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Migrants in limbo power Niger football club

As Africa’s smuggling capital, a dusty city in central Niger has found its local football team boosted by an unexpected influx of new players: migrants in limbo awaiting passage to Europe.

Located on the edge of the Sahara, Agadez is a major transit point for migrants hoping to travel north to seek work in either Libya or Algeria or to try to risk the hazardous boat journey to Europe.

But hundreds have been stuck here after running out of money, or have returned after a first failed attempt to get to Europe. Cooling their heels, many of them turn to what they know best — playing football.

And here that means playing for Nassara Agadez, a team in Niger’s second division. “The president of the club promised me that he will get me to Europe,” said 16-year-old Mohamed Diaby, a talented Ivorian who trained with a leading football institute in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s main city.

“I didn’t want to stay on in Ivory Coast, there are too many people” there trying to earn a living through football, he said. “I told myself: I will make my life elsewhere.” – Salary and accommodation – The club’s president Bachir Ama, a one-time fixer who used to transport migrants to Libya, promised to pay Diaby’s passage to Europe if he played for the club for one season.

And Diaby is not the only one making the most of his skills in this arid transport hub. There are eight migrants on the team: four Nigerians and four Ivorians, who earn salaries of up to 100,000 CFA francs (150 euros, $170) and also get accommodation.

At the local stadium, around 30 players are training on a brand-new Astroturf pitch, a gift from the government to mark Niger’s national day. “These are people who came on the way to Libya or Algeria but were stranded here,” Ama says.

“They need work and as football is their profession, so they have come to us to play.” And in Agadez, they have a wide pool to choose from given the huge numbers crossing Niger: in 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted some 335,000 migrants heading north and another 111,000 going the other way. – A footballing odyssey – The club is one of the best in the Agadez region and players hoping to join must pass a trial. Recruiting only “the best”, Nassara have beaten all of their regional rivals and entered the final 16 of the Niger Cup.

Many youngsters are keen to try their luck, one of whom is 16-year-old Toya-se Tunchi Bondo from Liberia. He spent a day training with the club but was not taken on as the season’s transfer and recruitment window had already closed.

“It feels good to play,” says Bondo, a defensive midfielder who has been taken in by the IOM. “All I do is sleep and wait.” An orphan, he ended up in Agadez after a failed attempt to play for MC Oran on Algeria’s northwestern coast. -AFP

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