Brave New World For African Soccer Players: Bangladesh

on February 28 2013 3:15 PM
soccer practice in Bangladesh
soccer practice in Bangladesh Flickr/ Creative Commons

Young African soccer players have long dreamed of taking their skills to Europe where, for a lucky few, fame and unimaginable wealth awaits. Indeed, some of the biggest celebrities in contemporary Europe are names like Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor and Didier Drogba, all of whom earn millions of dollars and hail from the African continent.

However, in recent years, as soccer has become a truly global sport -- and Europe remains mired in a dire economic crisis – some African athletes have chosen to seek their fortune in a rather unlikely place far from Europe: the impoverished South Asian nation of Bangladesh.

BBC reported that the Bangladeshi Premier League, the country’s top tier soccer league, has dozens of African players, some, like the Ghanaian Awudu Ibrahim whose contract with an amateur Dutch club expired seven years ago prompted him to migrate to East Asia, where he has become a star.

"When my friend first told me about Bangladesh I was hesitant. I didn't know much about the country," Ibrahim, who plays for Abahani Ltd. Dhaka, told BBC.

"First, I came here for a practice session and then ended up playing for the club."

The majority of African players in Bangladesh originate from just four nations: Ghana, Nigeria, Morocco and Cameroon. While they do not earn the millions that the top African stars in Europe get, they can receive decent salaries of up to $2,000 per month (the average annual per capita income in Bangladesh is only $848, according to Bangladesh Daily Star newspaper).

"Football is now growing in Bangladesh. That's why it is attracting many African players. Whenever I go home, my friends ask me about this league, they want to come and play," Abdul Samad Yussif, a Ghanaian teammate of Ibrahim, told BBC.

Indeed, according to the Bangladesh Football Federation, the nation’s governing body for the sport, Abahani has a total of six foreign players for the 2012-2013season -- three from Ghana, one each from Nigeria and Cameroon, and one from Brazil.

(Virtually all foreign players in Bangladesh came from either Africa or South America, however, Bojan Petric, from Bosnia & Herzegovina, is on the roster of a team called Sheikh Russel Krira Chakra.)

BFF believes the infusion of African players will only improve the quality of the league’s play and ultimately its international standing.

"African players are physically strong and their skills are higher than our players,” said BFF president Kazi Salahuddin.

“If you compete with quality foreign players, then our players will also become better."

However, Dhaka is not exactly Paris or Rome. There are downsides to playing in Bangladesh, an overcrowded and very poor Islamic state.

"We miss out on entertainment,” Ibrahim told BBC. “In Europe, I used to go out with friends and had lots of things to do. Here, we don't have that many events. But as a professional we have to respect the local culture."

Moreover, as in Europe and some other parts of Asia, black Africans face some measure of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination from the locals.

A Zambian native who visited Bangladesh in 2011 blogged about his experiences in the country.

“The strangest feeling for me here is the fact that I am a non-native,” he wrote.

“I am a black of African origins. Being black (African) is normal in my native country, Zambia, as the majority of the population are blacks. In Bangladesh, about 98 percent of the population are native Bangladeshis (Bengali).”

Then he spoke of some discomfort he felt.

“Throughout the time … I have been here, I have received crushing stares … looks and greetings I have never received in my many travels and [stays] abroad,” he said.

“Some stares and looks at times make me feel uncomfortable because I literally notice how shocked or surprised on-lookers are when they see me. Some on-lookers turn their heads … or initially suspend their walking spend to catch a glimpse. I look back -- then turn my eyes to the ground or look elsewhere.”

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