February 2018


The fabulous tale of Nelly Yoa

By Richard Cooke
The fabulous tale of Nelly Yoa
The Sudanese community leader and sports star’s improbable rise

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 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 small-bore 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 mind-your-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 “Jay-Jay” 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 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 Racecourse 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.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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