Stoppage Time: Migrant Footballers Wait for Papers in South Africa

Soccer players South Africa
Two players standing at practice for John Real Soccer Academy

By Jacob Rogers

Almost every morning, a soccer team in East Johannesburg gets together to practice. John Real Soccer Academy, as they are known, is a team made up largely of migrants who have come to South Africa to hopefully jump-start careers as professional soccer players.

Unfortunately for many of these players, despite their talent, a professional soccer career can seem far off. Even with a work permit, it is hard to get signed as a professional footballer since the South African Football Association only allows each team to sign three foreign players. According to John Real Academy coach John Nwakanobi, it comes down to one issue.

“The problem we do have is all about documentation,” Nwakanobi says. “Most of the players, their documents are not valid. Some of them come here with visas and when the visa expires it’s difficult to renew because of, maybe, finance. Cause now it is very expensive to [obtain] some work permits.”

Before getting signed, players must go through South Africa’s notoriously bureaucratic Department of Home Affairs. Certain nationalities travel to Pretoria on certain days. For Nigerians like Luiz Eboh, a left winger on the team who has been in South Africa for almost two years, that day is Thursday.

“You know, for you to go there you have to wake up on time for you to get there,” Eboh said. “Though, it is not even promised that when you get there you get it that same day. … That is the first priority if you are a footballer, if you say you want to do something in this country, first you must have your paper.”

Eboh twice has gone through this process and been rejected. But the process isn’t free. According to the Home Affairs visa website, it costs 2,870 Rand, around $215, to apply. The cost can add up quickly for migrants, especially for those like Eboh who have submitted multiple applications.

“People are willing to pay to get it,” Eboh said. “If you pay that huge amount of money and don’t get it, that is what gets people confused.”

Eboh doesn’t know why keeps being rejected, but for many migrants it is difficult to understand the system at all, as South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs is notoriously bureaucratic. According to Wayne Ncube of the South African group Lawyers for Human Rights, the process also involves other governmental departments, like the Department of Labor, and third-party contractors, leading to long waits.

“It is such a convoluted system,” Ncube said. “It becomes very difficult if you are just getting that work permit yourself. … These days, you have people waiting on average one and a half years before you get your permit.”

But the John Real Academy players and other migrants believe it is worth the wait. According the Loren Landau, who heads the African Center for Migration and Society at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, they’re willing to deal with a lot because the opportunities are simply better.

“Johannesburg and Gauteng accounts for something like 11 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP,” Landau said. “So, it may not look rich if you’re coming from New York or L.A. or London, but relative to, you know, a Mozambique, or a Zambia or a Zimbabwe, it’s a rich place.”

Some of Eboh’s teammates have already gotten their papers. Junior Kanu, also a Nigerian immigrant, clearly remembers the day he learned he could stay and work in South Africa.

“I was very excited,” Kanu said. “They put a sticker on my passport. I came back home, I called the president of [John Real Soccer Academy]. I told him, ‘Yeah, good news in the house. Now they give me three years.’ So he said, ‘Good news.’”

Nwakinobi hopes that more of his players, including Eboh, get good news soon. The window for players to start their careers slowly closes with each passing day, so he always advocates for them with scouts and professional sides.

“I always try to talk on their behalf,” he said. “[If someone has] got a talent, don’t let the talent die.”

Photo at top: Two players from John Real Soccer Academy stand by during a morning practice in East Johannesburg. (Emilie Syberg/MEDILL)