Karim and Yves
Photo credit: Jose Jordan/AFP
Karim and Yves trekked for years through Africa from Cameroon before arriving in Spain where they now play football and rugby, realising a life-long ambition even if their daily lives are still a struggle. They're not the only ones to have stepped onto Spanish shores with dreams of making it big in the sporting world. Associations and migrants say roughly a quarter of new arrivals' main reason for coming is to play professionally. But a large majority are soon brought back down to earth with a bang when faced with the long search for residency papers while eking out a living.
Sense of belonging
Karim Issa Abdou and Yves Kepse Tchonang are arguably among the lucky ones. While their lives are totally separate, they share many similarities. Both 27-years-old, they clambered over the barbed wire and razor-sharp blades of the triple barrier between Morocco and Spain's overseas territory of Melilla, one of only two land borders between Africa and the European Union.
Karim now plays for Alma de Africa ("Heart and Soul of Africa" in English), a football team in southern Jerez de la Frontera composed almost exclusively of migrants in the second division of the regional league. Yves plays at front row at Rugby Club Valencia more than 700 kilometres (450 miles) away in eastern Spain, in the first division of the regional league. While they're not professional, which means they aren't paid for playing, both are surrounded by associations that can provide legal and housing support. Crucially, being part of a team has given meaning to otherwise difficult lives, they say.
"Alma de Africa has given me stability," says Karim, sipping a beer at a bar in Jerez, large headphones round his neck ready to play music like Cameroon's makossa or rap by France's Booba.
A self-confessed brawler when the team was formed in 2015, he says he has since settled down.
Born in a nomadic family in Ngaoundere in northern Cameroon, Karim says he left when he was only around 10 years old with a friend. It took him some four years to go through Nigeria, Niger and Algeria before arriving in Morocco, where he lived another three years in the Gourougou Mountain that overlooks Melilla.
Along the way, the Zinedine Zidane fan earned money to keep going, doing odd jobs, just like Yves, who cuts an imposing, brawny figure. One of seven siblings, Yves left home in the western city of Bafoussam in 2012 "to play rugby." In Niger, he recalls many instances of employers refusing to pay him and threatening to call the police. Both recount being robbed of their possessions along the way, as do other Alma de Africa members.
"When you're a kid, there are people who take your phone, everything you have, the rucksack, the clothes, the money, and you have to start afresh," says Karim, a contagious laugh always at the ready despite difficult recollections.