This sentiment is further reinforced by the image of a high-profile West African soccer star, who represents the masculine ideal, that of an adult man capable of supporting his family and community financially. These images are widely circulated, but they mask the harsh reality. Only a small fraction of the thousands of young footballers who want to play professionally abroad will ever get the chance.
Only a select few of those lucky ones make it to the top clubs in Western Europe. Most of them play on the fringes of European Football, in obscure locations like the lower division clubs of Poland. These small clubs are mostly located in rural areas.
After overcoming marginality once, these footballers are now in another marginal situation. The footballers thought that reaching Europe was the end of their struggle, but they are now faced with low wages, isolation, lack of exposure, and a meager prospect of athletic advancement.
The wage for lower divisions depends on the region and the duration of the stay of the West African player. Some players earn the equivalent to an average Polish wage, which is around $1070 per month. Others get less, or play for free, and receive only small bonuses for winning games. Some players have to find other sources of income in order to supplement their meager football salaries. Some clubs offer them flats or rooms of a basic standard.
The clubs in the lower divisions usually train twice or three times per week. The training usually occurs in the late afternoon or evening because Polish footballers who play in lower divisions are often at work or studying during the day. West African footballers are known to do extra sessions of training on their own initiative. They run, do exercises in gyms, and practice drills.
Poland as a Case Study
Around 100 West African footballers play in the lower divisions of Polish football. They stay optimistic and believe that the hardships they are experiencing are temporary. In the hopes of a more lucrative career elsewhere, these people remain positive. In reality, this rarely happens.
During my 18-month fieldwork, I was able to observe the process and the less glamorous sides of football in Poland’s lower division clubs.
Only two West African footballers from the lower leagues of Polish football have been able to secure a contract with a higher division in more than a decade. A Burkinabe striker Prejuce Nkoulma spent eight years in Poland playing in all levels of Polish football, before moving to the Turkish Super League. Robert Ndip Tambe played only half a season in the Polish fourth division. This Cameroonian impressed managers and scouts enough to land a contract in Slovakia’s top division.
Players become increasingly frustrated as they realise that it is impossible to escape marginalization in Polish football. The players then seek alternatives and often move to places where there are West African diaspora communities. Warsaw is the capital of Poland and has the largest cultural diversity.
Why Warsaw is such a magnet
West African migrants in Warsaw are a small, dispersed community. However, one place in the capital is very important for them. The PolBlack informal community club has formed on a public artificial pitch in one of the city parks.
PolBlack has a very good organisation. The club has an elected leader, rules to follow, and fines or suspensions if they don’t. West African migrants and other footballers meet regularly to train, play informal games and take part in more organized football events such as matches between Anglophones or Francophones.
The park is not only a place where West Africans from all walks of life gather to socialise and celebrate special occasions, but also conduct business. The park is also a place where West Africans of all trades gather to socialise, celebrate important occasions and conduct business.
The photos I took on my field research show the lives of players, and the park where they gather – those who have given it up to become professional athletes as well as the ones who still harbor hope.
Southern Poland in Winter 2015. Pawel Banas/GLOBALSPORT
Austin and Nelson, two Cameroonian players, stand in front of their “home,” which they shared in a village south of Poland with three Brazilians and two Cameroonians during the 2014/2015 football season. The building is an old tavern, which was converted into a home.
Poland, Cracow region, Spring 2016. Pawel Banas/GLOBALSPORT
A football match in the fourth division of Poland. In Poland, the attendance at lower-tier football games rarely exceeds 100.
Cracow, Poland, Spring 2016. Pawel Banas/GLOBALSPORT
Oyeniyi is a Nigerian 20-year-old forward who celebrates his goal during a home match in the fourth division.
Central Poland Spring 2016.
The attic apartment in which a West African footballer lives. The fifth division club pays for the rent. In lower divisions, it is common for clubs to only pay meager salaries but offer basic housing to their West African player.