Korede Aiyegbusi is fearless on and off the pitch. He left his home at 16 to chase his dream of becoming a professional in the United States. Born and raised in London, the full-back has travelled extensively, from Sweden to Iran, via Sporting Kansas City, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, to ply his trade and last season joined Shakhter Karagandy, becoming the first Englishman to play club football in Kazakhstan.
According to Amnesty International “the rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association remain restricted” in Kazakhstan, so it is not somewhere to go without knowing what you are getting into. Its most famous export is a fictional character, Borat, from whom Kazakhs distance themselves. The key for the 29-year-old Aiyegbusi was the money on offer, allowing him to earn wages unattainable in the countries in which he had previously found employment, while his season in Iran is proof he has few reservations about where he plays.
On the pitch Aiyegbusi is adept at adjusting to situations but during his time in Karaganda he became the centre of attention in the city, not for his sporting capabilities, but the colour of his skin. “It’s very rare for them to see someone with black skin. In Astana and Almaty they see it but not so often and even then they’ll give you a good look,” Aiyegbusi says.
“They only see black people in movies. Karaganda is the fourth or fifth biggest city in Kazakhstan, so it’s quite small so when they see a black person, all eyes are on you. They would want a photo or a selfie as it’s something they think they won’t see for the rest of their life. It’s not because you’re playing football, it’s because you’re a black guy. It intrigues them.”
Aiyegbusi’s family run a successful business, so he knows the value of money and the realisation that a year in Kazakhstan would be better for his long-term ambitions. “I’ve played in Finland and Sweden where you get a good salary but it’s on the other end of the spectrum of what someone would expect for a footballer’s wage. I’ve always had a business mind about life after football, so going to Kazakhstan was an opportunity to get a much better salary than in second leagues over here [in England] and in Europe. I could make some money and get good savings so I could set up my own thing when I’m done with football.”
Understandably, there are worries for someone moving into the unknown, but Aiyegbusi was open to anything his new home could confront him with. “My biggest concern, especially from my experience in Iran, was maybe not receiving all I was meant to receive. I’ve travelled around the world, in football and outside of football, and I’m always up for seeing new cultures, how people live, whether it be higher class or lower class, being in all different environments, so there was nothing fearful in my mind. It was just a matter of making sure I got the money they said they’d pay me. When you leave mainland Europe it gets like that, there’s a deal on the table and sometimes you don’t get all your money and that becomes a problem.”
The closest Aiyegbusi came to playing in his homeland was being offered a four-month contract by the Brentford manager Uwe Rösler, but he turned it down in favour of moving to Finland, a rare regret in a nomadic career. Since then he has moved around a year at a time in order to find a new place to play. The weather and culture in Kazakhstan made him take a step back after spending his first six weeks with the club in pre-season training in the warmth of Turkey.
“I was hit by cold and winter blizzard weather, which I had experienced in Sweden but I hadn’t lived so long through those moments, as in Sweden you would get the last two weeks of winter. In Kazakhstan it was weather like I’d never experienced before, it was a shock.
“It was an eye-opener, in terms of the infrastructure and town planning of the city, but in the first three or four weeks we stayed in Astana, the capital, which is a fairly new city. It’s basically a cold Dubai; the buildings are new, they have westernised structures. It was only two hours or so away from where I was, so it was good to know I had an escape if I wanted to go and feel like I was in Europe.”
Shakhter Karagandy qualified for the Champions League as recently as 2013 when they lost in dramatic fashion to Celtic in a qualifying play-off but their facilities cannot compare with what is on offer at other leading sides. They still reside in the Kazakh top flight, finishing seventh out of 12 last season. Aiyegbusi scored the winner in the fourth minute of injury time – his only goal in 20 appearances – against Akzhayik to ensure survival.
“The club itself and the professionalism is not like I’ve experienced. It’s not bad but it’s not top notch, it’s not what you expect coming from Europe or MLS. It wasn’t a shock, as I’m up for anything, but it was nowhere near the standard of what I’ve experienced before. Most teams would train where they play, so for the first few months of the season we played on synthetic grass in another city and trained there as well, which caused a lot of problems as players get injured as the grounds which we played on are not beneficial for the longevity of players, and I experienced that a little bit myself.”
In a 10-month period in Kazakhstan, Aiyegbusi had a lot to take in – from the slaughtering of a lamb before each game to the attitude of the club’s hierarchy towards its staff. He became a spokesman for the dressing room, refusing to suffer at the hands of those above him. “I come from a different culture and I don’t understand their culture, so when I’m there it’s about adapting and understanding. They do things I don’t agree with and I think it’s their culture that whoever is at the top, they can say what they want and treat you how they want and it’s a type of bullying.
“They do it so easily that they do it with foreign players and some foreign players can brush it off, but sometimes you need to put them back in check, let them know you’re not a kid, you’re a man and if I speak to you with respect then you better do the same to me. I was there to play for them but I am a slave to no one. I put that in place when I was there, making them remember they can’t say what they want and do what they want.”
Aiyegbusi has seen more of the footballing world than most but he is still hungry as he contemplates his next move, whether it is on the pitch or off it. He does not know where that will be, but he will have to go some way to top the last one.
The Guardian Sport