The search for football talent in Africa

Two of Africa's standout talents at Russia 2018--Moussa Wague and Francis Uzoho--were shaped by a football academy in Qatar. A new book tells that story.

A Football Dreams tryout in Thiès, Senegal. Image by the author.

One of Senegal’s breakout stars in their unlucky Russia 2018 World Cup campaign (like the other African teams in the Cup, they didn’t make it to the Round of 16; in Senegal’s case, because they had more yellow cards than Japan), was Moussa Wague. In Senegal’s second group match, a 2-2 draw with Japan, 19 year old Wague announced his presence in international football with a thumping shot in the 71st minute to give Senegal the 2-1 lead. Meanwhile, Nigeria picked another 19 year old in goal: Francis Uzoho. He was impressive in Nigeria’s 2-0 victory over Iceland and was unlucky against Argentina. Wague and Uzoho have a lot in common. They both play for a small Belgian club KAS Eupen, a club with mostly African players in its first team. And Wague and Uzoho got to Belgium via Aspire Academy, an elite sports academy in Qatar. What does Eupen have in common in Aspire? KAS Eupen is owned by a Qatar sheikh. So is Aspire. The journalist Sebastian Abbot’s new book, The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars (the UK edition was published today by Arena Books), traces these connections, especially the story of Aspire Academy, and their impacts on African football, especially in West Africa. (Wague and Uzoho are not its only standout graduates; others are the Senegalese Diawandou Diagne, briefly at FC Barcelona, and Nigerian Henry Onyekuru at Everton and Anderlecht). What follows is a conversation via email.

You write that your book is “not simply a story of European scouts chasing future African stars. It’s also a tale of rich Arab sheikhs who play football on their place grounds, South American wonder kids who grow up to become legends, and small town European fans worried about the takeover of their little local club.”

Football Dreams is the largest talent search in football history (likely in the history of all sports). It started in 2007 because one of the world’s richest men, Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, heir to Qatar’s throne at the time, was desperate to help his country produce a world-class football team. Sheikh Jassim was a massive football fan and had his own private, perfectly manicured field inside the royal palace complex in Doha.

Qatar, which is rich in oil and gas, had no shortage of cash, and Sheikh Jassim began his quest by spending over a billion dollars to build one of the most high-tech sports academies in the world called Aspire. But the tiny desert kingdom only had a couple hundred thousand citizens at the time and was seriously short on players.

To solve the problem, Sheikh Jassim enlisted the services of a Spanish scout, Josep Colomer, who helped launch the career of one of the greatest players in history, Lionel Messi. Colomer, a former youth director at football juggernaut FC Barcelona, was convinced he could find the players Sheikh Jassim needed in Africa, a continent with a billion people wild about football.

While Africa has produced some of Europe’s biggest football stars in recent years, including Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, Colomer believed these players were just the tip of a massive iceberg of talent. With Qatar’s backing, Colomer launched Football Dreams in 2007 and over the course of the next decade held tryouts for over 5 million 13-year-old boys, mostly in Africa, looking for potential superstars.

Each year, the scouts selected a handful of boys and trained them to become professionals. While at the academy, the boys took on the world’s top youth teams, like Barcelona and Manchester United, and often crushed them. In fact, one group beat Brazil’s Under-16 national team even though the Brazilian squad featured Neymar and Coutinho, two of the glitziest stars at this summer’s World Cup.

To spur the players’ development, Qatar also bought a small club in Belgium that could serve as a farm team for the Football Dreams kids and prepare them to play at Europe’s biggest clubs. The residents of Eupen, a town of only 20,000 people, woke up one day to discover that their local team, the Pandas, was now owned by an Arab country they knew little about and filled with African teenagers. That definitely didn’t go down well with everyone.

Football Dreams was like nothing the sports world had ever seen.

Football Dreams tried out 430,000 players from seven African countries and in the end picked 24 players. From that it whittled it down to 3 infield players from each country and 3 goalkeepers. Can you go over how the project picked those players?

Before launching Football Dreams, Josep Colomer spent months traveling across Africa to set up the vast network of nearly 6,000 local staff needed to carry out the project. That’s the same number of people needed to operate an aircraft carrier. During the first year of Football Dreams, Colomer and his team scouted over 400,000 13 year-old boys in seven African countries by holding over 26,000 games at nearly 600 fields, many of them nothing more than rough patches of dirt.

At each field, local organizers registered 800 kids for the tryouts. Many of these organizers were local coaches who ran the thousands of small, informal football schools that dot neighborhoods across Africa. To enlist their support, Colomer and his team distributed thousands of dollars of free Nike gear at each of the fields where they held tryouts. Volunteers were also given a free trip to Doha if one of their boys was selected for the final tryout, a big perk since many had never traveled outside their countries before.

These volunteers held initial tryouts to identify the best 176 kids at each field before foreign scouts arrived to pick the top 50 players from across the country for a four-day final in the capital. Aspire then flew in another set of foreign scouts for the finals so they could provide an independent assessment and pick the three best field players from the country for the last tryout in Doha, which lasted several weeks. They also picked the three best goalkeepers from across the countries for the final tryout.

One of the disappointing stories in the book is that of Bernard Appiah, a young midfielder who is compared to the Ghanaian legend, Stephen Appiah (no relation), who played for Juventus and Fenerbache. But Bernard’s life ended in disappointment and highlights the role of football agents and local club owners who believe they’re owed a stake in a player’s contract if he presumably makes it with a big European club? It also implicates the Ghanaian Football Association, whose chairman, Kwesi Nyantakyi, was exposed for taking cash bribes. He is gone now. Will things improve?

I don’t see things improving anytime soon given the desperation of players to make it to Europe and the vast sums of money at stake if they do. Local coaches in many parts of Africa prowl schoolyards and other neighborhood pitches looking for the best young players they can find and often buy the rights to them at a very young age, hoping to strike it rich if one of them makes it to Europe.

Bernard Appiah is a prime example. Here’s an excerpt from my book about his background:

Bernard first began turning coaches’ heads as a young child in the dirt courtyard of his school in Teshie. The large open space was an oasis for kids seeking an escape from the chaotic web of humanity and commerce outside. The area where Bernard grew up was dominated by a sea of small ramshackle homes and shops made of wood, concrete, and metal. They were set along a maze of red dirt roads shared by a tangle of cars, bikes, wooden carts, pedestrians, traders, chickens, and goats. Noxious green sewage seeped down some of the town’s dirt alleyways. The assault on the senses was softened only slightly by the presence of an occasional palm tree. The ocean and its cooling breeze weren’t far away, but it was easy to forget amid the bustle.

A local coach, Seth Ali, first spotted Bernard playing football at his school in a pair of old tennis shoes when he was about 8 years old. Even then, he stood out for his speed, control in tight spaces, and ability to take on players with his dominant left foot. Ali convinced Bernard and his parents that he should join his team, the Top Stars, and the midfielder quickly impressed his new teammates. Tornado, they called him, because of his work rate in practice. It was a nickname he shared with one of Ghana’s most famous players, Stephen Appiah, a midfielder who played for Juventus and captained Ghana’s national team, the Black Stars, in the 2006 World Cup. Bernard also dreamed of playing for the national team one day. A red, yellow, and green Ghanaian flag with its distinctive black star waved in the courtyard of Bernard’s school, where the Top Stars practiced.

Ali had more enthusiasm than resources, a constant problem for football coaches in Africa. He only had two balls for the 50 kids he was training, so they spent a lot of their time simply running around in the dust. But he clearly knew who his best player was. “People were always talking about Bernard,” said Ali. “He was the best player in every game, always the best player.” It was clear to his teammates as well. “He was raised from nowhere to become a star,” said his good friend and teammate Joshua Lartey. “His free kicks, penalties, passes, are all incredible.” But Ali had a problem. He needed money to buy jerseys and equipment. That’s how Justice Oteng, the coach who first told Bernard about the Football Dreams tryout, came into the picture. 

Oteng was putting together a new team, Unique FC, to play in Ghana’s youth Colts League, and he needed players. He spotted Bernard playing in the schoolyard and approached Ali to buy him and over half a dozen other players from the Top Stars for his team. It was an example of the booming economy for even the youngest football players in Africa. Local coaches, many of whom have no formal training, hope to get rich by finding a kid who is good enough to play at a top club in Europe. Some people see these coaches as villains out to exploit young players. Others believe they’re vital because they help fund grassroots football throughout Africa. There’s truth on both sides, but the potential for abuse is very real.

Unfortunately, conflicts can surface over time between what’s best for players and the local coaches seeking to profit from them, and these conflicts can hamper players’ careers, as happened to Bernard.

Is it a fair criticism to suggest football academies prevent national associations to get their houses in order. Basically, that the academies do the hard work of developing players that the associations can’t or won’t do. As evidence for this argument: so many Aspire Academy players ended up in national youth teams.

I guess that’s one way to look at it, although private academies in many places in the world play a huge role in preparing young players who eventually play for their national teams. Think of how many players on Spain’s winning World Cup team in 2010 came from Barcelona’s academy. Of course, national academies can also play a large role, like Clairefontaine in Paris which helped set the stage for France’s World Cup victory in 1998 and also developed several key players on the country’s current World Cup squad.

The problem in Africa has historically been that there haven’t been significant resources at either the public or private level dedicated to developing young players to represent their countries, although that is slowly changing with the proliferation of private academies in some parts of the continent like Right to Dream in Ghana and Génération Foot in Senegal.

Can you talk about age cheating? It is a big character in the book. Everyone seems to know about it. What is your view of it? Is it an inevitable part of the game. Of course, Africans aren’t unique in this, but it does seem to be present disproportionately in the African game.

Age cheating is a huge problem as outlined in this section of my book:

One of the biggest problems in youth football in Africa, and in many other parts of the developing world, has been age cheating, kids saying they’re much younger than they are so they will have an advantage over other players. Imagine throwing a college-age player in with a bunch of middle schoolers, and you get the idea. Age cheating is so common in Africa that it’s not unusual to hear coaches say things like, “The boy is 17, but his football age is 13,” although not when they’re worried about being overheard. Using birth certificates or passports to verify a player’s age is often futile because they are so easily faked, or real ones are generated using false information. 

Many football officials believe age cheating has been one of the biggest impediments to an African country winning the World Cup, as Pelé predicted would happen decades ago. Although several African nations, especially Nigeria and Ghana, have had great success at the Under-17 and Under-20 versions of the tournament, many of the players who participated were never heard from again because they were much older than advertised. They couldn’t hack it when they tried to compete against world-class players their own age. 

The problem continues to plague African football because players are so desperate to make it to Europe they will do anything it takes, including lie about their age to appear better than they are. Others who stand to benefit are usually onboard as well, like their coaches, families, and even federation officials who might make a bit of money from a transfer. Piercing this veil of lies can be difficult, especially when it comes to determining a player’s exact age. But it’s usually possible to deduce whether a player is significantly older than he says by asking him and those around him enough indirect questions that help peel back the lies. Still, it’s a huge problem. “Age fraud is more serious than doping,” said Saer Seck, one of the founders of Diambars academy in Senegal. 

Again, given the money at stake in the sport, I’m not surprised players will do anything it takes to give them a chance to make it to Europe. I think age cheating will remain an issue in Africa and other parts of the world until digitization of public records makes it much more difficult to falsify a player’s age.

Pele predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000. That came and went, including at this World Cup. What are some factors why not? And what are things that need to be in place for that to become a reality?

As I mentioned above, age cheating has definitely been one of the factors holding the development of African players and teams back. Another problem has been the relative absence of high-level youth academies. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski came to this same conclusion in their book Footballnomics: “To win at sports, you need to find, develop and nurture talent,” they wrote. “Doing that requires money, know-how, and some kind of administrative infrastructure. Few African countries have any.” 

Most African kids train at the thousands of informal football schools that dot neighborhoods across Africa, under the guidance of coaches who often have no formal training and very few resources. There aren’t many high-quality academies offering the kind of training a young player might find in Europe.

The shortage of top-notch academies is mainly driven by a lack of resources, a problem exacerbated by corruption at all levels of African football. That corruption was in full view ahead of the Russia World Cup as Nyantaki was caught on film taking a bribe and resigned.

Until African officials stop lining their pockets with money that could be spent identifying and developing the best young talent the continent has to offer, dreams of an African nation winning the World Cup will remain elusive.

It would also help if African nations had more spots at the World Cup. Currently, only five African teams make it into the tournament compared to 13 from Europe. That will rise to nine from Africa in 2026 (and 16 from Europe), but some have called for even more spots for African teams which would increase the chance of a team from the continent winning.

Aspire Academy is an extension of Qatari soft power. However, it doesn’t seem to be doing as well as the kingdom’s other soft power instruments like the TV channel Al Jazeera (including BeIN SPORTS) or the kingdom’s past association with FC Barcelona.

Qatar has used its immense wealth to buy a place on the world stage in many different ways. As you reference above, the country launched Al Jazeera in 1996, and it quickly became the most important news service in the Arab world. Qatar also engaged in a flurry of international mediation efforts in places like Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen; snapped up some of the world’s most iconic businesses and valuable real estate, like Harrods department store in London and Europe’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard; and became one of the world’s biggest buyers of art, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on works by major artists ranging from Paul Cézanne to Damien Hirst. 

These were certainly effective ways to attract attention, but media, politics, business, and the arts weren’t enough. What Qatar’s rulers truly craved was success in the world’s most popular game. International football is in many ways the ultimate soft power instrument. It offered Qatar a route to market the country to billions of people around the globe in a way that could transcend differences in politics, culture, and religion. Qatar’s rulers knew that if the country could make a splash in international football, the rest of the world was bound to stand up and take notice. Aspire Academy and Football Dreams fit squarely into that vision, as did Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup, its acquisition of PSG and its decision to sponsor Barcelona.

Qatar’s forays into international football have had varying degrees of success. The country of course won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, but it turned into a PR nightmare for the country. Its acquisition of PSG and sponsorship of Barcelona were arguably more effective, although PSG has yet to take home the ultimate prize, a Champions League trophy, and Qatar is no longer Barcelona’s sponsor following unhappiness from fans at the club’s affiliation with the country.

It’s fair to say that Aspire and Football Dreams haven’t had the impact that Sheikh Jassim and Josep Colomer initially dreamed. Qatar once again failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and Football Dreams has yet to produce the superstars the organizers initially imagined. The bottom line is that money can buy many things (expensive art, glitzy real estate, top European clubs and maybe even a World Cup), but building a world-class national team out of a tiny population and uncovering the next Messi in Africa are extremely difficult even with seemingly endless wealth.

Can you talk about Qatar’s football history. You suggest there is not much there? Does this mean Qatar would break new records for a World Cup host’s performance in the World Cup? (South Africa currently holds that record)

Qatar’s football history is indeed pretty limited as outlined in this excerpt of my book:

Foreign oil workers first brought the sport to the country in the late 1940s. They played in the sand near the western city of Dukhan, where the first well was located, and reportedly used oil to line the field. The country officially started its league in 1973, but relatively few Qataris played. Football had to compete with traditional sports like camel racing and falconry. Many players in the league were from other Middle Eastern countries and the Indian subcontinent, definitely not football powerhouses. Over time, football became the most popular sport in the country, but that mainly meant locals watching European games on TV. There were still relatively few Qataris who played or watched the country’s mediocre clubs. These teams often competed in front of a couple hundred fans in gleaming stadiums built for much larger crowds, even after the government pumped millions of dollars into the league in the early 2000s to attract aging stars like Pep Guardiola, the former captain of Barcelona who would go on to become the club’s most successful coach in history.

By failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Qatar has already ensured that it will break one record. It will be the first host country to never have qualified for the World Cup. How it does in the tournament remains to be seen. Russia, ranked 70th in the world by FIFA, has surprised many people by doing much better at the 2018 World Cup than predicted. But Qatar is much lower in the rankings, at 98th, so it would need to beat some very long odds to do well in 2022.

Is it fair to argue that Aspire Academy’s search for an African Messi was quixotic from the start?

It’s incredibly difficult for a player to make it to the sport’s top level at all, much less go on to become a superstar. Only half a percent of the kids who join a Premier League academy at the Under-9 level end up making it to the club’s first team. That’s one in 200 kids. The numbers aren’t much better for young players hoping to make a living in the sport at any level. Only around 1 percent of the 10,000 kids in the entire English academy system will make a living in the game, and two-thirds of those given a professional contract at age 18 are out of professional football by the time they’re 21 years old.

These odds show just how difficult it was for Football Dreams to find the next Messi in Africa. Even though the program held tryouts for millions of boys, they only ended up taking about 20 a year into the academy. Given how difficult it is to identify which young player has the potential to become a star, producing the next Messi out of this pool would have been akin to winning the lottery.

Qatar has naturalized top sportspeople to compete for the nation in the Olympics and in some other sports like handball. Why not football? It seems they tried in individual cases, but not systematically? Right?

Qatar has actually naturalized quite a few foreign players from Africa and South America. When the country surprisingly won the 2006 Asian Games, its best players were a Uruguayan striker, a Senegalese defender, and a Senegalese goalkeeper. This process has continued, and when Qatar’s team takes the field for the 2022 World Cup, there are bound to be a significant number of naturalized players on the squad. These players won’t necessarily come from Football Dreams though because Qatar faced so much pressure to let the kids play for their home countries. It’s easier for Qatar to naturalize African players who aren’t in the Football Dreams spotlight.

The book emphasizes the impact of pickup football on a player’s ability to succeed in the top flight. Can you talk about that?

Researchers have found that one of the most important predictors of a young player’s success is game intelligence. After all, being the fastest dribbler on the pitch or the best passer isn’t going to do a player much good if he doesn’t know what to do with the ball or where to position himself to be effective. 

One of the best stories illustrating the power of game intelligence involves Diego Maradona. It was told by Jorge Valdano, who was on the field when Maradona scored his famous goal in the 1986 World Cup by dribbling through half the English team. As Maradona sprinted from the halfway line to goal, Valdano kept pace alongside him in the center forward position, expecting a pass but never receiving one. After the game, Maradona came to see Valdano in the locker room and apologized for not giving him the ball. Maradona said he had originally planned to pass, but as he neared goal, he remembered a similar situation against the English keeper seven years earlier. He failed to score then, and as he weaved through the English team at the World Cup, he realized where he made his mistake. Maradona concluded he didn’t need Valdano and could score by himself. Amazingly, he was able to call up this memory, process it, and execute the right decision in just seconds, while dribbling at full speed in one of the highest- pressure environments in football. The story, published by the football magazine The Blizzard, prompted a former Ajax team manager to note that “the seconds of the greats last longer than those of normal people.”

Stars like Maradona build up the database of memories needed to drive this game intelligence, as well as the technical skill to put it to work, by playing football for thousands of hours. But not all play is equal. Scientists have discovered that one type of training in particular is most useful in developing game intelligence and preparing young players to become professionals. They have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup football they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard. Researchers believe this type of training helps build game intelligence and hone technique because it creates the opportunity for players to experiment with different skills and tactics in an unstructured environment, leading to better anticipation and decision making.

How difficult it is for an African player to get into a European club system before he is eighteen?

Due to FIFA’s regulations, players from Africa are not officially allowed to move to Europe to join a club until they’re 18. The main exception is if a player’s parents move to the new country for non-football reasons. But many clubs have been known to dance around the regulations or break them outright to get underage players they want. The NGO Foot Solidaire estimates that thousands of underage players are shuttled out of West Africa every year with dreams of making it at clubs in Europe and elsewhere. Almost all fail, and many find themselves stranded in Europe. FIFA recently started cracking down on the flow of underage players and handed transfer bans to Barcelona and Real Madrid. But it remains to be seen how much this punishment deters the practice.

Despite the racist outburst by West Ham’s director of player recruitment in January 208 about African players (he said African players “cause mayhem” when they are not in the team), European clubs who used to be reluctant to sign African players now have African players at the heart of their teams. What changed?

Hopefully it means racism has declined despite the continued outbursts. It’s also impossible to deny the transformational effect that African players like Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Sadio Mané and others have had on their respective teams in Europe, so any club with a reluctance to sign African players would be at a severe competitive disadvantage.  

About the Author

Sean Jacobs, Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow.

Sebastian Abbot is the author of the new book The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.