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Soccer Academies In Africa – the 21st Century Scramble for Africa

My son, “he is a special player”, the father said earnestly. “Perhaps you can help him?¨ I was in Ghana for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2008. The tournament attracted not only the best talent Africa has to offer, but also scouts, agents and the world’s media. But the trade in human talent was not just occurring at the elite level; others also saw it as an opportunity to promote themselves in search of the elusive dream of “making it” overseas.

“There is very little I can do to help you¨, I replied. “I’m sure you’re son’s a great player, but I’m not in a position to link him to any club.¨ The boy himself, probably around 13 years of age, had a wistful look on his eye. His father, if that truly who he was, had no doubt been through this scenario many times… and, it appeared, as if hope had already been vanquished from the child’s expectations.

The father became more insistent. Somehow he knew I worked for a football based charity with some offices overseas… although he chose to ignore the fact that our development was at grass-roots and that I wasn’t an agent. He kept telling me about the boy’s dream to play professional soccer, implying that I was in some way now responsible for not helping him fulfil his dreams. The cynic in me asked, “is this the boy’s dream – or is it yours?¨ I had the distinct impression that the father would have left his child with me on the spot if I’d offered him any sign of hope.

This scenario is being played out across the continent – and being exploited by the opportunists and the sinister alike. Football talent is no doubt in abundance… however, just as the slave trade of previous centuries saw African’s pedalled for profit… so pseudo-agents are developing soccer academies across the continent seeking to exploit talent for their own gain. Some are asking whether the European football economy, is fuelling a form of neo-colonialism.

As football in the west has become increasingly big business, with players earning huge salaries and living the so-called “high life”, so it has become increasingly desirable for African soccer players to seek lucrative football contracts in Europe. Ever since football emerged as the sport of choice in Africa, adopting the game from the European imperialists who utilised the sport as part of their “civilising mission¨, the star players in Africa have always been considered local heroes. The adoring fans would give their heroes nicknames to magnify their exploits and accomplishments on the field of play. This reflected the African battlefields, where praise-singers would extol the virtues of warriors in song and their name would go down in posterity. As the popularity of the game increased, football became an avenue for young African’s to earn respect, fame and, in some cases, cash… particularly as the rich European leagues recognised the African fields as an untapped, and relatively cheap, opportunity to recruit players.

In recent times, the magnitude of hero-status accorded to African players has increased drastically. Fuelled by the media, African hero’s playing abroad receive the plaudits of all across the Continent, while encouraging the next generation to seek escape from their circumstance through the holy grail of a contract with a European club. In my travels across Africa the negative result that I’ve observed is that many families release children with potential in soccer to chase their dream at the expense of education. As the number who “make-it¨ abroad are few and far between, the resultant concern is that thousands of disillusioned young people have seen their dreams vanish and consequently feel they’ve let their family down. As they are not prepared for life outside of football, many of these young men become just a part of the statistics that continue to reveal Africa as the Continent with the daily struggle for survival in the face of abject poverty.

This scenario has been greatly compounded over the past twenty through the dramatic growth of Soccer Academies across Africa of various guises. There are some that can be classed as the “genuine article¨… applying professionalism together with humanitarian values to facilitate the progress of young talent towards professional football. However, there are a multitude of charlatans who are seeking to profit from the human capital in the hope of discovering the next Eto, Drogba or Essien. Given the fact that there are only 3000 Africa soccer player plying their trade outside the continent of Africa, the percentage of academy players in Africa who do go on to make a career is miniscule. But the academies continue to expand and develop through offering false hopes to manipulate children’s, and their parents, dreams.

Many of these academies are informal – being run by a former “player¨ who offers the allure of fame, fortune through a lucrative contract. At best, some of these coaches are being opportunistic – offering a chance to a multitude of players and hoping the cream will rise to the top… and that they will ultimately uncover a star. Their own hopes and aspirations therefore become intrinsically intertwined with the players they are developing. When they do uncover what they believe to be a “gem¨, they will go to great lengths to try and help the player gain their necessary exposure. One might argue that, for some, their hearts are in the right place – even if they are misguided and ill-informed. And, while waiting for their broad speculation to discover gold, to help make ends meet, they charge small amounts to the players they train on and offer some level of basic agreement should the player “make it¨ to the big time.

On the more sinister level, pseudo agents sign up players with a modicum of talent offering them a direct passage to Europe ¹. What occurs is nothing more than human trafficking as parents pay these criminals sums of money on a whim and a prayer. Sometimes the children make it to Europe… but the end of the road was never going to be a contract with a professional football contract… and there are many cases of these youngsters finding themselves in desperate situations as illegal immigrants in a strange land.

So what is the answer? Africa is a football crazy continent… and the abject poverty of many makes the allure of fame and fortune through football an enticing prospect. And, given the profile of European football on African television, the bait is constantly on the line waiting for the next captive to be allured by the mirage.

Given the lack of resources at the disposal of most national football associations, regulation and monitoring may be complex, if not nigh on impossible. But surely some progress towards improving standards of football academies could be made to protect the vulnerable victims? And FIFA, the organisation that most benefits from the profit of football, needs to take action steps to prevent exploitation. The challenge can be addressed in two primary ways; creating greater awareness of these issues and through providing opportunities for networking, upskilling and evaluating those academies that do genuinely have the best interest of the players at heart. If the better academies can improve their overall standards, and if there is more general awareness of these issues, then, the exploitative and dangerous kinds of academies should find themselves somewhat ostracised and, hopefully, out of business.

Some specific recommendations of AIS, a football based NGO with branches across Africa, are as follows:

* Greater awareness through the football structures in each country as to the dangers of human trafficking and how football is being utilised to this end.

* All local football associations should be working towards developing a registration system for football academies.

* A code of best practise to be produced for academies that includes the following (not an exhaustive list):

* All academies should encourage their children to continue in education because the opportunities to make a career in football are limited.

* All academies should adopt a child-protection policy and implement these procedures through training all their staff, coaches and volunteers.

* Football coaches should be provided opportunities to increase their skills through attending accredited courses.

* Sample contracts should be made available that protect the players interests against unscrupulous agents.

* A continental network of soccer academies adhering to these codes of best practise could be developed and promoted through the internet…perhaps these academies receiving some level of recognition from CAF.

What is also essential is a stronger commitment to the development of African football at every level. National football associations’ commitment to grass roots football development is a bone of contention in many African countries. Coupled to this, the professional leagues in Africa require strengthening not only in their administration, but also in their ability to provide a good career to an African footballer so that they don’t necessarily have to seek opportunities abroad. Strong professional leagues in Africa would provide

What can AIS offer?

In each of the areas above, AIS are developing codes of practise and policies of operation that can help promote academies that follow sound principles that will protect the children. This includes:

* Through our Hope Academy¡¦s AIS have developed a model of operations that we believe can be emulated by other academies. These academies put the interests of the children first recognising that most will not make a career in football; therefore the focus is to help them succeed both on and off the field.

* The Hope Academy Curriculum is built upon the pillars of Football, Faith and Future in order to holistically develop young people. This curriculum will be made available to other associate academies.

* The AIS Hope Academy code of best practise demonstrates a high ethical code which can be adopted by academies.

* The AIS child protection policy ensures that children participating in Hope Academy¡¦s are safe and secure.

* The AIS coaches training programme 'TREC' is raising the standard of coaching and helping coaches become more aware of the issues relating to child protection and running academies on sound principles.

* The AIS Hope Academy partner scheme recognises that football academies need to be intrinsically linked with other community organisations such as schools, churches, NGO'S and businesses.

* AIS have developed an anti-human trafficking awareness and training programme (one such programme can be downloaded from the website).

1 Steve Bloomfield (2010:207-208) in Africa United cites one such occurance.
2 One positive step by FIFA is the new transfer system which was introduced in 2010 – see references.

About the author:

Tim Tucker is the African Team Leader for AIS. He has 12 years experience of working in football development programmes across the continent and is currently writing his Masters Thesis on the relationship between Christianity and sport in Africa.

AIS are committed to bringing hope through football and through their Hope Academy programme are committed to developing sustainable models of football outreach that will holistically develop a generation of young footballers.

Written by Tim Tucker, African Team Leader for Ambassadors in Sport Africa (

Contact or visit for more information.

Further Reading and References:

The following books were consulted as sources for this article:

Alegi P 2010. African Soccerscapes. London, UK: Hurst & Company.

Alegi P 2004. Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa. Scottsville South Africa: University of Kwa Zulu-Natal Press.

Bloomfield S, 2010. Africa United. Edignburgh, UK: Canongate Books Ltd.

Hawkey I 2009. Feet of the Chameleon. London, UK: Portico Books.

Ricci FM 2008. Elephants, Lions and eagles WSC Books, London.

Wheeler L 2008. Soccer Ministry In The Midst of Global Problems. Unpublished article.

Web based articles:,1518,698508-4,00.html,1518,670803,00.html


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