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Nigerians’ Tajik Soccer Dreams Deferred

Aspiring Nigerian soccer player Dennis Tahgbok (center) discusses his situation from a flat in Dushanbe.
Aspiring Nigerian soccer player Dennis Tahgbok (center) discusses his situation from a flat in Dushanbe.
When Jinaid left his home in Nigeria for Tajikistan last year, he thought he was traveling to Central Asia to pursue a career in professional soccer.

But the 21-year-old's adventure didn’t turn out quite as planned.

After spending hundreds of dollars to fulfill his dream, Jinaid is now stranded in Dushanbe with no job and no money.

"Now, I'm struggling without doing anything," Jinaid says. "I'm hungry, my visa has expired. Nothing to do."

Jinaid is among a group of at least 10 Nigerians who have traveled to Tajikistan in the past three years, seeking to join soccer clubs and make a decent living. Some of them did play for Tajik teams, but they complain that what they got fell far short of expectations.

Alleged Afghan Middleman

They have sued an Afghan national living in Dushanbe for allegedly acting as a middleman and luring them to the country on false pretenses.

The alleged middleman, Hamidullah Abdulmannon, has been charged on suspicion of scamming the would-be footballers. He is also accused of promising other young Nigerians places at Tajik universities.
Afghan national Hamidullah Abdulmannon says the Nigerians are ganging up against him, with no basis for the allegation that he was an unethical broker.
Afghan national Hamidullah Abdulmannon says the Nigerians are ganging up against him, with no basis for the allegation that he was an unethical broker.

Jinaid says he traveled to Tajikistan along with three other Nigerian players.

"[Abdulmannon told] my coach in Nigeria that there is a football team here which is looking for good players, so our coach got in touch with us [and told] us that he had an offer for us: to come down to Tajikistan," Jinaid says. "We paid money to my coach. I paid $700."

But in Tajikistan, Abdulmannon is alleged to have forced Jinaid to pay another $1,500 for what he called "university fees," telling the player he would be deported if he didn't pay.

"So I had to call my parents and I [said] the scenario has changed," Jinaid says. "We came here as football players without knowing that we were invited as students. They asked us to pay school fees [of] $1,500. So they sent the money to Hamidullah."

'No More Claims'

Jinaid claims Abdulmannon brought the four Nigerian soccer players to the club Zarafshon Panjakent, based in northern Tajikistan. He says they were proposed a four-month contract that included a monthly salary, apartment allowance, and other benefits.

After playing for the club for five months without receiving any salary, Jinaid says, the soccer players complained to the Tajik Football Federation.

"[The federation] wrote a letter to the president of the club. 'OK,' they said, they are going to pay the money," Jinaid says. "Out of the $3,200 which they had to pay, they only paid $300 for each player."

Tajik Football Federation official Nurali Khorkashev confirms that the federation had received complaints from the Nigerian players last year and instructed Zarafshon Panjakent to pay the money it owed to the foreign players. Khorkashev adds that the payment has been made by the club.

Zarafshon Panjaken’s head coach, Jamshed Bahronov, says the Nigerian players were paid in full, including food and accommodation. He says that "after the club representative handed over the payment to the players they signed a letter for us that they have no more claims over our club."

Dennis Tahgbok had a similar experience. The 21-year-old says he came to Dushanbe in March 2012 along with five other Nigerian soccer players. Tahgbok played center for eight months at Hosilot Farkhor, a club based in the Farkhor district that borders Afghanistan, without receiving any salary. He has been surviving in Tajikistan with the financial help of his parents.

Fine Print?

But after complaining to the Tajik Football Federation, Tahgbok says he learned that the Russian-language contract that Abdulmannon signed on his behalf mentioned tuition but not salary.

A Tajik soccer expert says it is common for players in Tajikistan to not get paid for months. Exceptions are a handful of top clubs.

Alleged middleman Abdulmannon was detained last month but released on June 19 after the Interior Ministry said the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe guaranteed he would not leave the country.

Abdulmannon, a student at the Avicenna Tajik State Medical University, rejects the accusations against him and counters with allegations of his own.

"I know a person from Nigeria named Kaliz. He was my English teacher," Abdulmannon says. "I saw all these [Nigerians] with him in Kaliz’s home and he introduced them to me. They all are from one country and I am from another. They want to trick me. Their visas have expired and they understand that if they accuse someone while they are having troubles, the Tajik government will forgive them and prolong their visas."

Meanwhile, would-be players Tahgbok and Jinaid remain stranded in Dushanbe, uncertain of the future as their parents' patience -- and money -- dwindles.

"Now our parents are tired about [us] calling them to send money, send money, send money for us," Tahgbok says. "They are expecting something from us [and] they are still the ones sending money. They have suffered a lot."

Written by Antoine Blua based on reporting by Fakhriddin Kholbekov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, with additional reporting by Farangis Najiballah

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