Many kids around the world dream of becoming the next Didier Drogba or Cesc Fabregas – but for the lucky few who get their dream move to England, it can come at a higher price than just spending hours on a muddy training pitch and scrubbing changing room urinals.
We all know moving house is one of life’s most stressful events, so how does a teenager cope not just moving from Reading to Rochdale but travelling the thousands of miles from Lagos to London, or Buenos Aires to Birmingham – leaving behind their home, family and friends?
“Since I was young I wanted to come to England to play football because my favourite players play in this country,” says Chelsea’s on-loan Fulham winger Gael Kakuta, whose controversial move from Lens came when he was just 15.
“At the beginning it was a little bit hard because of the language [barrier] – I couldn’t speak with the other players. But after that it was easy – everyone was nice and helped me to find my way in the club.”
The teenager impressed coaches at the Blues’ academy, was fast-tracked into the first team reckoning and is now gaining valuable Premier League experience under Mark Hughes. Kakuta attributes his success to the support offered by his family and friends.
“My mum said ‘you make your decision and I’ll always be there for you’,” smiles the 19-year-old. “I have a sister who’s been living in England for 10 years. My mum comes over sometimes and I stay in touch with my friends in France.”
Wolves defender George Elokobi was also 15 when he moved to England, but for the Cameroonian, football was far from his thoughts at the time.
“I wanted to be reunited with my mother because she was over here studying. I came to England to do a degree. Opportunities back home are a little bit limited, so for me to come to England with all the opportunities here was massive.”
Unlike Kakuta, the Wolves man owes his Premier League career to the traditional British route of working his way to the top, via Dulwich Hamlet and Colchester.
Despite leaving behind family, Elokobi has yet to return home in the 10 years he’s been in England – a sign of how easily he settled in. Of course, it helps that he was able to have his mother here to help him with the transition.
“I got massive help from my mum who supported me financially and to have motherly support was important for me,” says the 25-year-old.
But listening to your mum isn’t the only piece of advice Elokobi has for aspiring youngsters looking to make the move to the Premier League.
“They need to keep their head down and don’t get distracted. It’s important to work hard, learn quickly and be patient. It is not easy playing in England, it’s the best league in the world.”
Elokobi and Kakuta are two of the lucky ones – the bigger the club the better the support network – a factor which Amanda Owens, former head psychologist at Southampton, feels is paramount to players’ success.
“Social support plays a huge role,” she says. “It can affect the players in a negative way if they don’t have the correct social and educational support in place.”
“Cricket’s got a very good structure and football’s still lagging behind a little bit, but the FA are moving things forward and investing a lot of money in welfare, lifestyle support and psychology.
“At Southampton, Gordon [Strachan] brought in a specialist language interpreter for two players which helped enormously, because the language barrier can have a huge effect on the player integrating into the team and their performance on the pitch.”
Agent Tony White is like a footballing equivalent of a modern day Abraham, leading starry-eyed kids from France to the promised land of the Premier League. “England is looked on as the end of the rainbow – everyone wants to come here.
“The French media publicise the enormous salaries that can be earned in the Premier League and the players are attracted by that. They’re looking for England to solve the financial future of the whole family – they look for football as a way out.”
It’s an escape route which can prove lucrative for the select few but for White, the secret to success is maintaining a stable life off the pitch, as well as on it.
“Most players will make it through if they’ve got outstanding ability but when you’re that young you need family and friends around you. It’s difficult to go to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, or don’t like the food. If you’re happy in your mind, you’re going to perform better.”
White believes so strongly in the welfare of his young charges, he will go the extra mile to support their needs.
“For me that’s part of the role of an agent, being a counsellor and a mentor. I like to work with a club and give them as much information about the player’s likes and dislikes. Sometimes a player will hide things from the club because he hasn’t got enough confidence in the people who work there.”
But even for those who don’t make the grade at the top level, moving to England can leave a real impression. Former Chelsea youngster Nick Hamann, now back in his native Germany, admitted he ‘fell in love’ with England. He said: “I really like the way of life over there.
“I’m playing at home again and I actually feel homesick as I call England home now. Every time I get a couple of days I’m on the next plane to London to see my mates and my 3 godchildren who are the grandchildren of my foster parents I stayed with. It was harder leaving England than moving away from home when I was 15.”