Moshood Afolabi, 24, arrived at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos on Saturday, a day after he left Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
Afolabi was trapped in Mongolia for 16 months.
After his football contract was abruptly cancelled in August last year, he was left in the country with $150 and overstayed his tourist visa.
The situation made it impossible to secure work, get his travel documents in order or afford a flight home.
“I’m very happy to have gained freedom leaving Mongolia,” he told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t believe I’d be in Nigeria on Saturday. I didn’t believe it. Now, I’m experiencing so many things in Nigeria. Fresh air, fresh food. I’m really happy.”
In August, Al Jazeera reported on the his plight and that of many other aspiring African footballers who are now stranded in several countries, duped by people posing as agents who tricked them into paying significant sums, ostensibly to travel and play for foreign clubs.
In Afolabi’s case, a Nigerian man who lived near his home in Osogbo, in the southwestern Nigerian state of Osun, spun him a tale, took his savings and sent him to play for local Mongolian club Western Khovd FC.
But the job did not last beyond his tourist visa and he quickly fell into serious financial and personal problems.
Christopher Hannah, a Scottish businessman who had lived in Mongolia for six months, read and empathised with Afolabi’s story.
“I had come across Moshood two weeks before I contacted him. I saw the article on Al Jazeera and at the time I was in Scotland,” Hannah told Al Jazeera.
“I flew back to Mongolia and I saw it posted again on a forum and I remember someone was asking, ‘Why doesn’t someone help this guy?'”
Hannah, who was at the time working on setting up a cashmere business in the East Asian country, had experience in the football industry and a passion for the sport.
He was previously an image rights agent for several European football clubs and footballers.
African footballers stranded around the world with crushed dreams
“Football is one of the best ways to break communication or culture barriers. This was the main reason Moshood and I could come together,” he said.
After the Nigerian footballer spent a week detained by the Mongolian immigration service in late September, Hannah booked and paid for Afolabi’s $900 flight home, while Afolabi’s friend Wael, an Egyptian immigrant, gave him the $750 he needed to pay for overstaying his visa.
“I felt sad because I hadn’t experienced it in my life to be in a detention room for seven days,” said Afolabi. “For the first three days in detention, I was drinking water, fasting and praying to Almighty Allah to save me.”
Hannah said that his life in Mongolia took a turn for the worse after he helped Afolabi, claiming he was treated with hostility by locals and was eventually denied a business visa extension.
He has now returned to his native Scotland and is in the process of opening a new football agency focusing on regions such as Africa.
Up to thousands of scammed African footballers
It is not clear exactly how many hopeful African players are stranded across the world but according to some estimates, the number is in the thousands.
In 2017, there was an influx of more than 100 African talents to Nepal, a south Asian country known least for football.
British media reported that an estimated 15,000 players are trafficked to Europe annually.
In Russia, there are dozens of cases.
Beverley Agbakoba Onyejianya, a Nigerian sports lawyer, said being deported could impact a player’s mental health.
“Being deported may leave a footballer being stigmatised and even anxious about their future opportunities and ability to earn a good income,” she said. “The player’s career may or may not be affected depending on how they work to find new opportunities.”
Back at home and reflecting on his journey, Afolabi says he will continue to play his beloved sport.
“Football is my passion,” he said. “I want to use football to help my family and other people that do not have the means. I believe I’ll make it in football and I want to continue.”
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS