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The Expansive Program To Recruit Africa's Young Soccer Talent


With all the hoopla and the pageantry of an international tournament like the World Cup, it's hard to remember that before we saw superstars like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo on the international stage, they were just kids who fell in love with the game. But they were also kids who would go on to make a lot of money for teams, agents and advertisers.

"The Away Game: The Epic Search For Soccer's Next Superstars," tells the story of one of the biggest searches for talent in sports history, a soccer recruiting program that has held tryouts for more than 5 million 13-year-old boys, mainly in Africa, looking for the next superstar.

Author Sebastian Abbot is with us now to tell us more about it. He's with us from our studios in New York.

Sebastian, welcome.

SEBASTIAN ABBOT: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So the recruiting program is called Football Dreams, and I'm guessing that there are people, particularly in this country, who've never heard about it, particularly given that it's such - it was on such a massive scale. So how did this whole thing start?

ABBOT: Well, it started - you'd have to go back 20 years ago when one of the richest men in the world, a member of the Qatari royal family named Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, decided that he was going to make it his mission to produce a world-class Qatari national team.

First thing he did was he spent a billion dollars and he built Aspire Academy - which is probably the highest-tech sports academy in the world - in Doha but quickly realized he didn't have the players that he needed at home to produce the kind of team he imagined. And so he enlisted the help of a Spanish scout who was once the youth director at Barcelona and helped jumpstart Lionel Messi's career.

And the scout, Josep Colomer, set off across Africa to basically find the young players that the sheikh needed and over the course of 10 years, held tryouts for over 5 million 13-year-old boys, looking for soccer's next superstars.

MARTIN: And he had some crazy adventures. I mean, there's this one story that you tell, among many, of where he was in the Niger Delta region, where I think people who follow international affairs know there have been some vicious conflicts over the oil pipeline there - right? - and to the point where this scout had to - I mean, he couldn't even rely on the local police force, right? He had to rely on militia men to protect him, right?

ABBOT: Yeah, exactly. This was during the first year of the search in 2007. And he was in the Niger Delta at the height of the war between the militants and the government over the region's oil. And he had these, you know, paramilitary police officers armed with AK-47s who were protecting him while he was scouting there.

But one of the locals wanted him to go to his fishing village, which was about an hour's boat ride away, to go scout the local kids there. But it was one of the most dangerous parts of the Delta. And when he showed up at the dock to get into the boat, he realized that he couldn't take his police guards with him because the militants wouldn't allow armed government forces into their territory. But the local told him that the militants wanted him to come because they'd never had anyone scout their kids - not even a Nigerian scout, much less one who had been at Barcelona.

And he had a senior militant leader with him who would escort Josep Colomer, the scout, to the village, make sure nothing happened to him and bring him back. And even though the police guards thought this was a crazy thing to do, the scout had been so obsessed with finding future talent his whole life that he got in the boat with the militant and went to the village and conducted the search and luckily came back without being kidnapped.

And I actually, during my research, went and recreated his trip. I went with the same militants in the same boat to the same town and went to the same field, so it was an incredible experience.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, about just what the academy had to offer. I mean, the fact of the matter is these families were sending their boys away - their little boys to go off - some of them had never been out of their villages.

ABBOT: Yeah, it's kind of amazing when you think about it. I mean, these are kids who grew up playing on dusty dirt fields across Africa, often barefoot or in plastic sandals, dreaming that someday a foreign scout would show up, see them from the sidelines, point to them and just say you're marked for greatness. Come with me. I'm going to take you to Europe and make all your dreams come true. So you can imagine they were surprised and elated when a foreign scout did show up on the sideline of their little local field, pointed them and said come with me.

Now Qatar wouldn't have necessarily been where they had imagined they would be going. In fact, pretty much none of the kids had ever heard of the country before they actually went there. But when they arrived, they realized that this was an incredibly wealthy place. Aspire Academy, which cost a billion dollars to build - its signature feature is the largest air-conditioned sports dome in the world, which is the width of the Eiffel Tower laying on its side.

And so you can imagine what it was like for these kids coming from Africa to show up at a place like Aspire. And for them, they saw it as a stepping point to their dreams coming true, to making it to Europe, to making it to the biggest clubs. And for them and their families, They thought this was the best shot at a better life.

MARTIN: What conclusion did you come to? I mean, did you think that they added value to these boys' lives?

ABBOT: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people have asked me whether I thought the program was a success. And I think that's a difficult question because there's no sort of stark measurement that you can use. There were certainly boys in the program who achieved things in their life that they never would've been able to achieve before - made it to teams in Europe they would've never probably been able to play for and were able to transform the lives of their families back home.

But the difficult thing is that in youth soccer in general, it's incredibly difficult to succeed. I mean, the percentage of kids at Premier League academies in England - some of the top academies in the world - the percentage who make it from the youth level to the first team is a half a percent. And so you're talking about an extremely small number that are going to succeed. And even when you're holding tryouts for millions of kids, the reality is only a small number are going to succeed. So I think you can't say that these kids were worse off for necessarily having done this program.

I think there needed to be more thought in this program - and in other academies around the world - about what's the plan B? What happens when a boy dedicates their entire childhood to the dream of becoming a top professional soccer star and it doesn't work out? A lot of them don't focus on their education, don't focus on what they're going to do if it doesn't work out because they all believe that they're the ones who are going to make it, which is the kind of self-belief you need to have. But unfortunately for a lot of kids, it doesn't, and then they have trouble figuring out how to point their life in a new direction and move forward.

MARTIN: That was author Sebastian Abbot talking to us about his book, "The Away Game: The Epic Search For Soccer's Next Superstar."

Sebastian Abbot, thanks so much for joining us.

ABBOT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.