Book Review — The Away Game by Sebastian Abbot

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This morning I finished “The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars” by Sebastian Abbot. Abbot is a journalist who used to work as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press in the Middle East and Asia.

What do you think happens when you send a group of scouts across the African continent in search of football’s next superstars in what may well be the biggest talent search in sports history? In 2007 alone, over 400,000 boys were tested in cramped dirt-ridden football pitches across Africa.

Eventually, over 5 million kids were tested and a handful chosen and tested in state-of-the-heart facilities in Qatar and Senegal. It was a very selective process, one the author believed is a thousand times more selective than getting into Harvard university.

A man called Josep Colomer was at the center of it all. He had helped Brazil’s coaching staff win the World Cup in 2002, risen to become youth director of FC Barcelona, and in the process helped jump-start the career of someone I consider football’s greatest player in history — Lionel Messi. With all these achievements under his belt, he believed he had what it takes to find gems in rough diamonds on football pitches in Africa.

For a daring venture as this called Football Dreams, you can expect that it would not come cheap. And where else could the funds have come from in 2007 if not oil and gas. The program was launched by Aspire Academy, a colossal institution. Aspire was the brainchild of one of Qatar’s richest and most powerful men, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, son of the emir who had transformed the country.

Let me pause a bit about football here. Anytime I read about economic development, my heart sinks for Nigeria. Life used to be very tough for the Qataris so much so that as early as the 1920s and 1930s, pearling or fishing was the most lucrative profession in that part of the Persian Gulf. The oldest Qataris still remember the years of hunger and poverty which forced many people to leave the peninsula. Qatar’s ruler is said to have struggled so much that he had to take out a mortgage on his house in 1935 to cover a debt of $230 — less than two (2) million naira in today’s currency.

In any case, the discovery of oil and especially natural gas drove a dizzling wind of change, and under sound management the country transformed in a single generation. If you consider that Qataris make up 300,000 out of the country’s population of 2.8 million residents, then you are looking at a GDP per citizen closer to $700,000, a figure six (6) times more than the country in second place — Macau — and over (10) times higher than the equivalent figure in the United States.

#NewWordAlert Din | Apoplectic

So these guys have a lot of money and while preparing to bid to host the world at the FIFA World Cup in 2022, they aimed to develop their football, and one of such ways was through the establishment of Aspire Academy at a staggering figure of over a billion dollars. Along that line, they have spent over $100 million dollars on Football Dreams — the search to find football next talents in Africa.

Off Colomer went to Africa and he discovered some mind-blowing talents. Way before Messi became popular, in 2005, Barcelona’s reserve coach called a talent during the scouting and told him he reminded him of a player in his team — Messi. This coach was probably thinking of him when he said few years after, “…in Africa, there are many Messis.”

It isn’t always easy for 13-year olds to show their talents though. Many of these players had spent most of their time on dirt fields kicking the ball around barefoot or in plastic sandals. I could relate when the author mentioned a boy who tried to play in borrowed football boots during a test match and quickly switched back to sandals. He just wasn’t comfortable in his new foot attire.

No one reads this book and forgets Serigne Mbaye. Mbaye was considered one of the most inventive players during the scouting. Wiry, quick and full of energy. But Mbaye is deaf. He lost his hearing at the age of 6 after contracting malaria; a disease that led to the death of his father. Looking at the odds against him, Colomer wondered if he should take a chance on him. Chance he took, and he ended up one of the most beloved players at the academy, bonding with players on the field and staff off it. But not many people were willing to take a chance at him. His country’s national team felt he wasn’t a good fit after helping them qualify for a major tournament. Foreign clubs too couldn’t consider having a deaf player on their team. But he still became a professional players, playing for one of Senegal’s top teams in the country’s premier division through Colomer’s assistance.

“Serigne Mbaye is one of those people you meet who changes your life,” said Kinyeki, a Football Dreams staff member from Kenya. “When you want to think about all the things you don’t have, you think about Serigne Mbaye and his attitude to everything he’s gone through. He still remains optimistic. He still remains strong. He still laughs. He’s still cheerful. And he can’t hear. The rest of us, we can hear, we can see, we can walk around, and we whine about everything that’s wrong in our lives. And he doesn’t. He just teaches the rest of us something. Just be grateful for everything you have because you never know.”

#DoYouKnow The Gold Mine Effect. It made Flamengo, the Brazilian Club, pass on future Brazilian superstar Ronaldo in the early 1990s when he was 15 years old.

Aside talent, a lot of the kids had attitude. One of the most touching stories told was about Colomer visiting a small Ghanaian town where he discovered. Colomer arrived the night before he was scheduled to hold the tryout and couldn’t quite believe what he found. “All 176 players that were supposed to be tested the next day were already waiting for me on the field,” said Colomer. “I said, ‘What are they doing?’ ” It turned out the boys had traveled from all over the area and were so intent on showcasing their skills that some had been sleeping on the field for two days.

But talent and even attitude are not enough in football. It is difficult to pick talents who will succeed even in places where the scouting process is developed and data and artificial intelligence are being used even though not to the degree expected from these football behemoths. You can pick great talent who have great attitude, but even at that it is extremely challenging to identify which kids have a greater capacity to learn and improve over time, which will ultimately determine who ends up on top. How do you scout the personality trait in a 13-year old? How do you know that a teenager will have the ability to cope with potential distractions off the field like family problems or pesky agents or beautiful girls?

Even in a developed league like England, it is estimated that only around 1 percent of the 10,000 kids in the entire English academy system would make a living in the game, and two-thirds of those given a professional contract at age 18 will be out of professional soccer by the time they’re 21 years old. “If this was the success rate in a school, it would most likely be closed down,” the authors of a book on Youth Development in Football concluded.

Millions of kids around the world see making a life in football as the ultimate dream, but the small number of players who succeed dominate the headlines, not the millions who fail. Fans rarely see just how daunting the odds are for children to make it, even when they’re marked for greatness at a young age, or how challenging it is for scouts to pick the right kids, even when they know what to look for.

For the 24 African kids picked from over 400,000 boys, it was not a different story. There were many issues. From parents and family members putting pressure on these kids to make more money and send to them, to agents deciding to hold on to players licenses over disagreements on future percentage cut when the players are sold, to agents outrightly taking the kids away from the academy for trials in Europe. The kids were simply at the mercies of adults who they trusted to make the best decisions for them. The adults simply didn’t show up for them, sadly.

It definitely also didn’t help the kids that most of them were not the age they claimed. False age is already a recipe for failure. With kids with real ages failing to succeed professionally, what are the odds for kids who claim to be 13 when they are 17 or even 21? When this happens, it is only a matter of time before agents start piling pressure on the players to jump ship and try their luck abroad if the agents’ hope of a cash windfall is to be attained. The players also know that they have a short window to make something of a profession that is already short to start with.

All these added up to the ‘failure’ of the program which had to pack up after a decade of funds pumped into it. Out of the hundreds of players ploughed into the academy, only one player can be said to have signed for a top team — Barcelona — but he still didn’t play a single game for the Catalan club before he was farmed back to his previous club. The rest are either in the backwaters of European leagues, in their local leagues battling unpaid wages, or on the streets trying to eke out a living having not paid attention to education despite enormous educational resources at their disposal and encouragement at the academy.

Yet the reader cannot place all the blame on the players and agents. It’s likely that Qatar had gone on this adventure hoping to use these African kids to prop up their national side in preparation and eventually the winning of the bid of the 2022 World Cup but lost interest when FIFA tightened its rules on nationalization of players. These kids may well be pawns in a global game who were discarded when they didn’t meet the pre-determined needs of their benefactors.

For what it’s worth, the program did some good. A Senegalese goalkeeper was sent home early because they discovered he had hepatitis. Other kids were found to have more serious medical issues, like life-threatening heart problems requiring surgery. They would likely have being part of the death statistics had Football Dreams not stepped in. The boys at the academy earned more than their countrymen playing in African top leagues and remittances sent home helped their families; many of them building houses for their families. Even for the many who didn’t succeed there is little guarantee they would have succeeded at home seeing the fate of their fellow tryout mates.

This is a gripping deeply-moving narration of the joy and pain of talented African boys in the world of wealthy Arab sheikhs, greedy agents and naive parents/guardians.

It is a very interesting enjoyable book.

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