Agadez, Niger – The sun is just starting its afternoon dip and the desert heat is just rolling off the field. Undeterred, a team of soccer players take the field for Tuesday afternoon practice behind the sand-colored walls and seafoam-green metal doors of a soccer stadium in the Sahara.
Like players in Niger – and around the world – many of these young men, especially from West Africa, dream of playing in Europe one day. Some of them have already traveled more than 3,000 km to reach Agadez, the desert outpost home to the AC Nassara football club and an important route for clandestine migration to Europe.
“We came especially to play for this team and also to earn some money, but… our main intention (is) to go to Europe,” said Solomon Woryonwon, who arrived in Agadez after traveling by bus from Liberia had traveled. “At the end of the season… that’s my plan. To go to Libya, or to pass through Morocco.”
Like other players, his contract includes accommodation in a cramped room shared with eight other migrant players and a small pay check. But he has dreams of a bigger scale, like hundreds of thousands of migrants who have passed through Agadez before him, whether they play football there or not.
“I come from a very poor background, so if I go to Europe, it will be a plus for my family,” Woryonwon told Al Jazeera.
From legal activity to illegal business
Agadez was for many years the epicenter of migration across the continent to Europe, the last major city in the Sahara before migrants left for Libya in trucks.
Other clubs in Niger’s 20-team domestic league also have foreign players, but Nassara’s location has given it an advantage over the years.
Club president Bachir Amma, a smuggler at the time, would encounter migrants from all over Africa who said they wanted to play football in Europe. Those with serious talent were welcome to try out Nassara and play a season in Agadez – and make money – before traveling back.
“It is an advantage – the club is moving forward. We find the good players among the migrants,” says Amma, watching the team practice as they sit on the dilapidated, sky-blue open-air stands of the stadium.
When Amma led migrants to Libya, he had an office and legally sold tickets for the trip, just like other smugglers. He and the other drivers paid exit taxes each week as 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 subsequent years, the city’s economy collapsed as migrants moved elsewhere or moved into the shadows of Agadez’s back alleys.
Nassara was not spared.
In some ways, the club can be seen as a barometer of the effectiveness of the law: Migrants made up about one-third of about half the team, Amma said. In fact, traffic to Libya has come to a standstill – or has been pushed underground – but it has not been wiped out.
“People go through Agadez, they still reach Algeria, they still reach Libya,” Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Rabat-based think tank Policy Center for the New South, told Al Jazeera.
Things got more dangerous when migration ceased to be a legal activity fueling Agadez’s macro-economy into an illegal enterprise where “drivers have to take alternative routes, which are more dangerous” or charge migrants more money for bribes, he added.
‘It’s about risk’
Now recruits come specifically from their home countries to join the team – which remains legal – rather than being plucked from the once-great crowds of migrants heading for Libya.
Some come to Nassara for its reputation as a place for migrating players to excel.
“I could play in an African league, in Tanzania, Sudan, the great champions – my dream is to play, it’s not to go to Europe,” said Adamh’s Silue, a Nassara player from Ivory Coast. “My family told me: ‘Stop playing football, come and work in business’, which is why I left Ivory Coast.”
Amma’s network of contacts from his smuggling days also gives him an advantage over other Nigerien teams recruiting foreign players, he says.
“Our team is different because I was previously in ‘the activities’ (the law has changed). There are many people who know me, I have many contacts among foreigners. There are many foreigners who have passed through here. They are in Italy, they are in Spain, they know there is a club here,” he says.
“Sometimes they ask me – they have a brother who comes to play here. And then they go back,” said Amma, who insists he has given up smuggling and said he discourages players from going to Libya.
Not everyone listens. Migration researchers warn that routes have become more dangerous as smugglers, driven underground, try to evade authorities and venture off the beaten track across the unforgiving Sahara.
“I’ve had my boyfriend 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 paycheck of 120,000 CFA ($196).
After talking to other migrants who have traveled through Niger and Libya — past the European-funded Libyan Coast Guard, the militias that control deadly migrant prisons, and through the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Jackson is aware of the risks involved in doing so. want to. 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. In everything you do, you put God first,” he said. “I want to do good so my family can benefit from it tomorrow. If I lose my life now, it will be a setback for my family. They won’t see my body, they won’t know… So I’m a little scared.
In Agadez, reduced migration meant less money circulating in the city, even for people who had nothing to do with smuggling – bookstore owners, restaurateurs and taxi drivers all saw their incomes dwindle. Smugglers also saw their jobs evaporate overnight.
Development money from Europe was intended to counter the consequences, but the vast majority of smugglers never received the promised EU subsidies. Those who did made far less money from their new legal ventures than they did from smuggling.
The money “serves only one purpose, and that purpose was to stop illegal migration movements through Agadez,” Ibrahim Muktar, a law professor at Nile University of Nigeria, in Abuja, told Al Jazeera. “It doesn’t fill the hole it created.”
Muktar is leading a lawsuit opposing the migration law, claiming that it violates free movement agreements that Niger is a part of as a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc.
Even with limited foreign recruiting, Nassara has managed to make headway. Five years ago, the club was promoted to the top division of Niger.
As practice progresses, the shadow of the stands stretches across the field and the air finally begins to cool. The players will go home in an hour.
Next summer, when the season ends, they must choose between signing up for another competitive, albeit unglamorous, season in the Niger league, returning home or hopping on a pick-up truck to try their luck heading north.