Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect interviewees’ anonymity.
Sochi and Moscow, Russia – At around the time of the 2018 World Cup, several Nigerian men travelled to Russia on a promise.
Agents in the African country had led them to believe that they would enjoy professional footballing careers in Russia, and they arrived with “fan-ID”, which provided visa-free entry.
Almost a year later, some remain stranded in Russia having witnessed the ugliest side of the football business. They had been scammed.
As they remained undocumented, the men suffered enormously.
James*, 23, one of the hopeful footballers, was among them. His father recently died back home.
“I just wanted to help my dad,” he said in Sochi, breaking into tears. “It’s the first time I’m crying about his passing.”
When James arrived on Russian soil, nothing awaited him – there was nobody there to welcome him.
Like most of the players, he had paid a large sum of money to a shady agent.
“I gave more than $1,000 to obtain a ‘fan-ID’ (the Russian World Cup supporter visa) to be able to get into the country, some of the guys I met paid up to $3,000. Once we found out that we could have gotten one just by buying a $100 match ticket, we were mad,” said James.
For a stretch of time, out of the estimated hundreds of African footballers who came to Russia with the prospect of being scouted, James was among the luckier ones.
“In St Petersburg, I met a guy, Vadim Boyko, who presented himself as a coach and said he could help us – me and other Nigerians I had met. That’s where I met Raymond*, another good Nigerian player.”
Soon enough, the “Nigeria United” amateur team was formed and once the World Cup ended, the Russian trainer took 20 Nigerian players on a trip to Abkhazia, a semi-independent Republic in Georgia, bordering Russia.
They played a friendly game against the Abkhazian national team, which was broadcast live on a TV channel there and on Sputnik’s website.
“Back then, we thought our fates were changing and that we may be seen by some recruiters,” said James.
But hopes began to fade after a couple of other matches.
“We all moved to Sochi and started living in a hostel which we had to pay for ourselves, all of this without having been paid a dime yet for playing football.”
They parted with 500 rubles a day ($8) out of their own pockets for accommodation and paid for food.
Another coach later approached them, and Boyko retreated.
“This guy Denis Vizir came to some of us and said he wanted us in his team,” said James, who hails from Uyo, a town in the southern Akwa Ibom state.
“We were given gear, we signed contracts and started playing in the fall of 2018 some games for his ‘FC Hosta’ team.”
Although the squad competed in the Amateur Football League (AFC) of Sochi with contracts, which Al Jazeera has seen specified a $300 monthly salary, the players say they were still not compensated.
We were straight up scammed, there’s no other way to put it.
Raymond, aspiring footballer from Nigeria
Soon, the original team scattered; some flew back to Nigeria, and the players who signed for Vizir’s team – 10 Nigerians, including Raymond, moved to a cheaper hostel in the city, still at their own expense.
“The fan-ID visa was ending at the end of December, and Denis promised us new work visas starting January 1, 2019, so that we could stay legally in Russia,” said James.
As anxiety grew among the team, some players still believed their coach’s reassuring words.
When Vizir started collecting money from them, allegedly for paperwork, “that’s when I kind of knew he was a dodgy man”, said James.
But the dream was still bigger, causing illusions and naivety, and they decided to take the risk: they would stay after the fan-ID expired on December 31.
At the beginning of January, Vizir started stalling, ducking more and more phone calls, not showing up any more for training or at work, saying he was all of a sudden badly ill.
Soon, he disappeared altogether, like Boyko.
The remaining players were left stranded; they were now undocumented on Russian land.
“Since that moment, I stayed in Sochi, keeping it low, trying to raise some money,” said James. “I played the piano at some events and stayed at a very kind man’s place. I’m not angry at Russia, people have been generally nice to us and tried to help as much as they could.”
A woman from Belarus he met tried to help by confronting Vizir’s wife and searching for him, without success.
Yulia Siluyanova works for Alternativa, an NGO which fights forced labour and human trafficking in Russia. It is a reliable resource for foreigners in difficult situations in the country, and has been helping Africans stuck in Russia.
Several Nigerian women, who were also lured during the World Cup by “agents” back home promising work, were soon forced into prostitution, often by fellow Nigerians in Moscow.
Alternativa says it has helped some 40 scammed African footballers so far, but there are more and not only from Nigeria.
Al Jazeera met three Africans from Senegal in Moscow.
They were similarly scammed, at different times, and came in on a business visa offered by a club known as Petersroda FC, with connections in Germany. Boyko also arranged their schedule in Russia.
Having already paid more than $3,000 with no chance of being scouted and while funding a hostel stay in the same fashion as the Nigerians, they were still afraid to go to the police.
One of them, Samba*, finally did, and contacted Alternativa.
“I just want to go home now,” he told Al Jazeera. “This has been a nightmare. Just shame for me and a lot of money wasted.”
“It’s difficult because we have a tough time gathering proof of scams by these shady people for police and for the courts,” said Siluyanova. “We didn’t expect there was going to be so many African men in this situation. It’s a big problem, not only in Russia, and it’s difficult to find, arrest or prosecute the culprits and people responsible of the networks.”
Russia’s interior ministry estimates that roughly 5,000 people have stayed without documents on its territory after the fan-ID expiration, including hundreds of Africans.
At the time Al Jazeera’s reporting in Sochi at the end of March, James, hiding from the authorities and risking deportation, still believed in a possible football future in Russia – or elsewhere.
“[My father] pushed me to go to Russia and pursue my dream, as he was himself a footballer,” said James.
When his father died, he knew he had to find a way home.
“But I don’t want to be deported and banned from Russia,” he said, risking a five-year ban from the country for having stayed on Russian soil without proper documentation.
After Al Jazeera’s visit to Sochi, James took a two-day train trip to Moscow to seek the help of Oluremi Kehinde, a Nigerian-Russian citizen who has been living in ex-USSR and Russia since 1987.
Kehinde founded an NGO to help Nigerians in the country, and sometimes works with the Nigerian embassy.
“This problem has been going on for years, way before the World Cup,” said Kehinde. “These boys are impatient and misinformed about Russia. You have to follow the rules of the country you go to. But you know, I wouldn’t recommend coming here. Russia is not a welcoming place for us (black people), there is a lot of discrimination. It’s not England, it’s not Europe.”
Kehinde agreed to help James and the young player finally flew back to Nigeria in April.
“These types of experiences make you a man,” said a now wiser and somewhat disenchanted James. “In football, nine agents out of 10 are going to be shady.”
Staying in Lagos at his elder sister’s house, James says: “It’s good to be home.”
He sends by WhatsApp his red exit stamp: he was able, with Kehinde’s assistance with the courts, to leave Russia without being deported – but not, he claims, without being searched and held at the airport for three hours.
“I’ve started training again with my old team,” he says.
The dream is still alive. But now he will know better before blindly believing what people in this business tell him.
“We were straight up scammed, there’s no other way to put it,” said Raymond.
While he didn’t land on a footballing career in Russia, he did find love. His Russian girlfriend in Sochi is expecting their first child.
“I can’t leave now,” he said.
In response to Al Jazeera’s questions, the Nigerian embassy said that it had “no report of stranded Nigerian footballers”, but that it was in the “ongoing process” of helping any Nigerians stuck in Russia, after having “helped 400 stranded citizens to fly back home during the World Cup”.
Al Jazeera was unable to contact Vizir or Boyko, but has seen documents revealing Vizir’s name and corroborated the testimonies of several players regarding the claims against Boyko, who has been named by other media.
“Meanwhile,” says Kehinde, with a discouraged face, “I’ve heard that the networks back home are already sending guys to Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup.”