Sunday, December 09, 2007

It would be a crime to end this dream

image Rags-to-riches tale may end in tatters as nightmare of deportation hangs over teenage illegal alien

Morrissey, who headed up UK band The Smiths in the 1980s, is in trouble after a controversial interview with music rag NME last week. He raged against immigration, telling a reporter Britain had lost its identity and that you could not hear a “British accent“ in Knightsbridge.

This is the same Morrissey who was sued by two band mates a decade ago. A judge described the singer as “devious, truculent and unreliable”, so his comments are probably best ignored.

It’s against this background that the extraordinary case of Alhassan Bangura comes to light.

On the face of it, the midfielder is much like any other professional soccer player. He’s a star for Watford FC, earns a lot of money, lives comfortably and is adored by his fans.

Bangura is also an illegal alien, facing the prospect of deportation before Christmas.

His story is like no other. He was born 19 years ago in Freetown, capital of war-torn Sierra Leone. His late father had been the head of a secret society (Soko) that practised witchcraft. When Bangura was 15 his father died and he was told by village elders to take over the society.

Little is known about the cult, but Bangura told an asylum hearing in London last week its followers dismembered parts of their bodies and inflicted pain as part of its rituals.

Threatened with death for turning down the leadership, Bangura fled to Guinea. He was soon befriended by a Frenchman named Pierre.

“He pretended to be a friend but turned out to be the devil incarnate,” Bangura said. “He took me to France but wanted to get me into prostitution and the homosexual business, but I refused.”

Soon, Bangura found himself in London. While he was in Pierre’s company, two men tried to rape Bangura. Terrified, the 16-year-old fled, running into the street where he was taken to an immigration centre.

It’s at this point that Bangura’s life takes an unlikely turn for the good. He was encouraged to play soccer as part of his rehabilitation and took to it like a natural. One day, a Watford scout saw him playing at a public park. A year later, he was signed and made his Premier League debut at the age of 17.

Had you scripted a movie like that, you’d be asked to tone down the story line to make it more realistic.

But it gets better. His girlfriend, also from Sierra Leone, had his baby last week. “Al”, as Bangura is known, has become one of the club’s most dependable players. Fans have even dedicated songs to him.

Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd told the tribunal : “Sending him back to Africa would be like Frank Sinatra playing Batley Frontier Club in West Yorkshire instead of Wembley.”

Bangura pleaded to stay, saying he would die, or be subjected to mutilation, if he were forced to return.

The case will clearly challenge the minds of the tribunal, who have promised a ruling before Christmas. Bangura is plainly an illegal immigrant (in a country where immigration dominates the national agenda) and his misery is little different to thousands of others. He’s a soccer player and he’s hero-worshipped. But should he receive special treatment?

The flip side is that whether or not he is successful or talented, his claim for asylum should be judged like all others. If there is a well-founded fear of persecution, which must be proven, then the asylum process should kick in to provide refuge. It’s hard to believe Bangura’s fears aren’t well-founded.

Of course, bigots have popped up on blogs and letters pages railing against Bangura and others. They, like Morrissey, blindly propagate a Britain for Britons.

Too bad, because they’re wrong. Bangura’s case is a prime example of what sport can do for an individual, literally dragging them from the slums. The case also demonstrates a need for humanity and a recognition that players such as Bangura are heroes for the youth of Watford and elsewhere, yes, even Sierra Leone.

What good would it do sending him back to his Freetown hell? It would be tragic, stupid and cold-hearted.

What do you think? E-mail us at sportsletters@sundaytimes.co.za or SMS your comments to: 33971

WHO says talent is everything? A birth date is just as important, according to findings of the Children of the 90s project, based at Bristol University. Researchers claim that youngsters born in spring (September to November in South Africa) are more active than those born in autumn. Some research of my own leads me to concur with the findings. Ernie Els and Allan Donald have birthdays in October, while Benni McCarthy, Ryk Neethling, Oscar Pistorius, Gary Player and Aaron Mokoena all share November birthdays.

According to the study, children born in autumn were 9% less active.

The Times - Article