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For some African soccer players, road to World Cup starts in Cambodia

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Nick Sells/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) An African soccer player waits to play in Phnom Penh.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Every day, a few hours before sunset, when shadows become longer and the heat less intense, black men in bright red and yellow jerseys gather near the Olympic Stadium to play soccer. The men are from Africa – mostly Nigeria and Ghana – and they have formed their own team in Cambodia’s capital.

The number of soccer players from Africa here has skyrocketed in the past three years, says May Tola, the spokesman for the Football Federation of Cambodia. While the reasons behind the spike are unclear, Mr. Tola says it took place around the time the Football Federation started charging for tickets, and athletes’ salaries were raised from $20 to $30 per month to between $70 and $300 per month.

In the past, most aspiring African soccer players went to Europe. With that market now saturated, players are chasing opportunities across Southeast Asia. “Cambodia is like a steppingstone for African players,” Tola says.

Jeff Emeka-Eke, from Ghana, makes $450 per month – enough to send some money to his mother. But for others, the situation is different. Recruited from Africa by agents, the number of aspiring African players in Cambodia now far exceeds the spots available on professional teams, which set quotas for non-Cambodians.

In order to keep their ball skills sharp, the Africans formed their own amateur team. But besides no pay, there are other risks. In May, Nigerian Wilson Mene collapsed during a game and died. His death brought much needed regulatory reforms to the fore.

“Many clubs take advantage [of the fact] that they can get these African players for close to nothing,” says Gabriel Ken Gadaffi, the president of Cambodia’s Nigerian Community Association. “It is not fair.”

In response, the federation will require medical certificates and formal contracts, starting next season, in order to play in the league.

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