Africa's talent looks to foreign shores for success, writes Tom Neate
While Africa’s finest footballers compete in Ghana, 23 13-year-old boys have won the chance to leave the continent behind. They are the winners of a mammoth and controversial talent search undertaken by the Aspire Academy. At the forefront of Qatar’s push for sporting success, the academy provides sporting and educational facilities with the aim of developing future world sporting champions. The centrepiece is the Dome, currently the world’s largest purpose-built indoor sports arena. Incorporated under the roof along with a vast array of sporting facilities is a full-size football pitch; there are an additional seven pitches outside, five of which are natural grass.
The search for young African talent was launched with the help of Pelé in April last year, under the banner “Aspire Africa, Football Dreams”. A total of 430,000 boys all born in 1994 were assessed for their footballing prowess across seven countries (Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa). Across each country 50-to-100 trials were held, from which the best 50 boys were chosen. The regional winners then attended national trials, with scholarships offered to three from each country, except Senegal where one boy failed the medical examination held at Aspire. To add to the “Football Idol” feel of the event, an Arabic sports channel covered the search.
The project, which will run annually and is looking to expand on the number of nations taking part, can count on the support of the United Nations Office of Sport for Development and Peace, as well as Diego Maradona, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Roger Milla. Qatar is desperate to become a serious competitor in international sport and qualifying for the World Cup (a feat they have never achieved) is one way of realising that aim. They are attempting to discover talent within their own borders by annually assessing every 12-year-old boy for their suitability to be a professional footballer and have had some success at youth level. Yet with a population of fewer than a million it is always going to be a struggle. Acquiring the best talent from Africa could be one way of fast-tracking them to the World Cup, although Dr Andreas Bleicher, sports director of Aspire, insists that “scholarship contracts with the successful players do not include conditions of changing nationalities”.
Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroon international, is president of Culture Foot Solidaire, a Paris-based organisation working to stop the illegal trafficking of African footballers to Europe. Mbvoumin is one of the scheme’s fiercest critics, comparing it to “modern-day slavery”. He is joined in his criticism by five members of the European Parliament, who have written to FIFA president Sepp Blatter asking him to intervene, pointing out “we seriously doubt that children of 13 can make their own decision when it has such a life-time changing impact”. In response, Aspire says that discussions have happened with the successful participants’ families before the boys are enrolled at the academy.
FIFA refused to comment specifically on the Aspire programme, saying instead that “any initiatives of solidarity between the more affluent countries and those who have less for the development of sport and of football are welcome”. Yet in a personal reply to the letter from the MEPs, Sepp Blatter raises significant concerns about the project, saying: “It is a good example of the exploitation of individual dreams and gives a misleading impression of providing access to education.” It is hoped he will meet the MEPs this year.
Dr Paul Darby, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise at the University of Ulster who has researched thoroughly the issue of African football labour migration, is left “very uncomfortable by the whole exercise”. He argues: “Morally, there’s a problem with seeking to build a sports culture in one country by under developing the sports culture of another,” referring to it as a type of “neo-imperialism”. Dr Darby adds: “The danger of this sort of enterprise is that it builds unrealistic aspirations in young children and their families, who might willingly neglect their education in the hope of making a career out of football.” It remains to be seen if up-and-coming African talent will all be competing at future Cup of Nations tournaments.
From WSC 253 March 2008