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LIBREVILLE, Gabon – Only a tiny minority of African soccer players achieve stardom and the rich rewards that go with it. While some of those players will feature in Sunday's African Cup of Nations final, for thousands of journeymen professionals on this continent it's not a beautiful game but an ugly and abusive system that has let them down badly.
According to a report by the world soccer players' union FIFPro , thousands of players in Africa aren't paid for months, sometimes years; contracts are non-existent, ignored or torn up completely by powerful, politically-connected club bosses; and injured players are discarded as too much trouble or too expensive to treat, and left to fend for themselves. If they can't afford treatment, some have to give up their only livelihood.
Many are left exposed to violent attacks by fans, even their own supporters enraged by a loss. And in a sad spinoff, match-fixing rings have sunk their claws into vulnerable players desperate to make money. Forced into a dark corner, they'll fix to survive.
Some may find it difficult to gather sympathy for soccer players, multimillionaires in many countries. But these are African players who need money to feed families and keep a roof — any roof — over their heads.
The Associated Press spoke to players and coaches in Zimbabwe, a southern African country that featured prominently in FIFPro's report, to examine the issues. They agreed to interviews on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution for speaking out.
One player said he earns $400 a month (more than half of Africa's players earn under $1,000 a month, according to FIFPro) but his club still owes him three months' salary from last season. He rents a single room in a crowded low-income neighborhood, is threatened often by fans, takes public transport to training, and sends as much money as he can to his family back in his hometown. When he isn't paid, and that's regularly, his family gets nothing and he struggles to keep going. He was evicted from a previous room because he wasn't paid and couldn't make rent, he said.
This is not the story of a part-time amateur — he's a top-flight professional who regularly plays against internationals. He's not alone.
"That's how we all live," he told the AP. "Most players in the league know each other and we talk. I can tell you that's how we all survive on the pittance we earn. Last season my child was sick and the club had not paid for two months. I failed to pay rent. I was chucked out of my lodgings by the owner. I had to live off different people for a month."
At another top-tier club in Zimbabwe, players were living in a broken-down building with no toilets or running water, conditions described as "inhuman" by Desmond Maringwa, the head of the local players' union.
Those sickening conditions are fertile breeding grounds for match-fixing.
Another Zimbabwean player, who has played for the national team, admitted to the AP that he took money from a rival club to underperform in a game last season and help them win. Fixing was "prevalent" and an "open secret" in the league, he said. He said he was one of three players on his team to take money to lose the match.
"Each one of us knew what was happening, but we just couldn't talk about it. We did what we were supposed to do, as per instruction, and we lost the game. We couldn't look each other in the eyes after the game."
The situation is often the result of the deceit of club bosses, who are rich or politically-connected, usually both, and rarely held to account.
In Botswana, the players' union reported that there was a trend of clubs delaying registering a new player's contract. If he turned out to be good, club officials would race to register him. If he didn't work out, or got injured, he'd be told he had no contract.
Although Africa was not the only continent identified with problems, it was the worst on so many issues:
In Africa, 15 percent of professional players do not have contracts at all. If they do have one, many don't have a copy. Africa is the worst for not paying players.
More than 10 percent of players across Africa said in the anonymous survey that they were aware of match-fixing in their league, more than any other continent. Around 20 percent of players in Zimbabwe said they'd been approached to fix. Three of the worst four countries for violence against players are in Africa, with Congo the most dangerous country in the world to be a soccer player. Nearly 25 percent of players surveyed in Congo said they'd been attacked by fans.
Those dangers were highlighted in horrific circumstances in 2014 when Cameroonian player Albert Ebosse died from head injuries after being hit by a rock thrown by fans at a game in Algeria.
Other individual country reports were just as bad: In Cameroon, which plays Egypt in Sunday's African Cup final in Gabon, 67 percent of players don't have a copy of their contract, FIFPro found. David Low, a Singaporean who played in Cameroon, told FIFPro that his experience was that "99 percent" of players there aren't paid. They get their wages "one month out of every six." They hang on in the hope of being spotted by a European club, but few make it.
"They are stuck there. They are like football slaves," Low said. "Many of the football bosses are in business or government and some of them are corrupt. You are fighting against an unknown enemy and it's an impossible fight."
In Gabon, the central African nation currently hosting the African Cup, a staggering 95 percent of players aren't paid on time, and not just days late. Months and months late, if at all.
The continent's best (they all play in Europe) have been on show at the Cup of Nations over the last three weeks: Gabon star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of German club Borussia Dortmund was invited to personal meetings with Gabon's president. Senegal's Sadio Mane returned to Premier League club Liverpool from Gabon on a private jet. Gabon itself spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the tournament, claiming soccer as an example of its unity and progress.
Yet there's no money and no mention for the 48 Gabon league players who haven't been paid for 10 months. FIFPro told the AP that it was organizing a lawyer for them — they can't afford one — and would report Gabon to world body FIFA.
Muchinjo reported from Harare, Zimbabwe.