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Sep 28, 2011

Soka Afrika

The true beauty of football lies in its contrasts. The nimble-footed striker threading the ball into the back of the net can be as thrilling to watch as the athletic goalkeeper leaping in front of the woodwork and using nothing but the very tips of his fingers to deflect the shot away from its target. The joy when underdogs Senegal stunned France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup stirred as much emotion as the despair when John Terry slipped when taking his penalty kick in the Champions League final against Manchester United three years ago.

Then, there is the little known story of two, opposite journeys. The smooth passage South Africa's Kermit Erasmus travelled in pursuit of a football career in Europe and the more perilous route Cameroon's Ndomo Sabo found himself on. Both adventures are beautifully captured in the film Soka Afrika, which shows the harsh reality that can turn colourful dreams into dark nightmares.

Brought up in a working class home in Port Elizabeth, Erasmus' story begins in Holland, where the youngster signed a contract with Feyenoord. He settled in comfortably in Rotterdam and, from his apartment, he could see the Erasmus railway which links the northern and southern halves of the city, a sign, he felt, that his career was meant to start there. An indication of how quickly it took off was evident in that, before Erasmus had even turned 20-years old, he had enough money to contemplate whether to buy a Mini Cooper or a Golf GTI and even had the funds to consider investing in his own home.

Good omens like that were absent from Ndomo's voyage, which was dotted with dubiousness from the start. After being spotted in Yaounde, he was promised a contract in Paris and the agent who picked him up convinced his family to sell their possessions to pay for the flight to France. Not knowing that this was not usual procedure, Ndomo's family gambled with their modest wealth because they believed their faith in their talented son would pay off. It might have, had Ndomo been properly managed, but on arriving in Europe he had no club to sign for (or even train with) and was soon abandoned and left to fend for himself on the streets.

The film tracks these two young men whose starkly differing passages make for a story that winds into and out of triumph, loneliness, accomplishment and anguish. It twists in all the right places and instead of petering out to Erasmus star-studded success and Ndomo's destruction, takes an interesting turn when Erasmus is sent on loan to Excelsior and Ndomo returns home with the help of a non-governmental organisation.

The result is a compelling conclusion, that nobody, not even the producers could predict. "We did plan to juxtapose the contrasting paths in pursuit of success on the world stage, but like any good documentary we had to put preconceptions to one side and allow the story to grow organically," Simon Laub, producer of the film, said: "We couldn't have scripted the way that everything turned out - reality in this case was simply stranger than fiction."

The message of this film goes far beyond the story-line though, as it takes an intricate look at the issue of trafficking and the risks that aspiring footballers, particularly from Africa, face. A significant portion of the picture is dedicated to talking to and following Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroon international, who founded the organisation Foot Solidaire, which aims to assist players who find themselves victims of fake agents, like Ndomo was.

During his playing days, Mbvoumin was struck by the number of young players from Africa that contacted him, asking for assistance. "I had kids as young as 13 or 14 years old getting in touch with me. What was really shocking was too see how many of them had come to France from Africa and nobody cared about them," he told ESPNsoccernet. "Once they were brought here and abandoned, no football body looked after them, they were left on the streets."

Mbvoumin has made it his job to facilitate these players' return home, as he did with Ndomo. It's a particularly difficult task because of their fear of being labelled failures, especially since their families have had to make huge sacrifices for them and would likely not welcome them home with nothing. "It's not easy to convince them to go back," Mbvoumin said. "I try to talk to the family first and in Ndomo's case I even went to meet his father and helped him find a team to play for in Cameroon."

An important part of Mbvoumin's work is ensuring that these players are not lost to the game, because many of them become demotivated and even traumatised by their experience in Europe. In order to keep them playing football, he claims it is vital to get them back to Africa as soon as possible: "If they stay too long in Europe, their football is dead.''

Sending them home, hopeful of still forging a career in sport also assists in carrying the message to other young players that they should be wary of fake agents. "Once they get to Europe, it's too late," Mbvoumin said. "The main prevention must take place in Africa. I want to get information centres running so that when a kid or a family is approached by an agent they can go to the centre and find out if he is a real agent or if they have been lied to."

The problem exists across the African continent and Mbvoumin says he has now learnt enough about where the agents, fake or not, usually send players to. "In France, we get players from Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkino Faso, Mali and other Francophone countries, but players from other areas like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria are often sent to Denmark or Norway and sometimes England." Covering such a vast area, across both continents, requires resources that Mbvoumin does not have at the moment, with Foot Solidaire relying on donations to survive. "We hope, in the future, that we can get funds from organisations like Unicef or even FIFA," he said.

His role in the film may assist in that regard. Laub said one of the aims of their movie was to, "bring support, financial and logistical, for those attempting to combat these issues, such as Foot Solidaire." He also hoped to "put pressure on the governing bodies both internationally and domestically to take responsibility." The film has already screened in Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and New York, where it won the Golden Whistle at the Kicking and Screaming Film Festival, and will soon embark on its London leg. The producers have also expressed interest in screening in Africa.

With many miles and countries ahead of it, Soka Afrika will also provide publicity for an event that is often overlooked, the Under-20 World Cup, in a way not seen before. The unprecedented access the filmmakers have to the venues, in Egypt, and the teams, particularly the South African one, provide an insight into this tournament that has rarely been seen before.

"We got a true perspective of the pressure, difficulties and realities that these young players face," Laub said. "It is definitely used as a shop window of sorts for these youngsters and that has both negative and positive sides to it, but it certainly gives them a taste of the excitement of competing at the highest level and serves to generate a lot of interest in players at this level who may not be seen otherwise." Interest that Laub hopes, will be followed up by legitimate agents who will pave the way for successful careers, so that the stark contrast between footballs' haves and have-nots does not have continue to present itself as an avenue for crime.

•  A 58 minute version of Soka Afrika will be screened at the Kicking & Screening Soccer Film Festival in London on Wednesday September 28
•  The full 76-minute film will also show at Raindance Film Festival at the Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly, London, on October 9

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