Agadez, Niger – The sun is just beginning its afternoon descent, and the desert heat has barely started to roll off the field. Undeterred, a team of footballers takes to the pitch for Tuesday afternoon practice behind the sand-coloured walls and seafoam-green metal doors of a football stadium in the Sahara Desert.
Like players across Niger – and the world – many of these young men, especially from West Africa, have dreams of playing in Europe someday. Some of them have already travelled more than 3,000km (1,864 miles) to get to Agadez, the desert outpost that is home to the AC Nassara football club and a key route for clandestine migration towards Europe.
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“We came specifically to play for this team, and to make small money too but … our main intention [is] to go to Europe,” said Solomon Woryonwon, who arrived in Agadez after travelling by bus from Liberia. “At the end of the season … that’s my plan. To go to Libya, or pass through Morocco.”
Like other players, his contract includes housing in a cramped room shared with eight other migrant players and a small paycheque. But he has dreams of a grander scale, like hundreds of thousands of migrants who have passed through Agadez before him, whether or not they play football there.
“I’m from a very poor background, so if I get to Europe, it will be a plus for my family,” Woryonwon told Al Jazeera.
From licit activity to illicit enterprise
For years, Agadez was the epicentre of cross-continent migration towards Europe, the last major town in the Sahara before migrants took off in trucks bound for Libya.
Other clubs among Niger’s 20-team national league also have foreign players but Nassara’s location has given it an advantage over the years.
Club president Bachir Amma, at the time a smuggler, would come across migrants from across Africa who said they wanted to play football in Europe. The ones with serious talent were welcome to try out for Nassara, and spend a season playing in Agadez – and earning money – before their journey back.
“It’s an advantage – the club progresses. We find the good players among the migrants,” says Amma, watching the team practise while seated in the stadium’s derelict sky-blue open-air stands.
When Amma was running migrants to Libya, he had an office and sold tickets for the journey legally, like other smugglers. He and the other drivers paid exit taxes each week when they joined the military convoy leaving the city for the desert.
That dynamic changed when Niger, under pressure from the European Union, passed a law in 2015 banning the movement of all foreigners north of Agadez. In the subsequent years, the town’s economy collapsed as migrants either went elsewhere or into the shadows of Agadez’s alleyways.
Nassara was not spared.
In some ways, the club can be seen as a barometer for the law’s effectiveness: migrants went from being about half of the team to a third of it, Amma said. Effectively, traffic to Libya is down – or has been pushed underground – but has not been eradicated.
“People are going through Agadez, they’re still making it to Algeria, they’re still making it to Libya,” said Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at Rabat-based think tank Policy Centre for the New South, told Al Jazeera.
It became more dangerous as migration stopped being a licit activity fuelling Agadez’s macroeconomy to an illicit enterprise where “drivers have to either take alternative routes, which are more dangerous” or charge migrants more money for bribes, he added.
‘It’s about risk’
Now, recruits come from their home countries specifically to join the team – which remains legal – rather than being plucked from the once-massive crowds of migrants en route to Libya.
Some come to Nassara because of its reputation as a place for migrant players to excel.
“I could play in an African league, in Tanzania, Sudan, the big champions – my dream is to play, it’s not to go to Europe,” says Adamh’s Silue, a Nassara player from Côte d’Ivoire. “My family told me, ‘Stop playing football, come work in business,’ – that’s why I left Côte d’Ivoire.”
Amma’s network of contacts from his smuggling days also gives him an advantage over other Nigerien teams that recruit foreign players, he says.
“Our team is different because I was in ‘the activities’ before [the law changed]. There’re a lot of people who know me, I have a lot of contacts among foreigners. There are a lot of foreigners who have passed through here. They’re in Italy, they’re in Spain, they know there is a club here,” he says.
“Sometimes they ask me – they have a brother who comes here to play. And then they go back,” said Amma, who insists he has given up smuggling and said he advises players against going to Libya.
Not everyone listens. Migration researchers warn that routes have gotten more dangerous as smugglers, driven underground, work to evade authorities and take off the beaten paths through the unforgiving Sahara.
“I had my friend play here before, but now he’s in Milan,” said Zwannah Jackson, a Liberian midfielder who dreams of playing for Chelsea. He came to Niger after his father died and now supports his mother, three siblings and other relatives with his monthly paycheque of 120,000 CFA ($196).
After talking to other migrants who have made their way through Niger and Libya – past the European-funded Libyan coastguard, the militias that control the deadly migrant prisons, and through the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean, Jackson is aware of the risks if he chooses to go to Europe at the end of the season.
“Sometimes you spend a week in the desert without eating, without drinking. It’s about risk. Everything you do, you put God first,” he said. “I want to do good so that tomorrow my family will be benefitted. If I lost my life now, it’s a setback to my family. They’re not going to see my body, they’re not going to know … So I’m a little bit afraid.”
In Agadez, reduced migration meant less money circulating in the city, even for folks with no connection to smuggling – bookstore owners, restauranteurs, and taxi drivers have all seen their incomes dwindle. Smugglers also saw their jobs vaporise overnight.
Development money from Europe was meant to stem the fallout but the vast majority of smugglers never received the promised EU grants. Those who did, make far less money in their new legal enterprises than they did in smuggling.
The money “serves only one purpose, and that purpose was to stop irregular migratory movement across Agadez”, Ibrahim Muktar, a law lecturer at the Nile University of Nigeria, in Abuja, told Al Jazeera. “It does not fill the gap it created.”
Muktar is leading a lawsuit opposing the migration law, alleging it violates free-movement agreements Niger is part of as a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc.
Even with curtailed foreign recruitment, Nassara has managed to make strides. Five years ago, the club earned a promotion to Niger’s top-flight league.
As practice carries on, the shade from the stands stretches across the field, and the air finally begins to chill. In an hour or so, the players will make their way home.
Come summer, when the season ends, they have to choose between signing up for another competitive, if unglamorous, season in the Nigerien league, returning home or hopping on a pick-up truck to try their luck heading north.