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Young footballers come to Portugal under the promise of playing professional football but end up abandoned by agents and even clubs themselves. They find themselves alone, with no money or way of returning home. These are stories of desperation that are becoming increasingly common in the history of football in Portugal.

A report by the Portuguese players’ union SJPF.

A recent investigation carried out by Immigration (SEF) in Portugal's Central region concluded that 157 footballers from other countries were illegal in the country, 105 of these players were African and notified to leave the country. Three amateur football players were arrested for disregarding prior notification to leave the country voluntarily. Inspections were carried out in 60 clubs and public limited sports companies and 25 infraction proceedings were filed against clubs with athletes in these conditions, which were fined between 50 to 250 thousand euros.

Joaquim Evangelista, the President of the Portuguese football players’ union, says that human trafficking in football is a reality, with organised networks operating in this area. "They bring young people into the country and put them in clubs offering to act as rented wombs for these agents. If players are successful, profits are made from the transfer. If they are not and are notified by Immigration to return home, they have to pay their own tickets and are abandoned."

No FC Porto for Rambo

SJPF Rambo 320Some players are registered with their clubs and with the Portuguese Football Federation until they are discovered by Immigration or rejected by clubs. Others don't even reach this phase. Alexandre Rambo is one of them. The 18-year-old Brazilian is named after a film star and hopes to become a football star. This dream made him leave the Paraná Clube junior team in Brazil and come to Portugal. "My agent, Sílvio Donizete, reached an agreement with another agent called Éder Lucas Zem. This man told us he had contacts in FC Porto and it was agreed that I would sign to play for the juniors."

Neither the player nor the agent doubted this because the agent in question had other football players in Portugal. "Some played with me in Paraná."

Rambo landed in Lisbon on 7 December 2014 but never went to FC Porto. He never even spoke to those responsible for the club. His fate was different: "I was first taken to AC Alcanenense and they told me I would train there to keep me fit. A week later, one of Éder's employees left me at a hotel in Lisbon and told me to train in the SG Sacavanense football club. It would be temporary again, just so that I wouldn't stop playing until I went to FC Porto.”

A few days later, Rambo received a phone call from Éder. There was no deal with FC Porto after all and the player would have to return home. "He said he would pay the hotel bill and arrange the plane ticket." But time went by, the bill went up and the hotel's management confronted the player. "I tried to reach Éder but couldn't. He stopped answering my calls."

"I'm here on my own and I don't know anyone. I'm afraid they'll hurt me for talking but I had to report this case. I couldn't take it any longer. If Éder doesn't come and pay the bill, I'll have to arrange another way to return home. I don't know what to do", Rambo said at the time.

In desperation, Rambo contacted his agent in Brazil. "He managed to finally contact Éder and confronted him with my situation. He told us he was dealing with everything." The player ended up returning to Brazil but spent two months in Lisbon, waiting, alone and penniless, living on the goodwill of the hotel and a restaurant.

Anicet locks himself up in Mafra

South American and African players are the main targets. Players’ union President Joaquim Evangelista says he has helped several athletes to return to their countries of origin: "We always help when we can because we also want trade unions in other countries to do the same with Portuguese players in similar situations." Evangelista guarantees that there are more and more abandoned athletes although many of them remain silent: "We can only act when accusations are made but these are rare because players are afraid to tell us their stories. This is because they are threatened by agents and clubs that tell them they'll never play anywhere again if they open their mouths or because they don't want to return to their countries where they live in poverty, with the sense of having failed in Europe. They hold out until they become desperate."

SJPF Anicet 320That was what happened to Tozan Anicet. The 23-year-old from the Ivory Coast locked himself up in the CD Mafra facilities because he didn't want to return to his country with no money. During the 20'13-2014 season, an agent took him from Cape Verde to Portugal, as he had arranged that Anicet could train at Rio Ave.

When in Portugal, nothing was arranged with Rio Ave. He ended up playing for Mafra (second level) but was injured and returned to the Ivory Coast. Shortly afterwards, he came back to Portugal to sort out his situation with Immigration and try his luck in another club.

He trained at CD Fátima, which wanted to keep him and helped him to legalise his immigrant status: "He is a very talented player and we would very much like to sign a contract with him but he had psychological problems and we had to let him go", says the Fátima president, father António Pereira.

"He was annoyed because he couldn't play because of his injury and became violent. He even bit another player on the forehead." The club's staff left Anicet at the airport but he didn't embark.

Desperate because of returning to his country with no money, he returned to CD Mafra. “He asked the president and sporting director to help him recover and to arrange him a place to stay but they declined", says Evangelista. The player then locked himself up in a building i that belonged to the club, until the police took him away. “They contacted us, and we bought him a return ticket to his country."

“Throw the boys out on the street”

On 12 November last year, Olga Palmela, owner of the Blue Coast Hostel in Setúbal, shared the drama on Facebook of some African players staying at her establishment: " Young football players often come to stay at the hostel and when they aren't what clubs expected, agents abandon them. It's sad that this happens in the 21st century and we can't complain to anyone. All we can do is pay the return air fare to their country of origin for them to reunite with their families."

Palmela remembers the case of two players from Ghana with really sad stories: "The agent told us to throw the boys out on the street." She complained to the Portuguese Football Federation and UEFA but didn't receive any answer. "I paid some boys' return fares because I'm a mother too. If it weren't for us, who would help them? I didn't pay the return fares for the players from Ghana but I gave them money in case they needed it at the airport."

The two boys arrived there via Portuguese agent, João Gonçalves, initially to help a Ghanaian agent called Theophilus Dela Goka, known as Theo, who had called him during last summer’s transfer window. Theo asked him for help to try and find a club in Portugal for two players from Ghana as they were in a Danish club that was going to throw them out. "He said he couldn't send them money to stay at a hotel in Denmark but could buy their plane tickets to Portugal. He conned me into agreeing as I couldn't leave two boys in the street."

Gonçalves said the players arrived in an awful state: "They stayed at Olga's hostel and I tried to get them to train at some clubs but they were suffering from malnutrition. They seemed to have been living in the streets and going hungry for quite some time." Gonçalves asked Theo for money to pay the hostel and the return air fares but the money never arrived. "He even sent me proof of a false transfer. I was obliged to pay the expenses." When Gonçalves told Theo that the players couldn't play in Portugal due to their physical weakness, the agent answered: "Put them in any club for free, even if it's a fifth division one."

In the end, Gonçalves paid for the return tickets of the two players.