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RSB Berkane vs Moghreb Tétouan

"Mahrez told me keep going brother, you have the talent to succeed"

6:00 am AEDT 29/1/19
Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba Berkane Togo
Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba is among the most prolific goal scorers in the world over the past few months and he could be on the verge of a breakthrough

There sits a giant clementine in the middle of Berkane’s central roundabout, a reminder of the region’s number one export.

Here, in the north-eastern corner of Morocco, around 30 kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea, there exists the ideal climate for the production of the fruit.

It is a trade city, and one which would never have given any passer-by a good reason to come and check out its football team.

RS Berkane’s kit is orange, a nod to the region’s stock in trade. And the Stade Municipal de Berkane lies tantalisingly close to Europe across the water but in effect it’s a world away for the footballers plying their trade in the Botola, Morocco’s top league.

The objective for any player in Africa, if he is the right age, is to get to Europe. While the salaries at certain clubs around the continent are decent by local standards, they are simply nothing compared to the life-changing sums on offer across the Med.

Getting to the promised land is a perilous journey for any player; fraught with danger every step of the way. The pathway is designed to fail for all but the select few. The odds of reaching the best clubs in the best leagues are so remote as to seem impossible.

And if a player has to start that journey thousands of kilometres away with no connections, no real facilities to speak of, with nothing but hope in his heart, then it becomes smaller again.

Berkane might seem like a footballing outpost to those in Europe, but it might well represent a vital step on the journey for one striker making his way in the game.

“My dream, like every African player, is to play in Europe,” Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba says.

“Evidently, it is difficult to make the big jump from Africa to Europe for a young African player and to make a successful career in Europe.

“In Africa, it is so complicated due to the lack of infrastructure that we don’t have. Only 10 players out of 100 are successful."

But Kodjo is not simply another player. He is coming to prominence. He sits proudly atop the top scorer chart in the Botola and has contributed three goals in four games in the CAF Confederations Cup – the African equivalent to the Europa League. He is a player on the cusp of something; standing on the frontier.

A boy can have all the talent in the world but that’s not much use if there’s no one there to see him. European eyes have been trained on certain countries in Africa over the past few decades but there have been precious few breakthroughs from the tiny west African nation of Togo.

Emmanuel Adebayor stands out as the one big example but he – crucially – attracted the attention of Metz when he was still a teenager. For those left behind prospects are not so good.

But Metz are one of a number of teams known to be interested in acquiring Kodjo’s services. Teams from Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium and China are also tracking his progress.

A January transfer from Berkane seems unlikely at this late stage but he is out of contract in June and that could well bring him his move.

Kodjo hopes to be starring for Togo at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt by that stage, for whom he has scored 11 goals in 23 caps. He will be expected to lead the line up front with his “big brother” Adebayor.

“My captain and a role model for all of us in Togo,” he says of the ex-Arsenal forward. “And for me as a centre-forward I learn so much from him. He always gives us advice and tells us what to expect when we play in Europe as he himself had a great time there.”

And when that move comes it will mark the culmination of a remarkable story.

Not many players can say that their university studies helped bring about a career at the top level. Most are already safely ensconced in their club academy systems. But Kodjo and his Togo story are a little different.

“It’s funny but like all young Africans, I started playing in the streets of my neighbourhood with my friends,” he says. “But football was my life. I was playing every day.

“Someone saw me and took me to the Jeanne d’Arc club near me and voila, this is how my football career started.

“Even if Togo is a small footballing country, our country still produces talent. For me, everything started at the university where I was playing.

“I finished as top scorer of the university competition, and by then a club of the first division in Togo recruited me.

“I did well and that gave me the opportunity to get a two-year contract in Gabon.  My second year, I was nominated the best foreign player in the league.”

He did not turn professional until the age of 20. Anges FC in the Togolese first division were the club who signed him and it wouldn’t be long until they earned around $10,000 for transferring him to US Bitam. He scored 22 times in 50 games in Gabon, making his name, and edging one step closer to Europe with a move to Berkane.

He has never played his club football outside Africa, although a move to Laval in France failed a few years back.

“I couldn’t get the travel visa authorisation to go,” the 27-year-old Kodjo says. “So I keep working hard, believing in myself and we always say: tous ce que Dieu fai est bon (everything God does is good).”

Togo are so far down the FIFA world ranking currently that Kodjo would not qualify for a work permit under UK conditions. But he knows that right now shining with the national team is the best way to stand out.

That is why international football has been a lifeline; a chance for clubs in Europe to sit up and take notice of some of the talent that their massive dragnets might have missed first time around.

“The 2017 AFCON was beneficial for me,” he says of the tournament won by Cameroon. “It was my first big international competition.

“Thanks be to God, I scored one goal and it made me grow as well as a footballer and gave me some visibility on the international stage.

“The media coverage is great; clubs send scouts from all over the world to see new talents so personally my wish and the wish of all my team-mates in the national team is to be there.”

The international arena is also the only place that Kodjo can cross paths with world-class talents who star for clubs in Europe. When he pits his wits against them, he can see how far he’s come and how much more he’s got to do.

Then it will be time to sit down with his advisor Alain Barataud and decide the next move.

“I played against a lot of very good African players like [Riyad] Mahrez, [Serge] Aurier, [Alex] Iwobi, [Andre] Ayew and others with the Togo national team and I don’t think the difference is that big,” he says.

“The only difference is they play in better leagues, where the level is higher, so they improve a bit quicker and get more mature. That helps.

“Recently Aurier asked me after a friendly game against Ivory Coast in France: “Where do you play brother?” And I said: “Morocco.”

“And the same with Mahrez when we played against Algeria. Both told me: “Brother, you have talent so don’t give up and you will get your chance.”