KAUNAS, Lithuania — The letter was short and to the point: A.S. Monaco, the elite soccer club on the French Riviera, wanted Ibrahima Sory Soumah to travel from his home in Guinea to France for a 10-day trial.
Soumah’s mind raced with the possibilities. If Soumah, a midfielder, could succeed in the test period and convince his hosts of his value, he might take his place at one of the finest soccer finishing schools in the world, and maybe even follow the path that led George Weah, Thierry Henry and Kylian Mbappé from Monaco to global stardom. But even if he did not, Soumah knew that simply spending time under the tutelage of Monaco’s coaches would increase his chances of finding a different club and forging a decent pro career in Europe, fulfilling his dreams and those of his family back in Conakry.
Two years later, though, Soumah cuts a dejected figure. Trouble obtaining a visa meant he never made it to France for his trial in January 2017. So instead of Monte Carlo, the wiry Soumah was recounting his story in the outdoor dining area of a kebab restaurant in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city. Here, signed to a contract that pays him a minimum-wage salary of $470 a month but, bizarrely, includes a multimillion-dollar buyout, he was sharing a bedroom with a teammate in a house owned by F.C. Stumbras, a club seemingly organized and run with the sole intention of flipping players for profit.
For hundreds of players around the world, this week is a critical one: a last chance to secure a move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs or leagues before the transfer window in most countries slams shut until January. To players like Soumah, praying fervently that he could find a way out well before the deadline, it is something else entirely.
His contract battle — and several others like it at F.C. Stumbras — have shined a light on the darker side of soccer’s player-trading market, where individuals and teams, but also investors and companies on the fringes of the European game, angle for a cut of the more than $6.5 billion spent on players every year.
To those players, feeling like a pawn or, worse, a prisoner, in a world of broken promises, bad contracts and bad intentions can be paralyzing. A life on soccer’s fringes can be exasperating, and lonely, even in the best of times. But it also carries hope for a future that life in Conakry cannot, and so every year, hundreds of players become willing participants, happy to swap difficult lives back home for a chance to eke out a living in Europe.
The problem, many quickly find, is that while it is quite easy to find oneself in a tough situation, it can be exceedingly difficult to get out.
The Futures Market
Five-year-old F.C. Stumbras is, for almost all involved with it, as much a futures investment as a soccer club. One of eight teams in Lithuania’s top division, the A Lyga, it has been co-owned since 2016 by Richard Walsh, an Irish financier, and its Portuguese coach, Mariano Barreto, who runs the team’s affairs.
Walsh said his involvement in Stumbras came after a friend introduced him to Barreto. The idea was to use Walsh’s money and Barreto’s contacts to build a talent factory, and then to make a killing selling players for a profit. After looking at opportunities in Portugal, the group alighted instead on Lithuania, which has one of the lowest minimum wage requirements in Europe and where half the top league’s eight teams typically qualify for continental competitions every year.
The club’s business plan appears to be a simple one: Recruit free agents and move them on for a fee or, failing that, a guarantee of a percentage of a future sale, an arrangement known in the player market as a “carry.”
The strategy creates a mutual sense of urgency. The players hope Stumbras isn’t their final destination. Management feels the same. Pitching itself as a win-win situation, the team, which draws as few as 70 fans to some matches, bills itself as little more than a staging post for ambitious pros on their way to bigger things.
“You shouldn’t be in our club for more than two years,” Walsh said. “You should be somewhere bigger and better.”
Since taking control, Barreto, who once managed Ghana’s national team, has filled out Stumbras’s roster of domestic players with little-known talent drawn largely from Brazil, Africa and Portugal. For Soumah, who is known as Ibra, the calculation in deciding to join Stumbras in February — after a short stay in the Armenian second division — was simple, according to his agent, Paulo Teixeira: Because Lithuania is a member of the 27-member European Union, players signed to the club can get coveted visas allowing them to travel across much of the bloc.
That alone brings them one step closer to the riches of bigger leagues in countries like Spain, Italy, Germany and France. If Monaco came calling again, Soumah could, in theory, jump on the next plane and head straight to its training center.
For that to happen, though, he would need Stumbras to agree to allow him to go. And that is where the tension begins. A handful of players, including Soumah, spent this summer trying to break their contracts with F.C. Stumbras, claiming the team had not made good on promises and had provided substandard accommodations. At least one said he was no longer being paid.
The club contends the complaints are a ploy devised by agents; if the agents can move players on without a fee, they could earn a hefty commission from the new club. But the disputed contracts that bind players to Stumbras appear stacked heavily in the team’s favor: wages of less than $500 a month, multimillion-dollar fines if a player leaves without permission, and conditions that grant the club the right to summarily dismiss a player “if the quality of (his) sports activity … does not meet requirements of the club anymore.”
“They pay all players minimum wage,” Roy Vermeer, a FIFPro lawyer, said of the club. “Do the math and it’s a good business.”
Walsh, the Stumbras owner, said that any mistakes in handling players the club may have made were unintentional, but he insisted the club’s contracts were legal under Lithuanian law. Experts, however, including FIFPro, the global players’ union, said the terms were most likely unenforceable because of how one-sided they appear.
But to players — low on cash, uneducated in the finer points of contract law and sleeping on couches in Lithuania — that is hardly reassuring.
One of Soumah’s teammates complained that he was no longer receiving regular paychecks and was down to his last eight euros. He would like to leave, too, but said he first needed to be certain he had somewhere to go, something that gets harder and harder for players like him, who are already in their mid-20s.
“My biggest fear is time,” he said. “Today, tomorrow — we are getting old.”
Life in Kaunas
At F.C. Stumbras, Soumah found his life pared down to the very basics: a daily walk to the team’s training ground, a two-hour workout and then back to his room, where he passed the time watching Nigerian movies and soap operas. That no-frills existence extended to the clothes on his back, a wardrobe that appeared to be exclusively team-issued gear.
Soumah explained that he spent very little on himself so he could send 200 euros a month to his parents in Conakry, the Guinean capital. “If they’re happy,” he said, “I’m happy.”
At Nakties Magija, the two-story house on a quiet residential street where the players live, the dormitory-style arrangement is more akin to a summer soccer camp than a professional club trying to play its way into the UEFA Europa League, a feat the team accomplished this year, earning a windfall of 240,000 euros (about $280,000).
Stumbras conceded it was not unusual for players to sleep two to three to a room, and while a reporter for The New York Times was barred from entering by a coach, the club provided a link to a video tour of the house, whose bedrooms feature a mix of single and hostel-style bunk beds. Soumah and two other players, who declined to be identified because they remain under contract with the team, described a strict regimen at the residence: Players had to be in their bedrooms by 10 p.m., and they weren’t allowed visitors. “It’s like being a prisoner,” Soumah said.
Still, he — and others — know it could be worse. That is why, faced with the reality of returning to Africa or South America after their soccer dreams fail to materialize, some ex-players simply disappear instead, preferring to take their chances living illegally in Europe rather than returning home.
“I used to be more sympathetic,” Isha Johansen, the president of Sierra Leone’s soccer federation, said. “But now I’m more dispassionate because there has been a lot of stories of things going wrong. A lot of people know what they’re getting into and are willing to take the risk.
“It’s not all these guys who are going there unknowingly. Sometimes they’ll do anything to leave Sierra Leone or Guinea. Because, let’s be honest, it’s pretty dire back home. Getting 400 euros compared to 10 back home. What would you go for?”
The collision of soccer dreams, messy reality and economic forces drives the merry-go-round of players. Thousands of players like Soumah are on the move every year, their journeys often determined by informal networks of coaches, agents, middlemen and clubs. At the bottom end of this ecosystem, in places like Lithuania’s A Lyga and at clubs like Stumbras and dozens of others, it is often everyone for himself.
As Stumbras tries to hold on to Soumah, or at least get paid for letting him go, it is waging a concurrent fight to avoid missing out on a payment for Kgaogelo Sekgota, a gifted 21-year-old South African attacker known as Kigi. Sekgota claimed he was not provided with a copy of his contract when he signed it. With several European teams expressing an interest in signing him, he and the adviser who delivered him to Stumbras decided his time there was over: Last month, Sekgota walked out on the club, claiming it was in breach of contract.
A FIFA dispute resolution committee will have to sort it all out.
Waiting at the Exit
The fights have taken their toll on Walsh, who claimed his investment group bankrolls the team to the tune of 70,000 euros a month. But he blamed the players and their agents — whom he called gangsters — for the disputes, not the players’ one-sided contracts with the club.
But to hear Walsh talk these days, he can sound as if he wants out of Stumbras almost as much as Soumah and Sekgota, to give up on the five-year plan he had in mind when he acquired the club for two million euros.
“I can’t say I have found more difficult people than people in the football industry,” he said. “I find them anything but truthful and straightforward.”
Amid the chaos, work at the club appears to go on as normal. In late July, the team trained in the searing midday heat under the supervision of Joao Martins, a bullet-headed coach who conducted the sessions in English and Portuguese — sometimes both at the same time. On Saturday, Stumbras, playing in front of a handful of fans, recorded a 2-1 win over Atlantas to retain third place in the league and stay on track for another UEFA payday.
Soumah was nowhere to be seen, though. He had packed his bags, walked out on his contract and left town in early August. Guided by Teixeira, his agent, Soumah, who represented Guinea at the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2017, is now in Portugal, training with the under-23 team of Vitória de Setúbal. Stumbras insists it won’t release him.
His case, like Sekgota’s, will probably be heard by a dispute resolution chamber at FIFA, one of the soccer body’s busiest departments. Until then, Soumah may be trapped in a competitive limbo: talented and young enough to draw interest, but not good enough to entice a club to pay the multimillion-euro buyout in his disputed contract.
Back in Kaunas, others were still looking for their own lifeboats. After one training session this summer, the players walked back to their residence in small groups. Some discussed offers from far-off clubs with unfamiliar names, potential deals eerily reminiscent of the ones that had brought them to Lithuania’s second city, to their shared rooms in the shared house on Skroublo Street.
“Have you got data on your phone?” one player asked another.
A club he had never heard of had reached out to him via the messaging service WhatsApp, and he was eager to find out what league it played in.
Romain Molina contributed to this article.
Source : NYtimes