Football academies teach kids in Ivory Coast

Published Jun. 4, 2010 10:55 a.m. ET

Scampering around barefoot on a sandy lot, a dozen boys in matching red jerseys try to concentrate on their coach's instructions over the constant din of trucks in nearby traffic.

The students of the Real d'Afrique football academy hurry to finish the exercise as a local rugby team waits for its turn on the shared recreation area tucked between a slum and a busy highway in Ivory Coast's biggest city.

In a gated compound on the other end of town, gardeners tend to flower beds beside a lush green field as the students of Ivory Coast's most prestigious football school, MimoSifcom, file out of dormitories and prepare for their training session.

These two football schools have vastly different means, but both send world-class players to Europe's top clubs and their graduates fill the ranks of Ivory Coast's national team, an African favorite at the World Cup.

Despite its size and population of about 20 million, the small west African country of Ivory Coast has produced an impressive list of professional footballers, including Chelsea strikers Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, brothers Yaya Toure of Spanish champion Barcelona and Kolo of Manchester City, and Arsenal winger Emmanuel Eboue.

But there doesn't seem to be a magic formula to Ivory Coast's success.

Ivorian first division club ASEC Mimosas showers its MimoSifcom program with money, where players are in the training center six days a week and are tended to by European coaches and doctors.


By contrast, Real d'Afrique has barely enough money to pay the rent on a small office. They train on municipal land strewn with garbage and their coaches sometimes go without pay in order to keep the club afloat.

In order to reward African clubs like these for producing top-level talent, FIFA stipulates that all international transfers must send a training fee to the player's first club. This rule paid ASEC big dividends when Barcelona acquired the younger Toure from Monaco in 2007 and paid the team an undisclosed sum - suspected to be more than half a million dollars.

The money helps. ASEC dominates Ivory Coast's professional football league, having won the title eight out of the last 10 seasons.

Their school, founded in 1994, is also generously funded. Based on a European model of player development, the center boasts three fields, a schoolhouse, dormitory, swimming pool and man-made beach.

Walter Ammann, a Swiss coach, runs the academy in Abidjan's high-class Riviera neighborhood and he schedules every minute of his players' days from their morning shower to evening film sessions to study past games.

``Talent isn't our problem,'' Ammann said. ``Our students know that this school has produced many big players. Some of them think they've already made it, that they don't need to work.''

Players as young as 11 are recruited and brought to the center, where they are schooled, clothed and housed until they turn 18 and go professional, either with ASEC, another club in Ivory Coast or, the ``big time'' in Europe.

``The previous coach tried to Europeanize the players. The emphasis was physical over technical,'' Ammann said. ``But I try to balance the two. To use their natural technique, but be a little more efficient.''

The training program has been so effective that during one match in World Cup qualifying last year, nine of the 11 players on the field for Ivory Coast were ASEC graduates.

But money isn't everything.

Real d'Afrique has never received anything in international transfer fees and doesn't have a professional team to help fund the school. Their meager resources come from sponsorship, private donations and the small sums offered for winning various tournaments.

They also train every day, but have to work around school hours - obligatory for all players.

``Some parents come to us and say that they've pulled their son out of school so he can become a footballer,'' Real d'Afrique president Zou Paul Bi To said. ``But all our players must pursue their education, whether that's elementary, high school or learning a trade.''

The bright blue office at Real d'Afrique looks out over the rusted corrugated metal roofs of Treichville, Abidjan's inner-city slum.

Bi To points at the dirt field across the street from a small green and white mosque and says only one out of 100 students playing there will go professional.

``Without an education, the other 99 will become a menace to society,'' he said. ``I should know, I was going to be a pro.''

Bi To ``wasn't far from the plane'' to Europe and a series of professional tryouts when he injured a nerve in his thigh and had to stop playing. Along with another footballer with crushed dreams, he founded the school by pulling kids off the streets of Treichville.

Real d'Afrique became renowned when the trio of Cisse Sekou, Mamady Kaba and Cheick Tiote were recruited to European clubs in 2004. Shortly after, the number of new recruits exploded as people started coming from across the country to enroll their sons in the program.

The team rented an office in 2007 and opened its weight room this year. If all goes well, Bi To says, they hope to buy a bus to transport players to matches, so they won't have to take taxis like they do now.

On the sidelines of a recent training session, Innocent Amani admitted that he doesn't know how old he is.

``Sixteen,'' he says, ``or something like that.''

He is clearly proud of his red Real d'Afrique jersey, smiling widely when asked if he had to work hard to earn it.

``Football requires discipline,'' he said, describing how he started on the first team, but was demoted to the second team this year. ``It was hard, but what makes a man is in his head. You have to be able to handle anything in football, disappointment and success.''