Al Bangura says he was a victim of sex traffickers before he ended up being rescued by Watford.
Bangura, who played 77 times for Watford including 16 times in the Premier League, said he was brought to England as a 14-year-old after he fled Freetown in Sierra Leone through fear of being asked to become the leader of a a secret cult his late father had headed. He escaped to Guinea where a Frenchman vowed to help him fulfil his dream of playing football and getting an education.
“I didn’t know he had another different intention – to get me into the sex trade,” Bangura said in an interview with the BBC Today programme.
His nightmare began, he says, after he found himself alone in a house after arriving in England via Paris.
“All of a sudden I saw two or three guys come around me, trying to rape me and make me do stuff,” he says. “Because I was young and I was small, I just started screaming. They probably thought I knew what I was there for – obviously I know what I came over here for, I was here to play football. I was just crying and proper screaming and I tried to make my way out – I was cold, I was crying, I was shaking, I didn’t know what to do, I was all over the place. I made my way outside. I didn’t know where to start, I thought it was the end of my life.”
Bengura eventually sought refuge as an unaccompanied minor and was given a two-year right to stay in the UK. He had to attend an asylum and immigration tribunal in 2007 when his appeal to stay in the country was rejected. Nicholas Jariwalla, cross-examining the then Hornets midfielder, accused Bangura of lying about having contact with his family. He said Bangura had given different accounts of how he arrived in the UK.
An appeal for Bangura to stay in the UK was backed by then-Home Secretary David Blunkett and Sir Elton John. Bangura won his appeal to stay in the UK after being awarded a work permit by a six-strong Government panel in January 2008.
Bangura, who had spells at Brighton, Blackpool and Forest Greem was released by Coventry last year and now works with the Premier League to raise awareness of trafficking teenagers from Africa.
“I think there’s loads of vulnerable kids in Africa who want to achieve what I’ve achieved in my life,” he said. “There’s loads of kids who might not even tell their parents, or their parents might use their last money to make sure they come over here to play football and they end up doing something else. It’s important for me, having been through what I’ve been through in my life, for me to say I’ve been through that, I’ve survived, but what about the young kids coming up, will they survive, are they going to be able to cope with that, so we really need to find a way to stop all of that.”