Left stranded in Istanbul after a failed trial, Nigerian-born footballer Sani Gideon recounts the unpalatable experience he endured during his search for greener pastures in Turkey.
In 2009, Gideon, a promising 18-year-old, arrived in Turkey alongside three other Nigerians for a trial with Kocaelispor, a top-flight outfit, but was unable to seal a deal due to Turkish migration policy.
“From the four players invited, I was the only one allowed to play with the club,” Gideon told Footballers Connect in an Instagram Live chat.
“We were left in the streets walking with our toothbrush inside our pockets. We had no place to go, roaming about the streets looking for what to eat,” he continued. “I remember vividly, I was sleeping inside a Cyber Cafe. They gave me a job of cleaning the computers, and I was earning 5 Turkish Lira ($0.73) That’s how I was able to take care of myself during that period.”
Before leaving Nigeria, the striker had played for Nigeria Premier League side Gateway FC.
“It has been a rough and tough journey. As young players, we all just wanted to travel as footballers for greener pasture. I played in the Nigerian League but I was not satisfied with the conditions, I wanted to go to ‘that Europe’, so I challenged myself. I didn’t have any problem with my team, I just left.”
Such was his talent while playing at the Abeokuta-based club that he caught the eyes of Godwin Izilien, who was Nigeria U17 coach then.
“Coach Izilien invited me to the U17 camp. I remember the friendly match we played against Jegede FC, I went for capturing in process of my passport so I missed most part of the match.
“I was brought in by Coach Izilien who gave me just five minutes and I scored a goal. The coach was impressed and he made up his mind to take me to the qualifiers but my passport was delayed so I could not make it with the team.”
Gideon returned to Lagos to join an academy where he featured in another friendly match against Nigeria U20 side. The match clip was sent to agents in Turkey who showed interest in the striker and prepared his travel documents.
He recalled how Kocaelispor, the club he went to trial at, received him well. However, he said after it became known he could not join the club, the quality of treatment started declining.
“There was a time I called my brother and told him I was coming back home, he encouraged me to keep managing the situation. I told him real shit is going on here. Some of my friends back in Nigeria suggested I return while others asked me to stay. Three other players left me in Turkey as they could no longer endure the situation,” he recounted.
“During this period I was running inside a garden close to where I live. I didn’t have anywhere to play football. Someone saw me training and took me to a place where other Africans play football. When I got there, I saw many Nigerians, I was welcomed to the fold and I joined them.”
Another chance presented itself to Gideon, this time with a lower division outfit, Hendekspor. He had overstayed his visa but managed to score seven times in six trial matches.
Despite his efforts on the pitch, he couldn’t secure a contract with the club because they were unable to help with visa renewal. Even marrying a local did not help his case.
He stayed on in Turkey with hopes held high and took on more try-outs until his big break. Izmispor, an amateur team, offered him a chance, and he “killed the most experienced defender”.
Gideon became the cynosure of all eyes, grabbing headlines across the city. Top-flight club Akhisar Belediyespor then snapped up for his first professional contract.
“We have many African players here who are just wasting their time. I always advise them whenever I have the opportunity. For some, I advise that they return to Nigeria to go and play rather than stay back here doing nothing,” he said.
Having spent over a decade in Turkey, Gideon, now 30, has played for more than five clubs. Currently, he is the captain of Yeni Amasyaspor.
Also, he has begun working with Munichka Sport, a group set up to help footballers achieve their dreams. They established a team where these players are well trained and prepared for opportunities when they show up.