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African footballers stranded in Turkey
Two vociferous teams play a high-tempo, flowing game of football on a brilliant sun-filled day on a perfect pitch overlooking the Bosphorus, just a stone's throw from downtown Istanbul.
The scene would be normal were it not for the fact that all 22 players and coach are black Africans, most lured to Turkey by rogue agents and left stranded after promised contracts with Turkish clubs failed to materialise.
They gather three times a week to train in the hope that passing scouts from the capital's big three teams, Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, might pick them up and usher them into the privileged world of professional football.
The Beleyedi municipality lends the players the pitch, provides some kit and even offers food at the end of training, municipal mayor Mustafa Demir having launched the initiative to "help these young African players find a club in Turkey", according to Hayrettin Yazici, head of the municipality's sports department.
But living a harsh day-to-day existence -- in an environment where few of the Africans have regular work and often sleep six to a bedroom in dilapidated housing -- has left its mark.
"I just want to leave," said 18-year-old Aziq, a Ghanaian who arrived in January after stumping up $2,500 to an agent from his west African country for a "contract".
"I was bought a plane ticket and visa. The agent told me to go along to this club in Istanbul and there'd be someone waiting for me.
"I went along but no one had even heard of me."
Coach John Takpe hails from Nigeria and touched down in Istanbul six months ago after being promised a job in Turkey after having helped out as a volunteer at a Besiktas "academy" in Ibadan, 150km north of Lagos.
"I have a wife and two daughters, aged nine and seven, back home. But I can't go home," Takpe told AFP, wiping the sweat from his brow and slipping his clothes back over his training kit after the end of the two-hour session.
"I have no money to buy a ticket, I have no papers. I'm stuck but also lucky that I work a few hours a week hauling cargo, that at least gives me something for my wallet.
"I'm here in the hope that I manage to get a professional contract as a coach. I want to be a proper coach but at the moment I'm a coach who sleeps in the same room as God knows how many of my players."
Hopes, Takpe also admitted, that were not high, given his almost complete lack of the Turkish language and a tougher economic climate that has seen many clubs here tighten purse strings.
"I - no, we - we'd like to go to Europe, but having neither money nor papers makes it impossible," he said.
Yazici, of the municipality, pulls up after training in his car, pops the boot and the two Kurdish groundsmen hand out a sandwich of spicy lamb balls and salad and ayran, a yoghurt drink, to the players.
Some eat there in the shadow of the city's famed Blue Mosque, most move on, ready to drift around the streets of Istanbul until the next training session and the wild notion that a random scout might spot their talent.
"We want them playing for Besiktas, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray or Trabzonspor," Yazici told AFP.
Realistically, coach Takpe acknowledged that of the 22 players in his squad, "10 were good, and five were very good, capable of making it in Turkey".
And the rest? "Tough, tough, tough," said Takpe, eyes falling to the ground.
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