Shadows of a Dream

In West Africa, Hundreds of Illegal Football Academies Have Sprung up, Promising the Untold Riches of European Football

I lunged desperately but he skipped around me again, leaving me sprawled in the ochre-coloured sand. Padmore, the player I had been assigned to mark, was only 15 years old, but he already had that dangerous mix – the barrel-chested body of a sprinter and the agility of a cat. Our slightly deflated ball seemed to stick to his feet.

He’d turned me inside and out when he had possession and he’d bundled me unceremoniously off the ball on the few occasions I’d had a glimpse of it. I was red-faced and wheezing for breath. I knew when I was beaten and substituted myself off, dragging myself to a patch of shade on the side-lines. It was shortly before dusk and the match was being furiously fought out on a patch of wasteland just behind the local bus station.

The air was thick with diesel fumes and every now and then dusty trucks rumbled by bearing slogans like “God Loves You” and “Jesus is My Friend”. I took a cellophane bag of iced water from a street-hawker, no older than 8 years old, and watched the match; admiring the strength and movement of the boys playing, listening to them shouting instructions at each other in melodious Fante and Twi. As the light began to fade, the players finally called it a day and Padmore came towards me, glistening in sweat, and collapsed down by my side.

– “Hey tomato face! Always lazing around!” he said.

– “Hey man, well played! You’re not too bad you know.”

-“Yeah. Give me three years.” He pronounced three like ‘tree’ “In tree years, I’m gonna play for Manchesta United.”

I laughed and slapped him on the back. “Yeah, me too!” I joked, “I’m going to head in David Beckham’s crosses. And then we’ll all go for a good Manchester curry with him and Posh! I lay back in the clay, still sweating, chuckling away at my own wit. When I sat up, Padmore was looking down, furiously drawing circles in the red clay with a stick that had been laying around. I looked at his face. His eyes were burning.

-“What’s the matter?” I asked.

-“Why you laughing at me? What’s so funny? I am going to play for Manchester!” He started drawing circles with the stick again. “You’ll see. You’ll just see”

I looked out over the dense traffic to where the Gulf of Guinea was still visible over the roof tops, grey and moody at dusk. I didn’t really know what to say. I felt ashamed of my insensitivity. Life was pretty tough in the slums around Teshie-Nungua and for Padmore football was a dream of escape.

You shouldn’t underestimate the value of a dream. I was a tourist amongst the poverty, with a full belly and a return plane ticket to the land of Manchester United neatly folded in a safe. It had been stupid to laugh at his dream. But another thought troubled me: wasn’t it dangerous to believe too much in your dream?

In Ghana, the fortune seekers have been increasingly preying on these young footballers, feeding on their dreams like a leech feeds on blood.

An estimated 500 illegal “football academies” have sprung up in Accra alone, usually on scrap land, where thousands of boys, all of them aspiring Essiens or Appiahs, are put through their paces by charlatan coaches dishing out unrealistic promises of the untold riches of European football.

Desperate to harvest the riches of having a football star for a son, impoverished parents dish out fees to these unregistered coaches, who rarely have any qualifications beyond a quick tongue. An investigation by the British Guardian newspaper showed that some even sell their family homes and move to the city in order to enrol their children.

For every success story, of course, there are thousands of broken hearts, ruined parents and missed educations.

But worse than even this, it seems children are being trafficked for their football skills, effectively sold by their families by opportunistic middlemen, describing themselves as scouts, who scour the waste-land kick-abouts in West African slums looking for “a good buy”.

Greek journalist Christos Gavalas has produced a documentary called The Unscored Goal. It’s set in the honeymoon glow of Ghana’s world cup heroics, and tells the story of Missah who lives in Dansuma, another poor neighborhood across town from Teshie-Nungua.

His family earns around 2 euros a day, and so he is faced with the choice between eating and paying the minibus fare to training – which means he often has to pass up a meal. He told Gavalas: “If I have 5 cents, I can buy an orange, that’s my food. And if I don’t have money at all, I’ll drink more water.”

Missah dropped out of school at 12 to play soccer, deciding that there wasn’t enough time to train and attend classes. He was taking a huge gamble on his future, seemingly unaware that the odds were hugely stacked against him.

We watch in horror as his father signs him over for a pittance to an unofficial scout who spotted Missah in a local kick-around. The scout takes a financial burden off the shoulders of Missah’s family, agreeing to pay the boys’s basic needs, like food and clothing, and will expect a much bigger return of his minimal investment, if the boy succeeds in joining a European club.

You wish him luck, but fear for the worst. Gavalas describes what usually happens next:

“Most of these boys leave Africa without any contract – just a one-month visa. Their agents take them around for tryouts at the European clubs. But only if they perform exceptionally will they be offered fixed-term employment. Otherwise, they are expected to go back home. But that’s often not what happens. The agent, having lost his chance of a transfer fee, frequently abandons his failed star in Europe.”

They are lucky if they get that far. Last year the International Organization for Migration assisted 34 Ivorian adolescents, who had been abandoned in the intense heat of southern Mali after their parents had been tricked into paying a rogue agent to bring them to Europe.

The authorities are trying to respond. A group called Culture Foot Solidaire has been in direct contact with at least 800 young Africans in France abandoned by traffickers, middlemen and football clubs. It’s offering counselling and what practical help it can. Last year a major conference brought politicians, coaches and club representatives together to try to find answers to what is a growing problem.

The Ghanaian Ministry of Sports and Education is all too aware of the problem. They have urged Ghanaian families to spurn any unlicensed street agents who spin seductive yarns of promised careers in Europe. They also ask Ghanaians to report would-be scouts to the closest police station.

But few families do, of course – the dream is simply too alluring.

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