Venture Capital How Clubs Profit By Exploiting Young African Talent
Manchester City invests millions in an African football academy. But very few of its attendees make the jump to Europe. Those that do are treated like commodities.
A muddy track lined with goats and chickens leads past corrugated metal huts and mudbrick shacks, the residents of Old Akrade sitting out front in threadbare T-shirts watching the students make their way to school. But it's not just any school they attend. It is the Right to Dream Academy -- a facility that includes eight carefully tended pitches complete with netted goals. Some are even equipped with flood lights.
The contrast between the academy and the poverty surrounding it in this sparsely settled area on the banks of the Volta River in southeastern Ghana could hardly be greater. But the students of the academy take the name at face value: The football stars-in-training have the right to dream -- of scoring spectacular goals, of cheering fans and millions of euros in their bank accounts. They are, after all, the chosen ones, young talents on their way to Europe. Not all of them will make it, of course, as they well know. But they all have the desire.
The Right to Dream Academy is typical of the football schools on the African continent, all of which hold such great promise for the players' families and for their partner clubs in Europe. By targeting emerging talents, they aim to exploit the potential of thousands of football-crazed teenagers and prepare them for the professional market, thus providing them with a path out of poverty. Some children leave their parents' homes for such academies at the tender age of 10.
A Brutal Web
But even those very few exceptionally talented players who do make it to Europe frequently find themselves tangled in a brutal web of dependency and vulnerability, treated like interchangeable commodities. The Right to Dream Academy (RtD) is financed by Premier League champion Manchester City, which is why most of those graduates who ended up signing a professional contract in the past believed that they were close to fulfilling their dream of playing for a top club in England. In reality, though, they are frequently loaned out for years at a time to teams in insignificant leagues elsewhere in Europe, places like Stromsgodset in Norway, Breda in Holland or Örebro in Sweden. Sometimes, apparently, against their will.
According to the Football Leaks documents, Manchester City has been investing more than a million euros a year in the academy since 2010. In addition to high-level football instruction, the 90 or so students from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and other West African countries also receive a comparatively top-quality education. RtD, academy leaders say, has secured scholarships to schools in Britain and the United States for more than 70 of its students. Forty-eight of its alumni have become professional football players.
"With the exception of the Government of Ghana, we are extremely confident that no sports organization has, in the history of Ghana, invested so much in physical sports facilities," says Right to Dream founder Tom Vernon. An Irish oil company sponsors the school, paying for both material and personnel. "They want to improve the technical industry of Ghana," says a representative of the academy.
Humility and Gratitude
The path from their lodgings to the training facility is intended to instill humility and gratitude in the young players. "We go through it so we can get in touch with the people here and remember where we came from," says the 17-year-old Abu Francis. Reporters from the Danish daily newspaper Politiken, who cooperated on the Football Leaks project as part of the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) journalism network, visited Francis and his classmates.
Those who attend the academy must sacrifice a lot for the opportunity to see the world, their adolescence first and foremost. It is a process that begins as soon as they have been discovered by Right to Dream scouts on one of the innumerable dusty sandlots and brought to the academy following a handful of tryouts.
"I miss my mum," says one 10-year-old who was interviewed at RtD in early October by a camera team from the German public broadcaster NDR. He swallows hard before adding that he is able to call his parents once a week. Classmates of his say that they only have time to talk on the phone on the weekends. During the week, their schedules are completely packed -- training for the life of a professional football player is a fulltime job. After all, 5,000 kilometers to the north, the academy's primary sponsor expects results.
Manchester City hopes that its academy in Ghana will provide it with privileged access to African football talent. As soon as Right to Dream discovers and develops a single future superstar, a single Samuel Eto'o or Didier Drogba, the effort will have been worth it.
But, as becomes apparent from the way the team operates its West African academy, Manchester City isn't just looking for players for its Premier League team. They have also realized that it is possible to make money from those who don't rise to the very top of the talent pool.
Internal documents from the Football Leaks trove reveal Manchester City's strategy for dealing with the young players. In those papers, the money invested in the 16- to 20-year olds is referred to as "venture capital." According to an internal presentation, up-and-coming players are to be divided into different categories.
At a certain point, the presentation makes clear, certain athletes are designated "value players," meaning they could be profitable to the team in the future -- "through playing or other." In other words, the transfer value of a player increases by virtue of him having been accepted into the esteemed Manchester City system. He doesn't even have to have played a single minute for the club.
In 2015, Man City calculated that significant profits could be made with only moderate investments in youth football. According to those calculations, the team had spent 9.6 million pounds for 26 football talents between the ages of 13 and 18. Even just the sale of four of those players, the internal document notes, proved highly profitable. "Investment in young players has resulted in £13.2m generated with one MCFC first team player," the executives noted with satisfaction in the paper. MCFC stands for Manchester City Football Club.
The first-team Man City player mentioned in the document was Kelechi Iheanacho of Nigeria. Two years later, he was sold on to Leicester City for 28 million euros, a move that significantly improved Man City's already healthy returns on its investments in young players.
Behind the impassive numbers are the myriad individual fates experienced by the young men, including the best of the best from the Right to Dream Academy. Players like Divine Naah. The lanky 22-year-old with a broad grin has played in Europe for the last four years, fulfilling his life's dream. "I'm from a poor area. But back then, I couldn't see that because everybody is poor."
He's originally from Obuasi, a town in Ghana known for being home to one of the world's largest goldmines. Naah's father works in the mines. Even as a schoolchild, Divine was certain he wanted to be a professional football player. He moved to the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where Right to Dream scouts discovered him. "They found me when playing in Accra in the streets," says Naah. "I was 11 years old when I joined Right to Dream."
It seemed like an enormous blessing, a decisive moment in his life -- one that, from that moment on, made him even more focused on achieving the ultimate goal of becoming a professional footballer. Naah's favorite team had always been FC Barcelona while his favorite player was the Brazilian Ronaldinho. When he was 18, he moved to Manchester from Ghana, making him seem the perfect poster child for the good work being done by the Right to Dream Academy: A rise from deep poverty to joining one of the wealthiest teams in the world.
Putting Club Interests Over Fates
In reality, though, he had emerged from his protective surroundings in Ghana directly into a system that prioritizes club interests over the fates of individuals. English clubs in particular are known for signing dozens of players and then immediately loaning them out to teams across Europe, sometimes to a new club each year. The model allows them to control the developments of numerous talents and it increases their chances of being right about at least one of them. The rest: rejected goods.
"Your voice is not heard," Naah says today of Manchester City. "Your are just one of many loaned players." Naah didn't take the field a single time for Man City, instead being loaned by the team to Norway, then Holland, then Denmark and on to Sweden. He sometimes didn't even stay in one place for half a year. "The changes are hard," the midfielder says. "By the time you get familiar (with) the place, you leave."
At some of the stops, he felt as though he had been left alone. Some of the trainers didn't even want him, Naah says. But Man City officials had told him that he wouldn't even get off the bench back in England. "I hadn't any other choice," Naah says. "I was really angry about that. It was one of the hardest moments of my life."
Last summer, Naah left the Manchester City system and now plays for the Belgian second-league club AFC Tubize. He no longer earns as much as he did when he was still under contract for Man City. But, Naah says, "I want to be free to decide where to go." He adds: "Now, it is my life."
The fact that the young Ghanaian might rebel against his fate is something that Right to Dream-founder Vernon couldn't have imagined a few years earlier. "Divine Naah, simply put, is not the type of lad to question our advice," he wrote to Manchester City in July 2014. "Others will and are questioning us."
Vernon intended that 2014 email as a warning. The Football Leaks documents make it clear that the academy founder was afraid that he might lose control over his charges. Particularly given that some of had grown deeply concerned after having got wind of the "disastrous development" of RtD alumni in Manchester. The loan system does have its positive sides, Vernon allowed in the email, but City hadn't demonstrated a willingness to truly support the players coming from the academy. "We cannot force RTD players to sign for MCFC," Vernon warned.
That was in fact a problem. In a 2010 contract with the team, the academy had obligated itself to "use its best endeavors to effect the transfer" to Manchester City. The deal guaranteed Man City the first right of refusal for all RtD players who had reached the age of majority because they could not be transferred to other clubs "without prior written consent." The deal handed Man City an advantage on the transfer market: It sponsored the academy and in return had the first say in potential transfers.
The leadership of the Right to Dream Academy insisted to DER SPIEGEL that all of its players had control over their own fates. "No graduate has ever been, and never will be, forced to make any choice or decision in regards to their own future," the academy said in a statement.
Over the last several years, the global football association FIFA has implemented strict regulations governing the transfers of minors in an effort to protect them from exploitation and trafficking. And large clubs have had to make changes to their business models in response to the new rules. For teams like Manchester City, after all, it is vital to have exclusive access when a promising talent reaches the age of majority.
Manchester City and the Right to Dream Academy made changes to their system in 2016 and modified their contracts. Academy leader Vernon has now taken over control of FC Nordsjaelland (FCN), a team in the Danish first league. It provides Vernon with a second European destination for graduates from his academy and now, most of those heading to Europe from the academy in Ghana end up in eastern Denmark. FCN has an agreement with Manchester City, making it a third party to the system.
A contract between the two clubs notes that FC Nordsjaelland may only sell players from the Right to Dream Academy with permission from Man City and that the English club will receive 25 percent of the transfer fee. Should Man City be interested in an RtD graduate playing for the Danes, FCN is obliged "to use its best endeavors to effect the transfer of the Player's registration to Manchester City for nil consideration." In return, the English team promises to pay FCN performance-based incentives.
Several experts who were shown the contract by reporters from the EIC network believe the stipulations are problematic. "A right of veto would clearly mean that the Big Club has (an unlawful) third-party influence in the status, registration and career prospects of the player," says the British sports lawyer Dan Chapman. Furthermore, FIFA rules are clear that clubs are not allowed "to influence" other clubs "in employment and transfer-related matters."
Chapman considers the requirement that FCN pay Man City 25 percent of any transfer fee involving a player from the Right to Dream Academy to be an "overt case" of third-party ownership (TPO). The practice of TPO involves investors buying shares in a football player in the hopes that his value will rise. For several years, speculators bought up large numbers of players and then forced their transfers in order to get a return on their investments. That is why TPO was labelled "modern-day slavery" by some -- and banned by FIFA in May 2015.
'More Power To the Rich Clubs'
The contracts between Manchester City, Nordsjaelland and the Right to Dream Academy were signed one year after that ban. In response to a request for comment, Tom Vernon answered that he is "confident that we are in compliance with all relevant football regulations in our running of RTD and FCN."
Just a few days before the publication of this article, he sent an updated response to the EIC inquiry. The contracts, he wrote, "have not been in force for some time for reasons unconnected to your investigation."
Manchester City did not respond to the questions submitted in a detailed request for comment, merely stating that "the attempt to damage the Club's reputation is organized and clear."
The predetermined path from Ghana to Denmark; the potential for direct influence from Manchester City; the career paths of former RtD students on dozens of loan deals: All of that is symptomatic of a football industry that plays with the dreams of talented young players and treats them like capital assets. "It is definitely limiting the freedom of the movement of the players in an unacceptable way," says Wil van Megen of the international players union FIFPro. "It is destroying the game in the end and if it becomes common practice, this will just give even more power to the rich clubs."
Recently, FIFA moved to limit the number of players-on-loan who could play for a single team as a way of bringing the practice back under control. But that still isn't going to lead the football academies in Africa to change their business models. They will continue to lure thousands of children to their training facilities for the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of a career in football.
Their chances for success aren't good. Despite its scouting and transfer system, the Right to Dream Academy still hasn't seen one of its graduates play a single minute for Manchester City.