When Ebuka Ogbuehi and Joel Izeh met Eric Fred Toumi, their hopes for a bright future were raised by promises of a transfer to a foreign football club.
The money from this transfer would help Ebuka support his family, particularly his mother, who has been most supportive of his career choice.
For Joel, whose mother died when he was a small child, it would be the lifeline he had prayed for.
Mr. Toumi, a Cameroonian, told them he was a FIFA-licensed agent with connections at top clubs like Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. He showed them pictures of himself dining with football stars.
Ebuka and Joel said they were good footballers and “in form” and were looking for a big break outside of Nigeria.
All they had to do was pay money to Mr. Toumi to secure this dream.
Joel’s aunt borrowed money to pay his fee.
Ebuka’s mother, a petty trader, borrowed some money from Ebuka’s brother, took another sibling’s school fees, and borrowed some more because she thought the money would be recouped in many folds.
They were wrong.
“That was the worst experience ever. I left here September or October 2013. We left at about 10 a.m. We stopped at Badagry,” Ebuka said.
“After paying him the money he asked us to buy things like tissues, shake-off [supplement] to flush out everything you’ve eaten here in Nigeria so that when you go there it won’t be a problem,” Joel added in a separate interview.
“I paid him over N300,000.”
Their first stop was in Badagry. Two months later, they left for Cameroon through the Calabar seaport arriving at their camp close to a school called St. Jean.
The camp, and their treatment there, was a far cry from what they were expecting.
They slept on thin mattresses; their phones were confiscated so they couldn’t contact anyone. Instead, their coach called on their behalf.
They ate less than twice daily and after two months, when food stopped coming, they had to resort to stealing from nearby farms.
“The farmers were all complaining, when they dig, they will not find their crops, so they were all suspecting us because we used to beg them to work for them,”Joel said. “Sometimes, when we clear grass, in exchange, they will give us some food items.”
He added that the players were attacked by a group of local boys who called them thieves.
“There was this tout, a cult guy in the Mbanga, they call him Zamba. So there was a day the guy came into the school close to the camp to disturb us.”
The players defended themselves with cutlasses, bottles and leaves known to cause itching. It was at this point they decided to leave.
By this time, the transfer window had closed, and they were no longer mentally and physically able to play.
They begged community members for phones, got money sent to them from home, and made their way out of Cameroon.
But it wasn’t only the players who were disappointed: the other staff hired by Mr. Toumi, including a nurse called Bola, were also left stranded by Mr. Toumi.
No official list
According to Aminu Yusuf, a football agent registered with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), presenting yourself as a FIFA licensed agent is the fastest way to dupe footballers. But a legitimate agent would not ask for money from aspiring players because agents’ fees are paid from the club transfer fee.
“When you say FIFA, people get moved. And a lot of agents use that name to dupe people. The name alone can dupe people. So that is why FIFA in their wisdom [scrapped the] title FIFA licensed agent. You are a player agent licensed by your federation.
“Example: My name is Aminu, player agent licensed by the Nigerian football federation. People just use the title FIFA licensed agent. And people think you have international connections: you are affiliated with FIFA.”
Currently, Mr. Yusuf said, the NFF has not done enough to publicise the new FIFA guidelines.
Mohammed Sanusi, the General Secretary of the NFF also said that the federation does not currently have a list of registered intermediaries. He adds that a new board is working to improve their system, but currently the NFF has no data on intermediaries, agents or clubs.
“There is no database, we are trying to do this.”
Next year, he promises, one will become available.
On the issue of rogue agents duping the families of young players, Mr. Sanusi says that the federation had no official record of complaints, though he had “heard this kind of reports”:
“When complaints come like that we treat them as they come and send them to the appropriate quarters, department and we set up committees to treat, so there are no records.
“We don’t have records of these complaints because most of them are verbal complaints and we sit with them to solve it. The players are the ones who run to the agent and sign agreement with them, you hardly see a player who didn’t sign any agreement with the agents. So, we have not apprehended any one, there is nothing [we] can do.”
Mr. Yusuf added that a “significant number of academies are illegal because they have not fulfilled conditions of registrations”.
This means that coaches like Emma who ran the Global FC academy where the boys met Mr Toumi, are able to disappear.
According to Joel and Ebuka, ‘coach Emma’ — the only way they identify him— disappeared after their ordeal in Cameroon.
All attempts to speak with Mr. Toumi, who has several Facebook profiles, have so far failed.
An associate at Mega Soccer Academy Du Moungo, the agency Mr. Toumi claims to run, however confirmed an Eric Toumi worked with the academy and that our inquiries had been passed on to him.
Mr. Toumi is yet to respond to our messages as at the time of publishing this report.