Seeing the future; a right to dream

You may already be familiar with Ghana's Right To Dream Academy and the fantastic work they do.  If not, you soon will be.  Gary Al-Smith looks at the future of African football.

A month ago, 14-year old Samuel Addio was a mere footnote in Ghana’s football books.

He’s an unremarkable lad with a short, wiry body. But that’s not what hits you when you meet him. You notice his teeth – they look like Ronaldinho’s – and they are badly in need of a dentist’s touch.

By the time he had swept the awards table a fortnight later in Sunyani, he had become a minor sensation. Addio entered the Coronation Park in Ghana’s hinterlands thinking that the Vodafone-Right to Dream Scouting Event was one of many unproductive ones he had attended in his young life, but he gave it his best shot anyway.

His shot turned out to be very accurate indeed as he won the Golden Boot and three other medals. Sadly, his circumstances at home means he may not get that dentist’s treatment at the moment, especially as his mom sells ‘bofrot’ (doughnuts, just to educate your mind) in the precincts of Brong Ahafo’s capital.

Addio has big dreams – dreams that include becoming the best striker in the whole world: “Everybody calls me Rooney, because they all think I play like him,” he said in his native Bono accent, and continued: “But I know I will be bigger than him. I believe it.”

Good intentions

At the start of every football year, the brass at the top of Ghana’s game promise to allocate resources to the development of talented-but-disadvantaged players. As it is, there is even not enough funding to go round for the First and Second Divisions, making the effort at juvenile development a moot point.

Yet once in a while, a ray of light strikes a lucky few people in scattered corners of the country. From the beginning of August, Vodafone put its muscle behind an effort to get talented boys out of their unfortunate conditions. The pivot of this effort is a non-profit outfit called Right to Dream (RTD) Academy.

Hardcore followers of football in Ghana have known RTD to be called the Tom Vernon Academy, started by an eponymous British teenager in 1999. When he came to Ghana at the time, Tom was 19 and he quickly realized that the abundant football talent was not matched with academic orientation.

The social impact entrepreneur in him propelled him to start working with these kids and a decade later, he believes he is “more Ghanaian than most,” as he has crisscrossed the country on too many occasions to count. One thing has been dogging him (and juvenile football in general) and it’s been corporate assistance.

In May this year, RTD heaved a huge sigh after years of seeking proper sponsorship saw Vodafone accept the challenge to travel with it on a three-year journey to scout for some of the best football talent. Indeed, several of such good intentions exist out there, but they usually lack the essence that this one has.

For many years since its inception, RTD has pushed the effort of giving some of these kids 5-year educational tutelage at the academy’s base at New Akrade in the Greater Accra Region. They put the kids through football and educational paces and today they have many budding talents around the world with literate minds.

To give their work a national view, RTD used Vodafone’s clout to sign on Charles ‘CK’ Akunor. A former Ghana captain (after Abedi Pele and before Stephen Appiah), CK would now act as Technical Handler of the RTD’s growing effort.

CK struggled to get to the top of football himself and knows more of these are needed: “We are all into this to show our commitment to football. We’ve always been crying for corporate help…but we need more RTD’s in our society because there are hundreds of these boys out there.”

The challenge

Although the RTD are doing their bit, too many gifted kids remain ignorant due to where they are or what their families cannot afford. When you consider that Ghana’s literacy rate still hangs around the 65% mark, RTD is a drop in the ocean.

RTD has been sending some of its graduates to the UK and the USA (where the outfit is also registered) to further their football-cum-educational studies. That said, RTD’s Andy Farrant argues that more should be done, as there is much to reap from investing in these boys: “Imagine giving someone like Samuel Addio good education on-and-off the pitch. What it does to him is to make him an asset for himself, his family and his community, where only few people have had proper secondary education.”

Addio himself says he would like to attend the Sunyani Secondary School, which is a 35-minute walk from the stadium and which in itself illustrates the pitfalls of his dream to be bigger than Wayne Rooney.

At the best of times, the school struggles to get good teachers in the classroom, limiting his chances of being an all-round footballer like the English international. That said, RTD’s sustained hope of seeing him at the top means that Addio’s dream, and that of many others, may yet be achieved.

RTD may not be able to solve all Ghana’s football and educational problems in one fell swoop, but it’s a refreshing alternative.

Gary covers African football for several media outlets including kicker, WorldCupBlog & ESPN.