Fan­tasy Foot­ball

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - The fab­u­lous tale of Nelly Yoa by Richard Cooke

In the mid­dle of a moral panic over eth­nic crime, lo­cal me­dia em­braced a model mi­nor­ity foot­baller who con­demned his fel­low Su­danese-Aus­tralians. It wasn’t long be­fore his ca­reer claims fell apart un­der scru­tiny. Who is Nhial “Nelly” Yoa? And how did he man­age to fool so many peo­ple for so long?

The study of patho­log­i­cal ly­ing is thin, but full of sonorous de­scrip­tions. Ex­perts use terms like “pseu­dolo­gia fan­tas­tica”, “mor­bid ly­ing”, “mytho­ma­nia”; one study de­scribes a ten­dency for pseu­do­logues to “dec­o­rate their own per­son”. Af­ter a week in the wake of Nhial “Nelly” Yoa, surely one of the most pro­lific and im­pres­sive fan­ta­sists of our era, I dis­cov­ered a sur­pris­ing sub-theme in my notes, an ac­ci­den­tally coined term of my own. I had be­gun to re­fer to the peo­ple most in­ti­mately de­ceived not as vic­tims or wit­nesses or as­so­ciates but as “par­tic­i­pants”, as though Nelly Yoa was an event, in­stead of just a per­son. Th­ese par­tic­i­pants, pas­sive and ac­tive, were all over the world. They were stu­dents and jour­nal­ists and foot­ballers, train­ers and coaches, pow­er­ful me­dia fig­ures and politi­cians. Some had never met Yoa at all, some had known him for years. Some now won­dered if he was even Su­danese (one of the first things I checked; he is). Oddly, none bore him any ill will. There was some be­wil­dered anger from the Su­danese com­mu­nity, but the strong­est emo­tion any­one close could con­jure up was “eth­i­cal dis­ap­point­ment”. The par­tic­i­pants were shocked in early Jan­uary to see Yoa rise to the crest of the news cy­cle, this for­mer dual-code pro­fes­sional foot­baller, youth men­tor, ac­tor and mi­grant “com­mu­nity leader”, whose story was given the front page of The Age news­pa­per un­der the head­line “I’m Ashamed To Call My­self Su­danese”. The par­tic­i­pants feared for his well­be­ing, as this fic­tional au­to­bi­og­ra­phy evap­o­rated un­der scru­tiny. But they still called him a “good lad” and a “de­cent bloke”, and couldn’t help laugh­ing at the sheer scale of it all. “It is not fea­si­ble to check ev­ery­thing,” one author­ity on fan­ta­sists told The In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per, and I know the feel­ing. Taken to­gether, Yoa’s fab­u­lous claims are so var­i­ous and ex­ten­sive that ex­haus­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion is al­most im­pos­si­ble. His night­club al­ter­ca­tion with the rap­pers Ty Dolla $ign and YG (which led to a ru­moured $100,000 pay­out) re­mains a mys­tery for now. So too his ex­ten­sive act­ing ca­reer, al­though, at a glance, he “ap­peared” on The Chaser’s War on Ev­ery­thing six years af­ter it stopped air­ing. That glance, the work of a mo­ment, speaks to the most per­plex­ing as­pect of the event. When I spoke with Ricky Simms, Usain Bolt’s man­ager (it’s of­fi­cial: the world’s fastest man was not Yoa’s men­tor, did not meet him in Bei­jing, and was not present for the birth of his child), he mar­velled that this kind of de­cep­tion was pos­si­ble in the in­ter­net era, when back­ground checks are so much eas­ier. It’s fair to say that Nelly Yoa’s im­prob­a­ble sto­ries can­not with­stand the briefest scru­tiny. But, for a long time, they could, some­how, do some­thing much more pow­er­ful: ward off that scru­tiny. Yoa joins a fine lin­eage of foot­balling im­posters, al­though the star “player” re­mains Ali Dia, who in 1996 blagged his way into an English Pre­mier League match for Southamp­ton. (The for­mer Eng­land in­ter­na­tional Matt Le Tissier, Dia’s team­mate for 53 min­utes, said he moved “like Bambi on ice”.) Dia re­ally was a pro­fes­sional foot­baller, just a bad one, and his old-fash­ioned ruse – a faked phone call from the Bal­lon d’Or win­ner Ge­orge Weah – could only have worked in an era when in­for­ma­tion trav­elled more slowly. How, then, to ex­plain Yoa’s ad­vance­ment, as pre­car­i­ous as a Google search? The English Pre­mier League was still a long way away, but in July 2013 he did play for Qormi FC, a Mal­tese semi-pro­fes­sional team, who signed him along­side a sib­ling of the Ital­ian striker Mario Balotelli. Yoa’s Euro­pean foot­ball ad­ven­ture lasted seven min­utes. He gar­nered two yel­low cards and was sent off. Gian­luca Lia, now with the Times of Malta, cov­ered the match as a free­lancer. “He did not stand out,” he re­calls. “We, the lo­cal me­dia, added him to the rest of the use­less for­eigner play­ers.” It was only some lo­cal news sto­ries that pre­served him in mem­ory. “I re­mem­ber in Malta there was re­port­ing that he had a trial with Chelsea but then was dis­rupted by a ma­chete at­tack in 2011,” Lia says. “Wait … so he may have not re­ally played with Chelsea?” He had not, and his de­cep­tions were not those of a crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind. Later, even as he was be­ing in­ter­viewed on the na­tional broad­caster, Yoa’s Face­book bio page listed his ad­dress as Stam­ford Bridge, Chelsea’s home ground. A mys­te­ri­ous YouTube ac­count called “TMZ Sports”, un­af­fil­i­ated with the real TMZ news or­gan­i­sa­tion, posted videos with ti­tles like “Nelly Yoa Scores for Chelsea foot­ball Club” and “Nelly Yoa – Chelsea FC 2013/14”. Per­haps it speaks to a cli­mate

Yoa’s fab­u­lous claims are so var­i­ous and ex­ten­sive that ex­haus­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion is al­most im­pos­si­ble.

of racism that “TMZ Sports” thought Yoa might seem in­ter­change­able with an­other black foot­baller. But even a viewer co­cooned in white priv­i­lege could still hear the com­men­ta­tor scream­ing Sa­muel Eto’o’s name, or clock that the name “Nelly Yoa” was not in the team list shown full-screen. You might an­tic­i­pate that a fan­ta­sist with a dig­i­tally ac­ces­si­ble back­ground would hide his tracks. In­stead, Yoa hid noth­ing. He not only didn’t dis­guise the con­tra­dic­tions and holes in his back­story but ac­tively pro­moted them. His track record was lit­tered with mul­ti­ple tales of the floridly im­prob­a­ble, many of them eas­ily dis­cov­er­able and in­com­pat­i­ble with each other. His lengthy Wikipedia page, flagged for dele­tion, was a far­rago of in­ven­tion. His act­ing CV (hosted by a “man­age­ment” com­pany called, iron­i­cally, Real Peo­ple) con­tained com­pletely dif­fer­ent and of­ten con­tra­dic­tory time­lines. On so­cial me­dia, where he claimed he was spon­sored by Nike, he thanked the com­pany for some new prod­uct, and dis­played a line of women’s shoes sev­eral sea­sons old to his 17,000 fol­low­ers. “There were red flags all over the guy,” ad­mit­ted a se­nior me­dia fig­ure, but some­how TV and news­pa­pers couldn’t help them­selves. Sig­nif­i­cantly, it was mainly am­a­teurs, not jour­nal­ists, who fi­nally saw through the ruse. Soc­cer fans on Twit­ter, al­beit led by the re­doubtable AAP re­porter Vince Ru­gari, de­mol­ished Yoa’s back­story once it reached real promi­nence, and it took them only a few min­utes. Mean­while, news or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­ter­view­ers seemed to teeter on the cusp of re­al­i­sa­tion, be­fore step­ping back into obliv­i­ous­ness. “With a new AFL ca­reer, how do you find time for act­ing?” asked Cin­ema Aus­tralia in May 2017. A good ques­tion to open the in­ter­view. Yoa had em­barked on an act­ing ca­reer, though not quite in the way they meant. Yoa proved es­pe­cially adroit at ma­nip­u­lat­ing small­bore re­porters or ama­teur in­ter­locu­tors, and then lever­ag­ing the re­sul­tant me­dia into big­ger and big­ger sto­ries, con­coct­ing, in the mem­o­rable phras­ing of one duped as­so­ciate, “a Ponzi scheme of cred­i­bil­ity”. He might have been iffy as a foot­baller, but his abil­ity to massage the me­dia, and cor­rectly gauge the depth of their fact-check­ing (the first page of search re­sults, and no fur­ther), was gen­uinely world class. If I try and present the true story of Nelly Yoa, then, it is with hu­mil­ity, and no small sense of pro­fes­sional shame.

It was mildly per­plex­ing that a South Su­danese man had wound up in an In­done­sian com­mu­nity league in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne, but no one seemed to mind. Yoa was punc­tual, re­li­able and scored plenty of goals. “He was al­ways re­ally pro­fes­sional about his foot­ball,” a for­mer team­mate re­mem­bers. He started with a team called Evo­lu­tion, and then was poached by a side called Buf­fa­los FC. He played with the com­pe­ti­tion un­til 2009, then moved on. He seemed driven to big­ger things, and there

were ru­mours he tri­alled with the Oak­leigh Can­nons in the state league, and was knocked back. This pe­riod also pro­vided the per­fect sin­gle im­age of Yoa’s tra­jec­tory: it is a photo of him play­ing with the Buf­fa­los, on a line-less park pitch sur­rounded by gum trees. The im­age would later be pub­lished by the Daily Mail Aus­tralia, cap­tioned “Nelly pic­tured play­ing for the Queens Park Rangers Foot­ball Club in the English Pre­mier League in the years be­fore the at­tack”. In 2011, news that Yoa had been at­tacked with a ma­chete fil­tered back to his for­mer team­mates. They were sur­prised to hear him linked with the A-League team Mel­bourne Vic­tory. He had been de­cent in a com­mu­nity league, but was a long way from pro­fes­sional stan­dard. “I thought it was a stretch, but I never dis­puted it,” the for­mer team­mate says. “It was a mindy­our-own-busi­ness sort of thing.” The ma­chete at­tack was not a stretch, al­though life-threat­en­ing retellings of it were. Yoa was badly in­jured in an al­ter­ca­tion at a beauty pageant in Bray­brook, in Mel­bourne’s west, and the per­pe­tra­tor was jailed for three months. Hos­pi­tal pho­tos show his el­bow split open to the bone, and a long scar is still vis­i­ble to­day. There is no ev­i­dence that doc­tors told him he had a 1 per cent chance of liv­ing, or that he needed a wheel­chair for any length of time, and he was back ex­er­cis­ing only a cou­ple of weeks later. Per­haps the at­tack trau­ma­tised him into fan­tasy, or per­haps it was sim­ply the first time he had spo­ken to jour­nal­ists, but he ex­celled at telling his story to re­porters. Th­ese ini­tial yarns, in places like the Dan­de­nong Star Jour­nal, were ren­dered nat­u­rally into jour­nalese. The “pacy goal-hun­gry striker” would have had a shot at the Soc­ceroos or Mel­bourne Vic­tory, if tragedy hadn’t struck. There was no men­tion of Chelsea yet. Yoa seemed to quickly iden­tify the self-lu­bri­cat­ing clichés the me­dia re­quired of him, and adapted his nar­ra­tives ac­cord­ingly. He was sud­denly a promis­ing young ath­lete over­com­ing an ob­sta­cle – a foun­da­tional half-truth to build a tee­ter­ing tower of ex­ag­ger­a­tion. It would also of­fer bait in the world of pro­fes­sional foot­ball. That was how Ese Oduko came to meet Yoa in 2013. A for­mer team­mate of the Nige­rian in­ter­na­tional “JayJay” Okocha, Oduko ran an acad­emy out­side Lon­don, and acted as a tal­ent scout. When he heard about a for­mer Chelsea prospect (even one from the Un­der 12s), he was in­ter­ested, but in­sisted he needed to see the player in per­son. Yoa was po­lite and re­spect­ful, but had nowhere to stay in the UK, so Oduko put him up in his own house. It was sup­posed to be a two-day trial. Yoa was tall, fast and ath­letic, but as soon as he was on the pitch, any Chelsea link, no mat­ter how ju­ve­nile, seemed im­pos­si­ble. “On the first day,” Oduko re­calls, “al­ready I know he doesn’t have po­ten­tial.” Per­haps, Oduko rec­om­mended, it was best if Yoa went back to Aus­tralia, and sent clips to show any im­prove­ment. He would not be tak­ing him any­where, not even the mid­dling lo­cal pro­fes­sional club, the MK Dons. But Yoa was adamant. “He told me he’s go­ing to work hard,” re­calls Oduko. “I told him foot­ball was all about passion.” (Yoa would later bor­row vari­a­tions on this re­frain.) Yoa talked his host into ex­tend­ing the house-stay, and per­suaded Oduko to let him train with the ama­teur side where he played, Wolver­ton Town FC. The side was then in the Spar­tan South Mid­lands League, some 10 flights away from the English Pre­mier League. “It’s to­tally ama­teur,” says the club’s sec­re­tary and trea­surer, Chris­tine Green­wood. “The play­ers ac­tu­ally pay to play. Al­though Nelly didn’t pay.” He put in eight ap­pear­ances as a striker for Wolver­ton, with a re­turn of zero goals. No one bought his Chelsea back­story, but he seemed harm­less enough. “He’s not crap, but he wasn’t good enough. Only good enough for our level,” says Green­wood. Over the course of the sea­son, Oduko says Yoa’s story was “start­ing to un­ravel”. His wife found Yoa strange, and their house guest would some­times go miss­ing for days at a time. “He said he was go­ing out,” says Oduko, “and then it turned out he had gone to Lon­don.” Ini­tially, he had said he knew no one in the UK, now he was vis­it­ing lo­cal rel­a­tives. Then a friend men­tioned Yoa in pass­ing: “Your boy’s got an ar­ti­cle writ­ten about him!” Oduko had no idea what he was talk­ing about. “I still don’t know how he did it,” he says now. “I am even shocked to­day. When I saw it, I couldn’t even speak. This boy! This boy!” With­out in­form­ing Oduko, Yoa had some­how ap­proached the MK Dons with his “story”. Rather than check­ing with Chelsea, they had in­stantly pub­lished a ver­sion on their web­site, com­plete with a photo of Yoa play­ing keepy-uppy in a train­ing strip. He was billed as “for­mer on-trial Chelsea striker look­ing to re­build his ca­reer at Wolver­ton af­ter ma­chete

“I still don’t know how he did it … I am even shocked to­day.”

at­tack”. This tacit en­dorse­ment by a foot­ball club would come in handy. Oduko was stunned. It was time for a se­ri­ous talk. “I thought, He’s an am­bi­tious guy, and he wants to talk his way to the top. And that’s the end of my con­nec­tion with him.” Yoa moved out, and then con­tacted his for­mer host with a re­quest for con­tacts. Where should he go next? One of Oduko’s sug­ges­tions was Malta, where the stan­dard wasn’t high. Years later, he heard from Yoa on In­sta­gram. He was pic­tured decked out in a suit, next to Usain Bolt. “I thought, He’s do­ing well for him­self!” says Oduko. “Nelly has ob­vi­ously con­tin­ued his mis­sion.” Bolt had also re­placed Oduko as a men­tor. Yoa told Cin­ema Aus­tralia that the record-hold­ing sprinter had guided him, as had Rafael Nadal, John Terry and Wayne Rooney. “Just to name a few,” he added. Yoa re­turned to Mel­bourne and be­came a youth co­or­di­na­tor with com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion Afri-Aus Care, whose web­site listed his qual­i­fi­ca­tions as a Bach­e­lor of Sports Science, and a Bach­e­lor of IT Com­puter Science & Soft­ware de­vel­op­ment – a sec­ond fake de­gree is a sig­na­ture Nelly touch. One as­so­ciate from this pe­riod de­scribes him as a “hum­ble young man”. He made some school pre­sen­ta­tions, and worked on his po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions. “Kids re­ally looked up to him,” one ac­quain­tance re­calls. Of course they did – he was a sporting star. Th­ese mul­ti­ple bo­gus ca­reers be­gan to sup­port each other. Through men­tor­ing he could make po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions, through them he could make sporting con­nec­tions. Then he could badger his way into tri­als or meet­ings and then gen­er­ate pho­tos to at­tract me­dia at­ten­tion. He had cot­toned on to an­other favourite me­dia cliché – code-switch­ing hope­ful – and started con­tact­ing Aus­tralian Rules clubs as well. He posted care­fully cut footage of him­self driv­ing a Mercedes, a con­cocted ad­ver­tise­ment that sym­bol­ised his con­fi­dence and suc­cess. A chance meet­ing with a stu­dent film­maker led to a star­ring role in a doc­u­men­tary. The doc­u­men­tary was plugged on the Chan­nel Seven morn­ing show Sun­rise. Ap­par­ently Yoa felt this pro­mo­tion was in­suf­fi­cient, and booked a large print ad to pro­mote the film with the pa­pers of The Her­ald and Weekly Times. The Sun­rise seg­ment led to a meet­ing with He­len Ka­pa­los, the head of the Vic­to­rian Mul­ti­cul­tural Com­mis­sion, and an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend a VMC meet­ing along­side the Vic­to­rian pre­mier, Daniel An­drews. Yoa, de­scribed by some­one present as “shy and re­spect­ful”, gave a pre­sen­ta­tion that was “di­rect and to the point”. Shortly af­ter­wards, the VMC was con­tacted by The Her­ald and Weekly Times, which had an in­voice for an ex­pen­sive print ad and had been told the VMC would pick up the tab. It was the first the VMC had heard of it. Yoa was able to bam­boo­zle jour­nal­ists not only by say­ing what they wanted to hear, but sim­ply by work­ing

harder than them. He would badger jour­nal­ists, and then ha­rangue their so­cial me­dia col­leagues af­ter­wards, ask­ing when the seg­ments or sto­ries would go on­line. Any­one who could help get him onto a team or onto the air­waves was pep­pered with cor­re­spon­dence. Yoa spammed Colling­wood Foot­ball Club pres­i­dent Ed­die McGuire un­til he got a train­ing run with the Colling­wood VFL side. He was cut al­most im­me­di­ately, but on so­cial me­dia talked as though he was on the cusp of an An­zac Day clash. A trial with North Mel­bourne was aborted in the mid­dle of a 2-kilo­me­tre time trial when Yoa sud­denly ran away to “take a piss”. He then fol­lowed up with an angry email when told he hadn’t made the cut. Yoa was still try­ing his luck with as­so­ci­a­tion foot­ball as well. Chris Tay­lor, coach of the South Mel­bourne Foot­ball Club, gives a sense of what this pe­riod was like. He re­ceived Yoa’s foot­balling CV some­time in 2016. “I had a look at it, and it listed Nelly as play­ing at Mel­bourne Knights in 2009. Well, I’d coached Mel­bourne Knights in 2009, and I’d never heard of the guy. You do get th­ese bull­shit ones now and then.” In Novem­ber 2016, Bal­larat news­pa­per The Courier pub­lished a piece ti­tled “Baby Bolt: Baby’s Early Birth Brings Fastest Man to Bal­larat”, sug­gest­ing Bolt and the Aus­tralian sprinter John St­ef­fensen had been present at the birth of Yoa’s third child. Nelly was billed as a “Mel­bourne City soc­cer player”. He was the source of the ar­ti­cle, and quoted ex­ten­sively. (Though Yoa de­nies ever speak­ing to The Courier, they have a dif­fer­ent story.) An eye­wit­ness at the Flem­ing­ton Race­cource says that Yoa at­tempted to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with Bolt and St­ef­fensen dur­ing a spring rac­ing car­ni­val event, but they largely ig­nored him. Yoa re­mained ir­re­press­ible. “At the end of the day it’s a friend­ship re­gard­less of how high pro­file the friend is,” he con­cluded. Even Me­dia Watch de­scribed him as an “ex-pro­fes­sional foot­baller”. His col­lec­tion of semi-cor­rob­o­rated nar­ra­tives had be­come a mis­in­for­ma­tion dooms­day de­vice. The real stroke of genius was get­ting jour­nal­ists them­selves to as­sist in the con­fec­tions. Many of those feed­ing the beast thought Yoa’s claims were over­cooked, but harm­lessly so. What foot­balling wannabe doesn’t talk a big game? Which bud­ding ac­tor isn’t starry-eyed? Both ca­reers at­tract plenty of fan­ta­sists, but usu­ally a milder kind. Pri­vately, few of those deal­ing with Yoa re­ally be­lieved he had a chance at sporting star­dom. But they were re­luc­tant to pour cold wa­ter on a young refugee’s whole­some am­bi­tion. They thought they were leav­ing his claims unchecked and un­chal­lenged to fa­cil­i­tate a young man’s dream, and in­ad­ver­tently abet­ted a sub­terfuge.

Cir­cum­stances did the rest. Yoa had ce­mented his cre­den­tials as a model mi­nor­ity. The log­i­cal next step was to be­come a turn­coat. Any woman will­ing to say “fem­i­nism has gone too far” will have a me­dia job for life. So too any mi­grant of­fer­ing a li­cence for racism. Over a slow-news sum­mer, a spate of youth crime con­gealed into a largely myth­i­cal Su­danese gang cri­sis. And be­fore he knew it, self-ap­pointed Su­danese com­mu­nity leader, youth men­tor and ex-pro­fes­sional foot­baller Nelly Yoa was all over TV and ra­dio. He ap­peared on Sky News and was in­ter­viewed by Chris Kenny on 2GB, he spoke to the ABC and 3AW. He had ap­proached The Age with a typo-rid­dled email. They jumped at it. He put to­gether a list of rec­om­men­da­tions to deal with youth dis­af­fec­tion and street gangs, which was sub­se­quently re­vealed to bear marked sim­i­lar­i­ties to a 2015 piece by a Filipino de­vel­op­ment an­a­lyst, and an un­lucky ca­sual called Joe Hinch­liffe, who had been in the news­room just two months, beat it into shape. There was the cover of the news­pa­per. It hung there in time for a mo­ment, ma­jes­ti­cal, be­fore fall­ing. Yoa’s in­ter­ven­tion was, in a way, no more fan­tas­ti­cal than Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton’s sug­ges­tion that Mel­bur­ni­ans were too scared to go to res­tau­rants. Or the com­mu­nity Face­book groups scar­ing each other with tales of ex­tra-dark shad­ows against glass door­ways. Or a van­dalised youth cen­tre (which youth cen­tre is not van­dalised?) touted as Ex­hibit A of a state-paralysing crime wave. If you could over­look the egre­gious blow to the Su­danese com­mu­nity, there was a bright side. Nelly Yoa had fi­nally found the per­fect arena for his tal­ent to shine. M

The real stroke of genius was get­ting jour­nal­ists them­selves to as­sist in the con­fec­tions.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.