What Happens When ‘Project Mbappe’ Fails?

Project Mbappe
Project Mbappe

Being a football-loving nation, talent can be found everywhere in Nigeria, especially on the streets and in the slums. We all know one or two kids who were dubbed the new Ronaldo or Messi. Kids who did not only play football as a hobby but saw it as a way to defeat crushing poverty. 

In England (popularly regarded as the home of football), there are more than 10,000 boys in football’s youth development system, yet, only 0.5% of them will ever make a living from football.  In the case of Nigeria, it is hard to tell the statistics. However, the majority of boys playing football in Nigeria will not make a long term career in the sport, so what happens to them? In this episode of MoneyRise Views, we look into what happens to people whose football dreams don’t come true: the little Messis who don’t make it to our TV screens. 

Ojay almost made it until he was replaced.

Ojay was one of the kids who almost made it before Nigeria happened.  Speaking to the team, he said he was at Nigeria’s U-17 training camp in 2009, and there was a chance he was going to be picked. On the final day of selection, OJay was surprised to find out that people who were not at the training camp were selected. He went back home feeling dejected and betrayed. Ojay, despite his skills, never got another lifeline. 

Speaking to the MoneyRise team, he said, “I almost made it. I did. What hurt me the most was the fact that I was hopeful; if they knew they had their team, they should not have taken us to training camp.”

He went on to say, “I was aware that I may not make it; but I hoped that I would, then reality hit close to home, it hit me. That was when I realized it was all over. It was over before it even began.” 

Ojay now works as a security agent, and he hopes he can save enough money for university next year.

Being female in a male-dominated sport.

While it is a tall dream for men to want to make it as footballers, the dream is “twice as tall” for women. This is further confirmed by Hassanat who said football was fun and the only thing that felt natural to her. Football, she said, also created a bond between her and her family, especially her dad. 

Her dreams died when she lost her dad and had to take up responsibility for her family.  In her words, “I kinda regret stopping because it was the only thing I wanted to do. I enjoyed it so much that all I wanted to be was a footballer; it was my dream life. Although becoming a female footballer was and is still quite hard to achieve, I never doubted my ability and I knew my dad would do anything to get me to the top” 

Hassanat’s dad was supposed to be a buffer, but with his death, she was cast to the dark side of amateur football in Lagos; she experienced inappropriacy from coaches and club agents who asked for money and sex just to get her a proper club.  After a while, she decided to focus on her education and she made it to a University in Nigeria. 

During her undergraduate days, there was an inter-faculty tournament in which she played for a few minutes. She was noticed by the female head coach who wanted her to captain the team to a competition in Abuja but Hassanat had to let that opportunity slide as the assistant coach acted like a predator.  In her words, “It’s just worse when you play well and they are aware of your ability and the possibility of making it, so they look for ways to pass you around”

Hassanat, till this day, says she’s doing all she can to survive. She currently manages a facility-management company, and leading people gives her a sense of responsibility that she has always loved. However, she feels no major fulfilment from doing it and hopes that someday, in the not too distant future, she will get to do something that would make her happy, with owning a football club being her priority. 

The player that got injured before he got his breakthrough.

Football dominated Bolaji’s adult life; he loved the thrill and the alluring chants of the crowds until he sprained his ankle, and his football dreams died before they even began. 

Due to lack of funds, the ankle injury was badly managed. His father could not afford to pay for scans and treatments, so he had to resort to traditional medicine by trusting an Ilaje man to help heal the ankle. 

The man turned out to be a quack; this made the ankle even worse. By the time he saw a professional medical doctor, he was told he wouldn’t be able to play football professionally anymore.  He told me he was unhappy about the way his career had ended. 

It is now four years since he was forced to “retire” and he still finds it hard to accept the fact that he’s never going to be a professional footballer. 

Bolaji, now 26 years old, has no high school certificate nor anything he does and has no clear plan for his future. He says he would never recommend football to his children as a lot of things can go wrong; and when they do, there is usually no chair to cushion the impact.

“Nothing prepares you for a life outside football”, he said. 

Talent is never enough; the Little Ronaldo Story.

Ronaldo was one of those who everyone thought would make it; a star in one of the playing grounds in Lagos island. He was the captain of his team while growing up, and his style of play was exciting to most people who understood football. A friend of his, while speaking to the MoneyRise team, said that watching Ronaldo play was always exciting because he knew what to do with the ball. 

Ronaldo saw football as a ticket away from the Lagos island way of life and was willing to do anything to get out of it. His desperation made him pay N700,000 for a trial at a Slovakian Division 3 side, only to realise that it was all a ruse — there was no trial session neither was there a Slovakian side. After that episode, Ronaldo gave up on paying for trials and hoped on Lady Luck. Did she find him?

Well, Ronaldo is now 29, with no hope of a football career and no education. He practically lives on the street. I met him at a bet9ja shop where he discusses football with his peers. 

Jankara playing field, Lagos island

The Footballer that travelled to Europe.

More than 90 million Nigerians live below the poverty line, which is N137,000 a year. The implication of this remains: people see football as a way to cross the poverty line, and where some would do anything to cross the line or even pay for the dream, there are hyenas waiting to feed on the dreamers.

Muheez paid over a million naira to his agent because he was promised a position with a division 3 club in Belgium.  When he got to Belgium, the club and the agent disagreed on the fees accruable to the agent. So, there was no agreement reached between both parties. Muheez’s football career became collateral damage; he had to come back to Nigeria.

Muheez paid for his dream, got to the gate of what could have changed his life, and right there, the door was shut in his face.

His dreams were cut short because an agent wouldn’t budge on his fees. He never got another chance at football after that.  Instead, he went to school and decided to do something unique; he became a make-up artist.

Speaking on how he was able to transition from being a footballer to being a makeup artist, Muheez said that the experience with the agent made him realise he needed to do something on his own and not rely on people to get him a job after his National Youth Service Program. 

There is no doubt that in every football field scattered across the length and breadth of Nigeria lie too many kids who will never go pro and will have to accept that reality one way or another. 

The problem with accepting the reality remains the fact that many boys are unprepared for what comes in the event that their dreams are shattered. It is interesting to note that these dreams are at the core of their importance; the people MoneyRise spoke to all attested that at some point in their lives, it was either football or nothing and kissing their dreams goodbye before they even began was crushing. 

According to a report by BR, transitioning from the prospect of a life that promises glitz and glamour to one that is humbling can result in depression or other mental issues, yet, there is no support system in Nigeria preparing these boys for that transition. The implication of this is that these boys are all expected to survive solely based on three words, “Life Goes On”. And life does indeed, go on.