Guinea’s Chérif Souleymane started his amazing football career in the East German town of Neubrandenburg while studying there in the 1960s. He had traveled from Guinea to East Germany through an exchange program to study architecture in 1962. He was only 17 years old and would later get into football by accident.
East Germany, officially the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was then a communist country that had close links to the Soviet Union. Communist East Germany had student and worker exchange programs with African countries such as Angola, Mozambique and Guinea largely to gain recognition.
“They had a lot of exchanges with students and workers coming to the GDR who could then go back to their countries and talk about how great the GDR was. That was also part of the idea,” filmmaker Benjamin Unger, who did a film about Souleymane, told DW.
Souleymane went to East Germany to study architecture on a government scholarship and not to join a club. But within months he was playing in the country’s second tier after a coach recognized his skills while he was playing for his university side in Neubrandenburg, north of Berlin.
“The coach for the local Neubrandenburg sports club then asked me if I could join and I said yes,” Souleymane told BBC Sport Africa. Eventually, the Guinean sportsman would become the only Black player in East Germany and the first Guinean to play overseas.
“I was the only Black player in the whole of East Germany at the time and I was proud about it – I felt exceptional,” he said.
In a town where people hardly saw a Black person, Souleymane became well-known and loved by many people because he was a good player. His ability to score and create goals helped launch the small-town team into the first division. But when he and his teammates arrived, he was shocked to learn that an East German statute barred foreigners from playing in the first division, DW reported.
Indeed, even though Souleymane felt largely accepted in his small community in East Germany, he faced racism in the country. Apart from opposition supporters directing racist chants at him while playing, his girlfriend’s parents also didn’t allow him to marry her because he was Black. Then there were those who were curious to know where he had come from.
“Children touched me to see if I had coal on my skin,” Souleymane recalled in a film about him. “Everyone was curious about why I had come to the GDR.”
But he did not allow those experiences to affect him and he went on to play, scoring more goals. He played in East Germany for three years before going back home to Guinea, where he would become a superstar.
In his interview with BBC Sport Africa, he remembered being called up by Guinea for the first time to contest All-African Games qualifying in Ivory Coast in 1965. After the games, he didn’t go back to Europe but returned to Conakry, Guinea on the demands of officials of the country. And that was how his studies and football career in East Germany ended.
“I regret that I didn’t complete my studies in East Germany. I even enrolled in a university in Conakry afterwards but also didn’t finish.”
Nevertheless, Souleymane’s football career in Guinea progressed. He played with the club Hafia, making it Guinea’s most successful and also Africa’s best in the 1970s, according to BBC Sport Africa. He also played for Guinea in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and was African Footballer of the Year in 1972.
And having helped the national team qualify for their first Africa Cup of Nations in 1970 and also in 1974 and 1976, he was selected as Guinea’s player of the 20th century. Now 77, Souleymane officially retired in 1980 and recently became a technical director with Guinea’s Football Federation.