Saturday, 10.04.2021

Football Must Mean More

No other sport has the wealth or cultural significance that football has. It is the largest social phenomenon on the planet, more than just business, entertainment, or escapism from our daily lives. It is one of the few forces that can unify in a world where race, gender and religion divide. It can offer opportunities to those who have nothing otherwise. But the truth which many have become accustomed to accepting is that, like society, football doesn’t work for the half the world.

Football is a mirror to society in a multitude of ways, and, thankfully, some people are working to dispel the image looking back at us. In 1999, Manchester United’s former head of scouting in Africa, Tom Vernon, founded the Right to Dream academy in Eastern Ghana. He began by training a few boys on a dust pitch in Accra, but the focus has evolved past footballing ability to, ‘What kind of people do we produce?’ through a combined focus on football and education.

Right to Dream has grown into the premier football academy in Africa, graduating 144 students since its inception. Scholarships are granted to 15-20 African boys and girls each year from 30,000 trialists assessed on athletic ability and academic performance. Around 70% of these children come from families earning less than two dollars a day.

In 2015, Vernon and Right to Dream bought Danish Superliga outfit FC Nordsjælland, the only case of a football academy and not-for-profit organisation acquiring a professional club. With the aim of building a first-team solely comprised of FC Nordsjælland and African Right to Dream academy graduates, FC Nordsjælland currently have the youngest first-team squad in European football. The average age of this season’s squad is 22, and 80% of the first team are academy graduates. It has brought them a reasonable degree of success, finishing in the league’s top six for the last five years while challenging to qualify for the group stages of European competition. Character development at a young age has been highlighted by management in helping prepare players for the step-up to first-team football at an earlier stage, but Vernon insists that winning will never be his primary motivation. Rather, that it will arise as a by-product of the right environment. If the focus is only football, he insists, they are missing something.

Vernon has become so enlightened to the fact that football can be such a force for good, that it would be irresponsible to do anything else. He has instilled a doctrine in FC Nordsjælland and Right to Dream academy graduates to use their successes to give back to the communities that raised them, to leave a positive legacy in society by establishing a platform for others to dream.

“Every kid that is in the Right to Dream academy in Ghana and every kid at the FCN academy in Denmark is working on a give-back project appropriate to their age,” says Vernon. “One player even rebuilt the mosque in his home-town.”

This avoidance of hyper-individualism, veering far away from the materialistic, individualistic world of the modern era is key for the model to be sustainable. Vernon argues that “the potential that footballers have to be positive role models is nowhere near being maximised because kids in academies are not being prepared to become role models.”

The theory is that if it becomes a habit for FC Nordsjælland and Right to Dream players in their youth, being conscious of their position as someone for others to look up to will be second nature when they step on to the elite stage. Talking of Abdul Majeed Waris, a Right to Dream graduate who represented Ghana at the 2014 World Cup, Vernon commented that “if he wasn’t the guy that he is I would have had very little interest in the fact that we produced a World Cup player.”

Vernon’s role model, former Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, is perhaps the quintessential example of an elite footballer for Africans to look up to, someone who gave back throughout his career and is currently President of Liberia. But despite the charitable work of other African players like Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, there simply aren’t enough African role models to look up to.

“There’s a good chance that that the next Usain Bolt or Lionel Messi is in Africa and isn’t going to get the opportunities,” says Vernon. “And there’s also a huge supporter base looking for those role models and wanting to get behind them and be proud of them.”

“Africa’s population is increasing massively,” he explains. “By 2050, there are going to be 2.2 billion Africans. A billion of them will be under 25.”

Right to Dream’s values to build this next generation of role models are based on their character traits of passion, initiative, self-discipline, social intelligence, and integrity, with principles of giving back, teamwork, family, character development, gender equality and world-class opportunities. “We as a club, and as a movement, have a responsibility to teach character,” explains club CEO Søren Kristensen. “We have a whole curriculum around it, so that each team has one or two classroom sessions a week, where we discuss everything from integrity and passion to honesty and rules.” There is evidence to suggest that the classes are successful. 80% of parents said they felt a positive change in their child’s behaviour after beginning character development sessions.

Right To Dream and FC Nordsjælland’s academies prioritise cultural experiences and giving back work when travelling to tournaments, spending more to engage in the cultures of Japan and Brazil rather than sticking to central Europe. Moreover, Danish players visit Ghana to spend time living in the academy in Accra before Ghanaian players visit Europe. 

Unlike many other clubs advocating for gender equality, Right to Dream and FC Nordsjælland actually enact it. “How can you value a girl’s dream up against a boy’s dream?” says Kristensen. “You can’t – they have to be the same value. And if that’s the conclusion then you should have a girls’ academy exactly the same as the boys’ academy.” In 2018, the club opened its first women’s academy, providing girls access to the same number of training hours, level of coaching, facilities and home stadium as the boys. “The club are trying to give us the same opportunities. We have the same training facilities and the same gym rooms,” says midfielder Esther Ronn.

Decisions are made based on what is right for the whole Right to Dream group. FC Nordsjælland Head Coach and Head of Education, Flemming Pederson and Will Orben, have explained how when the club campaigns for International Women’s Day or Black History Month, it involves the entire club. This includes educating themselves before encouraging the same in those around them.

Perhaps the most important collective decision FC Nordsjælland has made is to become the first team to sign-up to Common Goal in 2018. Common Goal is a charity formed in 2017 to encourage professional footballers and coaches to pledge one percent of their salaries to a collective fund at the NGO streetfootballworld. The fund supports more than 140 football projects reaching over two million disadvantaged young people every year, and, since its founding with the support of Juan Mata, has gained numerous high-profile members, including Jürgen Klopp, Mats Hummels and Megan Rapinoe.

Since FC FC Nordsjælland joined Common Goal, more than half the club’s players and staff joined as individual members. Some of these people have moved on to other clubs in other countries, acting as a vessel to deliver Common Goal’s message and the importance of having a purpose off the pitch.

Goalkeeper Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson, who FC Nordsjælland sold to Dijon and now plays for Arsenal, has described how his motivation to play football has changed, with his goal now being to motivate the children in projects he supports through Common Goal. And yet, Vernon argues that engaging with projects you support is a selfish agenda, because you get so much more than you give by donating one per cent of your salary. “The more you engage, the more you get from it and the more… almost embarrassing the one per cent becomes.”

Because of Right to Dream’s ambition to change football, the club operates with a no-secrets policy. German clubs have visited FC Nordsjælland, which Kristensen believes are the most advanced in Europe in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility. English teams have come too, but FC Nordsjælland remain the only professional club to blaze the trail of pledging to Common Goal, which Kristensen has expressed his disappointment in. “I’m aware a number of English clubs have local charities, visit local hospitals and are something in the community. And a club must always be something in the community. But I would like to ask other clubs that they are also something for the greater society.”

With this focus on greater society in mind, if a Right to Dream student is deemed more suitable to follow an academic path rather than football, they will be offered the opportunity to apply for a full scholarship to a partnering school in the USA or UK. So far, over 70 students have gained full scholarships to such schools, including 14 girls. “We feel as proud if you get a scholarship to Stanford as if you end up transferring to Ajax, as one of our guys did recently,” says Vernon while talking of Mohammed Kudus.

This long-term commitment is polar opposite to the dominant football academy model. Like a more traditional school, Vernon says, “it’s about creating the best outcome for every student, it’s not about centering it around this pyramid where we weed out the ones that don’t work for us.”

“I think a lot of the mental health issues and challenges that we see in the game of this sudden, and often fairly random, deselection of players is unethical. It’s difficult for a young African player to move to another continent and stay true to himself and the values learned at RTD when there’s a sense of greater selfishness in other dressing rooms.”

All of FC Nordsjælland’s profit is reinvested into generating better opportunities for young people, which makes the dependency on funds generated from selling players who have progressed through the academy relatively high. But the aim is to become more sustainable by generating alternative income streams – “there has to be a value in doing what we’re doing, and showing it; because we are something unique, something different,” says Kristensen.

The rate at which the blocks for change are being built is increasing. In January 2021, Vernon and Right to Dream gained new backing with an investment of around £100 million from Egyptian conglomerate Mansour Group. Right to Dream will extend their academy model into West Cairo in 2022, which will be closely followed by the launch of a new professional women’s team.

But expansion plans don’t stop there. With Mansour Group’s backing, Vernon plans to explore buying a club in England next, with the vision to scale Right to Dream academies around the world. The endeavour into England is only in the preliminary stages, but will include a Right to Dream academy as a minimum which will feed into a club if a suitable one can be acquired. If not, the academy will feed into the first team squad of FC Nordsjælland.

With Mansour Group’s investment, Vernon is still Chief Executive, but only a minority shareholder in the project he began. Still, he doesn’t feel the need to be worried – “I don’t think that the essence of Right to Dream can be owned by anybody. It’s a broader concept, and it’s something that I’m committed to in my life’s purpose.”

In the wake of the United States’ inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sean Doolittle, a relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals, commented that “sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” It’s an interesting statement to consider. Do we deserve football as it is? Are we really willing to accept the structures that omit more people than we can comprehend? Perhaps that’s the problem, that there isn’t enough of a personal connection for it to matter.

At its best, football creates these connections. Tom Vernon, Right to Dream and Common Goal are trying to penetrate the bubble of insularity and inequality at the top level of the game, to inspire people involved in football everywhere to demand more. Perspective has been lost, or perhaps failed to be recognised or discovered. The revelations to generate the desire in people to make a tangible difference must happen, even if it’s one percent, one person, and one club at a time.

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