Living in a forest camp and jumping the fence into Europe – Titi’s rugby dream

LEAVING HIS FAMILY, walking across a desert, living in a forest, going hungry and thirsty for months, jumping the most treacherous fence into Europe – Thierry Feuteu did it all with the dream of playing professional rugby driving him on.

The man team-mates call ‘Titi’ left his native Cameroon at the age of 18 and ventured to Morocco, where the border to Spanish city Melilla beckons for so many Africans eager for a better life on European soil.

Going over the highly fortified fence to Melilla is viciously dangerous, resulting in injuries and even death for some of those who have tried, but Titi made it across the border and is now following his dream in Spain.

‘Titi’ in action for Alcobendas. Source: Soraya Sam Martin

Five years after setting foot in Europe for the first time, Feuteu is shining in the top flight of Spanish rugby with club side Alcobendas and is close to making his international debut for Spain.

At one stage on his remarkable journey, Feuteu had wasted away to 88kg. Now training in what is close to a professional set-up with Alcobendas, he is a 115kg wrecking ball of a loosehead prop.

Those who play with him at Alcobendas, including Irishman John Semple, believe the sky is the limit for Feuteu, who only moved into the front row last season after previously playing in the back row and second row. 

Spain’s coaches have already earmarked him for involvement at Test level and Feuteu has ambitions to keep rising.

“I want to be a really good player and a really good person,” says the 23-year-old.

Titi grew up in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, and started playing rugby in secondary school at the age of 11.

Rugby heroes in Cameroon include Serge Betsen and Robins Tchale-Watchou but the country is football-obsessed. Feuteu, however, was smitten as soon as he picked up the oval ball.

“When I was growing up, everybody was football-mad so I played too, but I kept bumping into people and knocking them over,” he recalls.

“My parents didn’t like me coming home from rugby all battered and bruised but I fell in love with the game. Rugby means so much to me and it’s why I left my country.”

Feuteu set out at with a close friend at the age of 18 – not telling his family he was leaving for fear they would stop him – initially aiming to get to Morocco to play rugby there.

Source: RugbyHitsMedia/Facebook

He and his friend bought a car and drove north through Nigeria into Niger until they came to the border with Algeria, where they sold the car and set out on foot across what they hoped was a loosely-patrolled area of the border, aiming for the oasis city of Tamanrasset.

“We had to do it three times because the police on the border caught us,” recalls Titi. “We had to try until we managed to avoid the police. You have to go through the desert at night so no one can see you.”

Eventually, they completed the five-hour trek in the darkness of night and used the funds from selling the first car to buy another, continuing to the Algerian border with Morocco, where they sold up again and took a train onwards.

They quickly realised they had been misinformed about the scale of rugby scouting in Morocco – a former team-mate had told them of opportunities – and their focus shifted onto getting into Melilla, the tiny Spanish enclave on the coast of North Africa

An initial six-metre metal fence, further fences, barbed-wire netting, a deep ditch, motion sensors, more barbed-wire fences, patrols, camera surveillance, lookout posts, and more – the border is heavily fortified in a bid to stop the illegal migration.

Getting into Melilla wasn’t going to be a simple task, meaning Feuteu and his friend settled in with thousands of other immigrants, many from Mali and Senegal, in the makeshift forest camps around nearby Mount Curco.

For months, they slept on the ground with thin blankets at night, used paper or plastic sheeting to cover themselves when it rained, and gladly benefited from the generosity of locals from nearby towns who occasionally gave them money for food. 

These were times of ferocious thirst and hunger, with Titi – previously a big man of around 110kg – losing more than 20kg. As he did his best to evade the police, he planned with the thousands of other hopefuls, preparing to rush the border in large groups. 

“We needed to wait for the right time,” says Feuteu, whose travelling friend departed in hope of traveling to Europe by boat. “At five or six every morning, the police would always come to our forest camps and we just scattered and ran as fast as we could.

“They would round people up and put them back over the border. It was scary but we made some new friends, so it wasn’t all bad. We were all in a similar situation.”

Source: Vox/YouTube

There were multiple attempts to jump the fence into Melilla amongst hordes of fellow hopefuls, before Feuteu was finally one of the very lucky ones to make it over on 28 May 2014.

“It was 5am and 1,500 of us tried to enter and only around 450 of us managed to get through,” he says of what was a harrowing experience, being battered with police batons but somehow continuing to move forward.

“We used brute force to try and get in, the police tried to block the way with cars and push us back but they couldn’t stop everybody. 450 people got in and I was one of them.”

Titi hid for hours until eventually making his way to the Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, where the migrants essentially become the responsibility of the Spanish government. Brute force was required again, as the green entrance gate was forced open enough to slip through and finally count themselves as being on Spanish soil.

With the Spanish government unable to send Feuteu back to Morocco or Cameroon, not having agreements in place with those countries, he was given medical checks and, six months later, shipped to the Spanish mainland.

Migrants like himself are sent to non-governmental organisations [NGOs] all over Spain, with Titi delivered to the ‘Movement for Peace’ in Madrid, where he got accommodation, food, clothes, some spending money and Spanish language classes.

He spent a year at the NGO and was involved in rugby virtually from the moment he arrived in Madrid, first with a rugby league side – his first experience of the 13-man code – then back into 15s with the Madrid Barbarians.

The Barbarians’ Australian coach, James Kent [who also made the highlights video included in this article], could see Feuteu’s potential and recommended him to Alcobendas, who play in the top-flight División de Honor.

Titi has progressed rapidly over the last three seasons, moving to loosehead in 2017/18, and has made 15 starts for Alcobendas in the current campaign, playing alongside internationals and helping the club to third in the table.

“He’s got so much to learn but his potential is huge,” says Irishman Semple, who played for Ulster Juniors, Limavady and Ballymena, as well as having a stint in New Zealand rugby, and who now runs Rugby Hits Media making highlights videos for players.

“He’s super fast. The training is very professional here, we train three or four mornings in the gym, then three or four times on the pitch in the evenings. Titi buddies up with the wingers and over 50 metres, he’s neck and neck with them.

Feuteu is a strong ball-carrier. Source: Soraya San Martin

“He doesn’t have the same background as guys who have been playing since they were five, but the sky is the limit.”

Feuteu’s career is taking off and his first cap for Spain beckons after his long-awaited visa finally came through this month – prompting tearful joy – to make him legally qualified to play for his adopted nation. But being away from Cameroon has been tough.

Alcobendas are a semi-professional club so Feuteu does earn some money from playing rugby but his income is far from the fortune those back home imagine he’s pulling in – the perception being that Titi is in a similar bracket to Cameroon’s football stars.

Nonetheless, Titi sends virtually all the money he earns back to his family in Douala.

Being away from his loved ones is difficult but his rugby dreams drive him on.

“When I left, I didn’t tell anyone I was going,” says Titi. “When I got to Morocco, I was talking to my father and he sent some money to try and get me to come home. But I didn’t want to go back.

“I still speak with my dad and mum and my two sisters.

“I’d like an opportunity someday to go back to Cameroon and spread the word about what rugby can do for you, what you can achieve.”

Andy Dunne joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey to discuss Joe Schmidt’s undroppables and how France might attack Ireland’s predictability in The42 Rugby Weekly.

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