The modest apartment of Ulrich M’Boume Dioba has a clear view of one of South Africa’s World Cup stadiums, an image of hope for the young Gabonese footballer but also a stinging reminder of his struggles.
The 22-year-old from the central African country of Gabon played his nation’s Premier League, his star has waned since arriving three years ago in South Africa, where he’s struggling to find a club — making the world stage represented by the Free State Stadium a distant dream.
“It’s been eight months since I had a team,” says 22-year-old Dioba, his athletic build clad in a tracksuit and sneakers.
“Dad sometimes sends me money, but that’s painful for me. I am supposed to be sending the money home.”
“When I was small, dad told me off when I threw away food. Now I understand why,” Dioba adds.
Without a contract, Ulrich can no longer afford to pay rent and is living with fellow footballer Cyril Mubiala, who comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and plays for the Bloemfontein Celtic, a South African Premier League club.
He shares a room with a fellow Gabonese footballer who is also looking for a club, on the 13th floor of a building in Bloemfontein — the country’s judicial capital — a city bordered by farmland and the arid Karoo desert.
“They have the talent, you can’t leave them in the street”, explains Mubiala, whose living room is a showcase of his South African medals and trophies.
“My dream is not to play for Real or at Chelsea. It is not to have a name, like Didier Drogba (Chelsea centre forward). It’s just to be financially comfortable,” Ulrich explains in French peppered with bits of English.
When he landed in South Africa at the end of 2006 for his first contract abroad, Ulrich couldn’t speak a word of English.
When practicing with the Ajax development team in Cape Town, he struggled.
“I didn’t understand anything. The coach told me to do two throw-ins, I did three or four. Now I speak better than my sister who is an English teacher,” says Ulrich, bursting into laughter.
The beginning was hard, and it has not gotten any easier.
“When you leave (Gabon), you are filled with joy. And when you arrive, the problems start,” he says of the language barriers, the freezing cold winters, and the absence of family.
“Here, you must work twice as hard as a South African to get a job,” says Ulrich, sporting a finely drawn goatee and fake diamond earrings.
After bouncing from club to club, he finally landed on the Bloemfontein Celtic development team, but at the beginning of 2008 the club changed management and fired him.
Undeterred, Ulrich then found a four-month contract in a third division club in Bloemfontein, and has been jobless since.
The Confederations Cup, which has run for the last two weeks and ends Sunday, has helped him as he attends training sessions by the national teams passing through the city ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
“I copy their exercises,” he explains.
In the next few weeks, Ulrich will test with three clubs in hope of landing a contract.
“If things don’t go as I dream, I will return to Gabon,” he says.
“The jealous ones would be glad to see me returning to the country,” he says. “I want to show them up. My dream is to go to Europe. I must just be patient.”
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