The death of Nigerian footballer Wilson Mene Saturday has given rise to heated debate over the plight of African players who have come in search of success in the Kingdom of Wonder
Prek Pra Keila’s Wilson Mene (in green) receives medical attention from the pitchside medic after collapsing during their Metfone C-League game against Preah Khan Reach Saturday at Olympic Stadium.
Controversy has been raging in Phnom Penh following the tragic pitchside death of Wilson Mene during a local Metfone C-League fixture Saturday. The 25-year-old Nigerian footballer died of a heart attack, leaving many to question the conditions which African players endure to reside in Cambodia in order to ply their trade in the domestic league.
Mene represented one of the hundreds of aspiring African players who have flocked to the Cambodian capital in search of professional football employment. Their numbers are growing at an increasing pace although a significant proportion is quickly confronted with various ethical, logistical and socio-economic problems.
Who exactly needs who?
So who is to gain from the involvement of African players in Cambodian football? Ouk Sethycheat, General Secretary of the Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC) maintains it is mutually beneficial, whilst pointing out that financial difficulties experienced by players cannot be solely attributed to the league set up.
“Yes [the African players] have definitely contributed a great deal in raising the competitive standard of our league,” he states. “But some of their problems involving pay and living conditions are self made. It is between the players and the clubs [to arrange employment]. What transpires between the two is not the Federation’s business as long as the law of the land is respected and not violated.”
Right: Police hold back some friends of Wilson Mene after he collapsed on the pitch during the league match at Olympic Stadium Saturday.
Left: Prek Pra Keila teammates Dennis Nwaizu (left) and Ly Poukhary during a pre-match warm up Saturday.
The players present their case differently. A large number feel they are exploited by the clubs, with the most common complaint being that they are often bought cheaply, thereby forcing them to shoulder a severe financial burden which affects every aspect of their life off the pitch.
How to make a deal here
How do foreign players attain a place on a Cambodian team? The first step in the majority of cases is travel to Phnom Penh just like many visitors. Once here, a player must tout his footballing talents to potential employers before attempting to convince his worth to clubs which have begun to pay attention. All that remains is to strike a deal, and this is where many start on a precarious path.
Ouk Sethycheat for one is quite candid about the whole scenario. “We know what is going on, but we leave the signings to the clubs,” he asserts. “If [the clubs] can afford them, we allow them to hire [foreign players]. It is strictly between the players and the clubs. In some cases there are signed contracts, in some there are not. The federation has absolutely no say on terms and conditions.”
The secretary recalls the dismal standard of play in the league a few seasons ago, and their efforts to improve it.
“So we opened the gates for foreign players. Initially we got players from Thailand and Vietnam, but in the last three to four seasons we have a great number of African players coming in.”
By making entry requirements so low, the FFC has certainly contributed to the massive influx of African hopefuls into the Kingdom. So much so that African players vying for a contract currently overshoot demand by approximately three to one. Each team is allowed five foreigners on their books, although two sides in the Metfone C-League have strict local player policies.
Clubs struggle to survive
Clubs have their jobs cut out, as players lean on them for better deals and the FFC holds them accountable for any transactions. Of the ten teams in the top tier, at least half are cash-starved private entities while establishment-backed or corporate-sponsored clubs fare much better.
An average footballer from Africa will usually have a clear physical advantage over the average Cambodian player and will generally have superior experience in competitive play. Thus many clubs wish to take full advantage of their five foreign signings quota, but do not have the means to strike high profile deals.
Cue the stream of African players willing to forego a lucrative contract for the opportunity to get a run out on the hallowed turf of Olympic Stadium. Some even offer their services free of charge, such as the late Wilson Mene, who was technically an unpaid volunteer at Prek Pra Keila at the time of his death.
While serving the Africans’ appetite for football, such dealings suit the clubs just fine and the federation is forced to turn a blind eye to proceedings to guarantee an improved standard of football for the local spectators.
Life is decidedly better for those fortunate enough to hold a place in one of the wealthier clubs, such as Phnom Penh Crown or Naga Corp. Modest pay, accommodation, food and, in some select cases, working visas are taken care of.
FFC attempts a clean-up
Ouk Setheycheat says the FFC is all for leveling the playing field.
“You know, our league is not professional,” he says, admitting the many amateur aspects of Cambodia’s premier division. “We are trying to get professional, but right now I can say we are only semi-professional. I now realise the gravity of the situation in the light of what happened last week to Wilson Mene, and we will definitely set things right for the next edition.”
What the federation has in mind is what many players are openly demanding, and what clubs are secretly praying for.
“We are working on an action plan for the next season,” reveals the secretary. “We have [the following] conditions in mind ... Official clearance [for players] for entry and exit of clubs, signed contracts with clauses for minimum wages, perks and compensations, thorough pre-season medical checkups and routine checks on the starting line ups and substitutes before a league game, and more importantly insurance for the players. At present even the Cambodian players are not insured.
“In fact we will not wait til the next season, we will discuss these issues at the end of the first round here [in June],” declared Ouk Setheycheat.
The FFC is sharing gate receipts with the clubs, amounting to around US$5,000 each, half of which is given at the start of the season, and half at the end.
What about TV royalties? The secretary breaks into laughter. “We pay for it,” he retorts, adding that it is very expensive.
Whereas in practically all the major leagues around the world, TV rights are sold, here coverage is apparently a commodity. However, not everything is going against the FFC, with a new $1.5 million sponsorship deal secured from telecommunications company Metfone.
“We were fortunate to get a sponsor this year, and the three year deal will go a long way in helping us build our league,” asserted Ouk Sethycheat.
A call for honest deals
“It is positive thinking,” remarked Ken Gadaffi, president of the Nigerian Community Association when asked about the federation’s proposals. “That’s what we have been pressing for. If we can achieve this, our battle for equality is won.”
Gadaffi blames some of the problems on the naivety of many African players who arrive here with great expectations, as well as the clubs for trying to procure players for nothing.
“It is a clear case of exploitation, and I do not understand how the federation can plead helplessness in a situation like this,” he says. “I feel the need of the hour is to infuse professionalism into the league and it is time that the federation considered recognising managerial services for player recruitments abroad.
“What I feel is right is for these managerial services to get hold of good players, do proper vetting, medical background checks and establish contacts with the local clubs and facilitate their transfers,” Gadaffi suggests. “There must be tripartite not bilateral contracts. By tripartite I mean the player, his agent and the club, and the deal that is to be endorsed by the federation.”
The darker side of football
Gadaffi also reveals some hidden factors in the equation, in particular the activities of some unscrupulous agents, who in connivance with greedy club officials are exploiting aspiring footballers. “We have to sternly deal with them,” he affirms.
One such aggrieved player, preferring to remain anonymous and having enjoyed moderate success for more than three seasons here but currently out of contract, goes further. “This is definitely human trafficking if you ask me,” he opines.
Reports have emerged of specific cases where players with absolutely no credentials have been brought straight in to sign for premier league clubs. This is done at the expense of established team members, who are forced out of contract unfairly and without compensation. Such practices will obviously cost the clubs in the long run, especially in respect to their reputation, but will probably boost club revenues in the short term.
Another distinctly grey area surrounds visas for players. Last season, the federation helped the majority of the foreign players get their visas free of charge. However, this service has now been revoked on instruction from immigration authorities, who have cited very serious irregularities on the part of certain individuals issued with free visas. “There were specific complaints against some players and we do not want to get involved this year,” stated Ouk Sethycheat.
Everyone starts somewhere
Are the African players using the Cambodian League as a launching pad to get into more lucrative leagues in the region, such as Thailand or Vietnam?
“I do think some of them are, but as long as they are helping the Cambodian league it is fine with us and no one can blame a player for furthering his career prospects,” answered the FFC Secretary.
Nigerian-born hotshot Uche Prince Justine, who excelled in the previous season as the league’s top goal scorer and who has since joined league front-runners Phnom Penh Crown, claimed some players had the merit to go straight to the better leagues, but instead chose to live in the Kingdom “because they love it here”, adding: “You can be sure of one thing with African footballers, they love the game, and as Wilson Mene has shown, they are prepared to die for it.”
Mene was buried Wednesday morning at Cham Chao Community Cemetery after a Christian funeral service following his family’s consent to make Phnom Penh his permanent resting place. In attendance were representatives from the FFC, Mene’s former teams Prek Pra Keila, Preah Khan Reach and Build Bright United, as well as numerous foreign and local players from the Metfone C-League.