored bronze at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
Back in Mongolia, Afolabi said: “I’m happy for my country seeing many young players perform well [at the Afcon] but for me, I was sad. [I had dreamed of] playing for the national team and playing in Europe, for Chelsea and Real Madrid.”