MOSCOW – As football's top stars arrive in Russia chasing World Cup glory, young African players lured to the country with promises of lucrative contracts say that for them it is a place of scams and shattered dreams.
"We are the team of false promises," said Ismael Soumahoro, who was 16 and playing in Ivory Coast's top flight when a scout convinced him "football is Africa is good but it would be better to take my chances in Europe."
Soumahoro paid the scout 3,000 euros ($3,500) only to find, like so many before him, that promises of a spot with a Moscow club disappeared like a mirage.
He ended up training with a local team in the southern city of Krasnodar until his tourist visa ran out, leaving him adrift with no income in a country with frigid winters and a language he could barely speak.
"It was tough, I didn't know what to do," he said. "It gets you down as you've lost your home club and your dream. In a stroke, you have nothing."
While teams in Russia's Premier League can sign foreign talent, players in the lower divisions must be Russian or have a hard-to-obtain residence permit. Ernest Akhilomhen was a regular in Nigerian youth squads before leaving at age 16 to try his luck in Russia.
He said coaches regularly tell him: "Ernest we like you, we want to sign you, but you have to get the good documents."
Without the correct paperwork Akhilomhen says he must break into the Premier League because it allows foreigners, a dream he stubbornly clings to.
"That's the reason I'm still here: I still have hope," he said.
Several times a week, Akhilomhen meets up at a pitch in the Moscow suburbs with Soumahoro, who coaches the Black Stars, a team he created for African footballers "to stay in shape and keep their hopes up".
Every year some 6,000 African minors quit West Africa looking to make it with a European club, according to the charity Foot Solidaire. It's difficult to estimate the number of adults who make the same journey.
In villages and towns across the continent, young footballers seduced by the promise of an international career hand over sums that put entire families into debt, said Christophe Gleizes, author of the book "Magic System: Modern Slavery of African Footballers".
"They are well-developed scams with official papers signed by clubs: Spartak, Zenit... The traffickers exploit the confidence and the dreams of these kids," he told AFP.
Gleizes said the vulnerable young Africans were "ready to do anything for a better life".
"The El Dorado of European football makes them blind."
Russia, host of the June 14-July 15 World Cup, is an increasingly popular destination such scams as tourist visas are relatively easy to obtain and its top league is considered a springboard to big European clubs.
Mouhamed Kone arrived in Russia with an agent's promises of introductions to a top club and manager ringing in his ears. Two years later, he's still waiting and has run out of hope.
"I don't have any papers, I lost my passport," said the young Malian. "Each time I see the police I get very afraid."
Fellow Africans helped him find an small apartment which he shares with eight others. The 17-year-old hangs up advertisements in a town north of Moscow to pay the rent and eat.
He can earn up to 50 euros per week at best, and often brings home half that.
"I wouldn't encourage anyone to come to Russia to have career in football," he said.
Other Africans find work cutting hair, washing dishes in restaurants or as extras in films in order to earn enough to eat. For his part, Soumahoro earns his way with football, by training Muscovites, both kids and adults. But eight years after he arrived in Russia, he still hopes that one day he'll be noticed by a Premier League side.
"If your have your goal, with or without papers, you can achieve it. The solution is in your dreams."