“Right to Dream“: African academy aims to curb exploitation of young footballers

Newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that two Italian clubs were under investigation for using faked documents to allow West African minors to enter Italy illegally. (Image for representational use only)
Updated 13 September 2017
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“Right to Dream“: African academy aims to curb exploitation of young footballers

LONDON: Floodlit stadiums, adoring fans and huge salaries – following in the footsteps of transfer-record breaking football superstars such as Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and playing for one of Europe’s leading clubs is the dream of every young player worldwide.
But beneath the big money headlines is an underbelly of exploitation of youngsters from developing nations, experts say.
Countless boys in West Africa enrol in football academies, giving up on an education and splashing the family savings in their quest to establish a career at one of Europe’s top teams.
Yet many of them are duped, taken abroad and dumped by unscrupulous men posing as agents, according to activists.
Tom Vernon, founder of Right to Dream (RTD) football academy in Ghana and owner of Danish Superliga club FC Nordsjælland, is striving to end such exploitation by offering a safe route for young African footballers with dreams of making it in Europe.
Education is key — in terms of both studying and learning about the potential pitfalls of going abroad too soon, he said.
“It’s a constant battle to stop people exploiting kids,” Vernon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
“Without parental support or an educational base, a young player is basically going to get eaten alive, and that still happens on a regular basis,” the former football scout added.
Earlier this year, newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that two Italian clubs were under investigation for using faked documents to allow West African minors to enter Italy illegally.
These children are among the some 15,000 young players moved from West Africa each year under false pretenses, estimates the charity Foot Solidaire, but a lack of monitoring means the number being trafficked abroad could be far higher, experts say.
Yet exploitation of young players is a worldwide problem.
Reports have emerged in recent years of Liberian boys being trafficked to an academy in Laos and trapped there in debt bondage, and Brazilian teenagers recruited from the Amazon to an academy in Sao Paolo, sleeping four to a mattress in a bedsit.

FROM POVERTY TO PITCH
Vernon, former head scout for Manchester United, based the RTD academy on the American athlete scholarship model in which players continue to study while being trained at an elite level.
The Ghana-based academy spends about $25,000 a year on each student, which covers education, training, housing, food, travel and equipment, with players gaining scholarships to continue their education in Britain and North America while playing.
The $5 million facility — which boasts a school, dormitories including one for girls, and eight grass pitches — is a world apart from the many ramshackle academies across West Africa.
“The vast majority (of players) are coming from $2-a-day families,” Vernon said. “They come into an environment where they are fed four times a day, at an international school with beautiful grass pitches. It is about getting the right balance.”
Off the pitch, the players focus on subjects such as science, engineering and maths in the school’s robotics lab.
“Our boys and girls are passionate about STEM subjects and can feed that section of Ghanaian society afterwards,” Vernon said. “Our ambition is that kids can drop into societies around the world and have other strings to their bow,” he added.
Yet most young players in the region are not so fortunate — and more may fall into the hands of crooked agents as Africa’s population swells and jobs become more scarce, says James Esson, a migration expert at Loughborough University in England.
Vernon says that many youngsters from poorer backgrounds are prey to exploitation and trafficking as agents seek to take advantage of their financial strife, and a lack of awareness.
“In a lot of cases they (agents) pose as a big savior ... (but) aren’t trying to represent the best interests of players.”
BUILDING BEYOND FOOTBALL
For 22-year-old Ghanaian Godsway Donyoh, RTD helped him secure a contract with Manchester City, then a move to FC Nordsjælland in Denmark in pursuit of more playing time.
While Donyoh believes his move to the Premier League club at the age of 18 came too soon in his development — he said his education gave him the conviction that he would succeed abroad.
“My dad sat me down and said before you can play football, you need to go to school,” Donyoh said, recalling how a failure to hit his required grades at the academy led to his boots being confiscated for a month, forcing him to focus on his studies.
Ghana’s Football Association (GFA) backs the RTD education-first approach and is working with parents and the police to crack down on bogus, unregulated academies — which it says are inspired by soaring transfer fees, wages and agents payments.
“The RTD model has proven to be the best approach for the country as it gives players ... another option in life if they fail to make it into the professional ranks,” a spokesman said.
Vernon has bigger ambitions for the model. He hopes players will use their experiences to invest in their home communities.
In one such case, U.S-based RTD graduate David Accam, who plays for Chicago Fire and has represented the Ghanaian national team, funded a community pitch back home in Ghana last year.
“It will be interesting to see if the professional game is willing to move toward this model,” Vernon said.


Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir ‘100 percent ready’ to face England, says coach

Updated 22 May 2018
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Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir ‘100 percent ready’ to face England, says coach

  • Left-armer is fit after a knee injury
  • 'He’s fine, he’s ready to go'

LONDON: Pakistan spearhead Mohammad Amir is “100 percent ready” for the first Test against England at Lord’s starting on Thursday despite a knee injury, according to team coach Mickey Arthur.
The left-arm fast bowler was seen stretching out his right knee as Pakistan beat Test debutants Ireland by five wickets during a one-off match in Malahide, Dublin concluded last week.
Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood suggested Amir had suffered a recurrence of a “chronic” problem.
But head coach Arthur, speaking to reporters at Lord’s on Tuesday, had no qualms about the fitness of Amir.
“He’s perfect, 100 percent,” Arthur insisted. “He’s fine, he’s ready to go.”
As for Amir, missing Pakistan’s final warm-up match ahead of the two-Test England series, last weekend’s drawn match against Leicestershire, Arthur added: “It was his rotation. (Mohammad) Abbas sat out the first (tour) game, Hasan (Ali) sat out the second, so he sat out the third.”
Amir was the hottest property in world cricket after bursting on the scene as a teenager in 2009 and at 18 he was the youngest bowler to have taken 50 Test wickets.
But his world was turned upside down in 2010 when he became involved in a spot-fixing scandal after deliberately bowling no-balls during the Lord’s Test against England — an incident that would eventually see him sent to prison by an English court and given a five-year ban by the International Cricket Council.
Amir’s first 14 Tests saw him take 51 wickets at just a fraction over 23 apiece, figures that had him on course to be an all-time great.
But the 17 Tests since his comeback two years ago have seen him take 49 wickets at a more expensive average of 34.91
Amir, and Pakistan for that matter, have not been helped by the fact that those 17 Tests since 2016 have also seen 16 catches dropped off his bowling.
The stigma of his spot-fixing exile has started to fade, with Amir playing for Pakistan during their 2-2 draw in a four-Test series in England two years ago.
He also starred for Essex as they won English domestic cricket’s first-class County Championship title last season.
Now the 26-year-old Amir is set to be the leader of an inexperienced Pakistan attack.
England, who didn’t manage a single win during their recent seven combined Tests in Australia and New Zealand, collapsed to 58 all out in Auckland in March as Kiwi left-arm quick Trent Boult took six wickets.
And Arthur backed Amir to do similar damage
“I think Mohammad Amir is the finest exponent of pace and swing when he gets it 100 percent right,” Arthur said.
“We’ve used that spell that Trent Boult bowled in Auckland. We’ve had a look at his lengths.
“We believe he (Amir) bowls incredibly well at left-handers and there will be three left-handers (Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan) in the (England) top four.
“He’s ready, I just hope it goes really well for him because he’s been unlucky at times with the amount of dropped catches.
“He’s ready, he’s determined, he’s fit, he’s strong, he’s excited, he’s in a very good place at the moment.”
Arthur is unusual in having served as the head coach of three leading nations — his native South Africa, Australia and Pakistan.
But he was adamant he had no desire to replace Trevor Bayliss when the Australian steps down as England coach next year.
“No, I’m very happy,” Arthur said. “I’d like to keep going with Pakistan for as long as they will have me because it’s unfinished business for us at the moment. This is a very young cricket team and I worry if we move on what happens to these guys. Their fitness regime is outstanding, they are training hard and they are enjoying their cricket. I’m very, very happy with where I am at the moment,” he insisted.