Saving dreams in Northern Paris

Saving dreams in Northern Paris

Daniele Canepa

“I think there’s nothing better in life than helping somebody when they are in need,” Junior Bilog says with conviction.

Bilog is a former Cameroonian footballer, known as Coach Kampos in the borough of Saint Denis, north of Paris

In 2005 while working as a night watchman, Bilog was approached by a young man of African origin.

The boy looked worried and was desperate. He had come to Europe to become a footballer and wanted to train and keep fit, but he was alone and had nowhere to go.

Bilog had no coaching experience but pledged to help the young man regain his fitness and self-confidence.

This young man’s story is far from an isolated case, he is one of the thousands of underage players trafficked in the name of football, a phenomenon that does not only touch France but several other European countries.

Their stories go somewhat like this;

A boy – often from West Africa – aspires to a career in European football. An intermediary claiming to be a football agent approaches and brags about his contacts in European football clubs where, he says, he can provide the boy with an opportunity for a trial. The agent asks the child’s family for money to cover travel, accommodation and documentation expenses. Upon reaching the destination country, the player may or may not attend a trial with a club. In some cases, the agent abandons the player on arrival in the destination country, absconding with the money and travel documents.

 

Moved by the young man’s story, the former footballer decided to help out.

Within a short space of time, other youngsters with similar experiences turn to Junior Bilog for help.

Since then, he has been known as Coach Kampos, the president and founder of the Kampos Saint Denis association.

“It all started out spontaneously in order to address a real problem. In the beginning we didn’t even have a dressing room and we were getting changed directly on one of the pitches in Saint Denis. However, throughout the years Kampos Saint Denis has gained a very good reputation, so much so that on average 50 players come training with us every day. We’re not a club and we don’t take part in a league. On the contrary, we serve as a point of reference and support for kids who have lost their confidence.

They come to us because they have fallen victim to trafficking in football or they may have been left without a contract when they came out of the youth league system. Some of them are also struggling to make a living as they are unemployed or short of money. We try to be on the side of these kids by keeping them fit and helping them regain their confidence.”

Kampos Saint Denis workout on the pitch every morning – except for Wednesdays – and training is free of charge. In the beginning, each youngster was asked to contribute one euro – if they could afford it – in order to cover the costs of the training ground. That is no longer the case due to the good relationship fostered with the local administration.

 

I am grateful to the Saint Denis municipality,” says Kampos. “They have understood the value of our activities and offered for us to freely use the Auguste Delaune stadium facilities with dressing rooms and showers. It’s a splendid infrastructure and a solid base to provide quality training.

In the meantime I have also improved my coaching skills and surrounded myself with brilliant assistants holding a federation license.

 

‘‘If a young man is really talented, an agent will never ask him for money to take him to Europe.’’

 

Jean-Dimmy Jéoboam, a 32-year-old Haitian former professional footballer, now a qualified coach and educator, is the vice-president and treasurer of Kampos Saint Denis, and the soul of the organization together with Bilog.

“I met Kampos in a very difficult moment in my career. He gave me a lot of encouragement and I always thought that as soon as my career was over I would come back here to repay that debt of gratitude. The kids come here to train to become footballers, but the human side is what we treasure the most. We want these youngsters to feel they’re part of a family.”

 

Kampos Saint Denis training session

Kampos Saint Denis training session

Jéoboam does not only work on the technical planning of the training sessions, he is also in charge of replying the large number of messages the organization receives every day through its website and social media pages.

Most of the players we welcome today come from the local region of Ile-de-France, but Kampos Saint Denis was born as a point of reference for many young Africans who came here to follow the false promises of people who took advantage of them.

Today people know about us through the net and social media, so our academy is respected even outside Paris or France and many people write directly to me. Sometimes all they need is a piece of advice on what to do. They may be youngsters themselves wanting to try their luck in Europe, or they may be parents asking what chances there are for their children to be successful in European football.

In all these cases, we try to help people to deeply reflect what it means to embark on a journey full of uncertainties. To those who wish to come to Europe because they are lured by the illusion of an easy path to success, we often advise against marvelling at the promises of glittering careers.

If a young man is really talented, an agent will never ask him for money to take him to Europe. On the contrary, the agent will believe in that boy’s potential to the point where he will be willing to invest his own money in him! Having said this, we always did and always will accept everyone who wants to join us, but we try to be very honest about how hard and how competitive the reality is in Europe.

This sincerity is appreciated by those who join the organization and those who decide not to leave their home countries.

I can’t tell how many they are,” says Kampos “but I’m sure there are tens of families who, after contacting us, have concluded that they should keep their boys in Africa. But as Dimmy was saying, we’ll never say no to a kid that comes here, because a young man that wants to do sport should be given the opportunity to do it and we’re here to provide him with that opportunity under the best possible conditions.”

Many professionals have trained at Kampos Saint Denis over the years. Among them are stars – like Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez – who passed through Saint Denis when their career was hitting a low or simply because they wanted to keep fit while waiting for the next club or the next season to start.

For the newcomers, training with professional footballers is definitely a great opportunity to know if they have the skill level required to make it to the top football leagues or not.

The pitch doesn’t lie,” asserts Jéoboam. “Having footballers that played or play professionally is an important testing ground for many kids who can have an idea of whether they can really aspire to a career in football, or if they should concentrate on other skills and look for a different professional path. Kampos, the other coaches and I always encourage the kids to visit the local administration offices and find out about the many opportunities offered to young people such as vocational courses. We always stress the importance of having a Plan B outside football.

The footballers on the pitch reflect the multiethnic and multicultural character of the borough of Saint Denis.

The doors are open to anyone who wants to join the training session,” explains Kampos. “ Everyone should feel accepted whatever their belief, their culture or country of origin. This is why before a training session starts, we gather together in a big circle at midfield and everyone says a little prayer according to their own religion.

However, welcoming anybody who wants to join Kampos Saint Denis does not mean a lack of rules, the coaches clarify.

“In order to work well, every organization requires a minimum degree of discipline. For example, this means that there must be respect for one another. It also means that we say ‘hello’ or ‘thanks’ to every person that comes here, whether it is another footballer, a coach or a guest visiting the facility. We aim to provide football training, it’s true, but above all we aim to re-integrate these young people into society, and in society good manners have a lot of value. Somebody may be a stranger to you today, but if by a simple act of good manners you make a good impression on that person, he or she may be your employer tomorrow.”

 

Coaches Jeoboam and Kampos look on during a training session

Coaches Jeoboam and Kampos during a training session

The social side is a unique trait of Kampos Saint Denis, Jéoboam concludes.

“Football is the game we love and the kids that we train are here because it has always been in their dreams. But football is more than just being a professional or playing in a crowded stadium. It teaches persistence, respect and the development of a collaborative spirit. And, above all, it can teach a lot about dealing with failure.

Everybody experiences failure at some point in their life, and all these young players have already gone through the experience of being deceived or disappointed by others or even by themselves. We encourage them to get back on their feet and use that failure as a new starting point in their young life. A young man who has learnt to overcome failure, tough as that process may have been, will have the strength to improve his life conditions and contribute to society in a positive way. That is the power of sport. And that, we believe, is why Kampos Saint Denis is so unique.”