(AA) – Children converge on dusty football fields across Ghana to show off their skills.
Most of them play to entertain members of their community or to win trophies in inter-community tournaments.
All of them dream of one day joining the country’s national squad, the Black Stars.
But Osman Smiley, a 13-year-old from Mampong, a town in Ghana’s Eastern Region, believes he has a better chance of achieving that dream now that he has joined the West African Football Academy (WAFA).
“The way I play and the way the coach talks to me, I know I can become a good footballer,” he told The Anadolu Agency during a visit to WAFA, which is based in Sogakope, a small town in the South Tongu district of Ghana’s Volta Region.
Smiley had played for the Amansie Babies, a junior football team, before joining the football academy.
“If I get a chance, I’ll play for the Black Stars,” he said, adding that he also dreamed of playing for a big European football team.
Previously known as Feynord Football Academy before losing its sponsorship from the Dutch giant in 2009, the WAFA has produced a number of players for the national team, including Harrison Afful, Christian Atsu, Awal Mohammed and Dominc Adiya.
Some of these national heroes still occasionally visit the academy to inspire young players.
“Feynord started the club and academy, then called Gomoa Fetteh Feynord, in Ghana in 1999,” Karel Brokken, WAFA’s Belgian managing director, told AA.
He said managers scouted for young footballers, recruiting them – if they show promise – following discussions with their parents.
Eighty children are offered full scholarships for up to seven years, which cover transportation, accommodation, feeding and health insurance.
The youngsters attend a nearby public high school, returning at about 3pm to train for two hours before retiring to their dormitories.
The football academies have modern facilities, including football pitches, swimming pools and gymnasiums.
Brokken said the privately-run academy has an annual budget of between $900,000 and $1 million.
He said the young athletes were trained in the Dutch school of football.
“Everybody has their destination,” he asserted. “There are players who are good for the Ghanaian league; there are players who are good for Africa and the international scene.”
“We produce all of them here,” he added.
Brokken said the academy worked in cooperation with FC Red Bull Salzburg, an Austrian football club with eight national league titles to its name.
He added that the academy was also in contact with Jorge Mendes, a world-renowned football agent with clients who included Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I meet him regularly,” Brokken said of Mendes.
Ahmed Tijani, a 14-year-old from Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city, hopes the academy will be good for his football career.
“I was playing for a team called Celtic before my manager brought me here,” he told AA.
“My plan for the future is that, when I become a footballer, I can take care of all my family members,” said the ambitious youngster.
The academy also draws recruits from outside Ghana.
“I heard that WAFA is a good academy, so I came here to learn,” Jumande, a 13-year-old from the Ivory Coast, told AA.
“I want to become a professional footballer like [Luis] Suarez,” he said, referring to the Uruguayan striker who currently plays for Spain’s FC Barcelona.
“But I want to play for Real Madrid,” said a smiling Jumande, referring to Barcelona’s arch-rival.
Kabre Abdul Latif, 13, came from neighboring Burkina Faso to join the Ghanaian football academy.
“I want to become a professional footballer like Ronaldo,” he told AA, referring to the Portuguese star footballer who won FIFA’s prestigious World Player of the Year award three times.
“I want to be a celebrity,” Abdul Latif said.
The “Right to Dream” Football Academy in Akosombo, a small town in Ghana’s Eastern Region, is a Cambridge-accredited school that provides an international curriculum, along with some elements of Ghanaian curriculum.
With 91 students in residence, the 15-year-old academy also provides an elite football program.
It is credited with producing great national team players, including Abdul Majid Waris, David Accam, Mohammed Abu and King Osei Gyan.
Academy alumni can also be found in Ghana’s Under-20 and Under-17 national teams.
“In England, we have a population of 52 million and there are about 90 [football] academies,” academy founder and CEO Tom Vernom told AA.
“In Ghana, where we have a population of 25 million, there are only two or three fully functional academies that are up to international standards,” he lamented.
Vernom says football academies are the only way for players to properly develop their skills.
“If you look at the rest of the world, most professional clubs operate an academy,” he noted. “To have a successful national team, football academies are essential.”
Nathan Quao, a local sports journalist, said it was expensive to run an academy, which requires space, buildings and staff.
“The lack of finance really hampers the desire to run a good football academy in Ghana,” he told AA.
“The only time academy owners enjoy is when their players are sold off to other clubs. Running it is very expensive, so you don’t have many people attempting this model,” Quao explained.
“The only attention football academies get in Ghana is when they provide players for the national team,” he added.
Brokken, WAFA’s managing director, said running a football academy was not only about business.
“You cannot run an academy and make a profit. There is no academy in Africa that makes a profit,” he said. “If you don’t see it as social work, you will never succeed.”
Brokken suggested that nearly 80 percent of the children enrolled at the academy had suffered poverty and privation before they came.
“A lot of these boys have diseases and we take care of them,” he explained.
Brokken said that a main task for managers at the academy was managing the young players’ egos.
“Sometimes they think we’re against them because they don’t get the chance,” he said. “They think they’re ready [for the big leagues], but they’re not always ready.”
Yakubu Abubakar Saddiq, a WAFA trainer and a product of the academy, described training the children as “difficult but fun.”
“It’s great to see them grow up and leave to their clubs. You feel like you helped in their development,” he told AA.
Samuel Arday, the academy’s technical director, for his part, stressed the importance of discipline.
“When a boy is not amenable to discipline, we call the parents and let them talk to him. If it continues, we let him go,” he told AA.
“Discipline is the hallmark of good culture. Without discipline, you will be a liability to your family and school,” added Arday, who once served as head coach for the Black Stars.
According to the former coach, the academy also makes sure that would-be footballers have something to fall back on should their football careers stall.
“We make sure that before you leave here you have completed school, so that you can do something [else] of value with your life,” Arday stressed. “If football fails, you have to rely on your education.”
Most players in the academy, therefore, have a plan B.
“If I don’t become a footballer, I want to become a doctor,” Tijani, the 14-year-old from Kumasi, told AA.
Abdul Latif, the young Burkinabe player, shares the same dream.
“If I don’t become a footballer, I want to become a doctor to help my people,” he said.