The red-earth track that leads to the entrance of Asec Mimosas’ training grounds doesn’t promise much. But here in one of the world’s least developed countries we’re a few metres from one of the world’s elite football academies. Built on reclaimed land beside a steamy lagoon, the Sol Beni centre in the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, looks more like a Spanish hotel complex than an African training centre – sprinklers keep the grass lush in tropical temperatures and a stifling humidity. But from this ‘blessed soil’ has come four of the five Ivorians that played in last season’s Champions’ league semi-final stages; Yaya Touré (FC Barcelona), Kolo Touré (then Arsenal, now Manchester City), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) and Emmanuel Eboué (Arsenal). They form the backbone of a national side full of stars from Europe dubbed ‘Generation Drogba’ by the local press. This is the side singled out by England coach Fabio Capello and Spain/Barcelona’s Xavi as capable of causing an upset at the World Cup finals next year. “The Ivory Coast’s team is very good. And the tournament is in Africa, where the spirit is different”, warned Capello in September. In mid-November he skipped organising an England friendly to watch Ivory Coast draw 2-2 with Germany.
The success hasn’t come by chance. Behind most of the big names stands one club; Asec Mimosas. Two thirds of Ivory Coast’s 2006 World cup finals squad had come through the doors of Asec’s Sol Beni academy, founded in 1994 by Asec club chairman Roger Ouegnin and former French international captain, Jean-Marc Guillou. Under Guillou’s leadership, the Asec academy created one of the first football schools of its kind where kids, most picked from poor backgrounds. They were recruited for a boarding school education with teaching focused on equipping them for life as football professionals in Europe. The focus is on building key values, teaching foreign languages like English and Spanish and life-skills like signing contracts, buying apartments and living away from home. “I think that the success of the Elephants, it all comes down to the training policy put in place in the early 1990s by Asec. At the time it wasn’t the normal thing to do. Asec created the first real football school”, Ivorian team captain Didier Drogba told FIFA in a recent interview.
Yet despite the proven track record, life can be precarious for a West African football trying to develop world-class talent on limited revenues. When Asec secured the league title recently with a 3-0 win over Stella club d’Adjamé, there were fewer than 500 people watching in the 35,000-seater Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium and very few advertising boards. Club sponsorship deals have halved in value since the political crisis started, and many football fans would rather be watching Chelsea or Marseille than local sides like Asec or Africa Sports. With little economic and local encouragement for players to stay, many are looking for the quickest way to get to Europe. The academy training costs the club around £14,000 per year per player, so as much as the club would also like to build the best club side on the continent, it depends on transfers just to keep afloat.
After just a few years in existence, the academy had made an impact, despite the country’s spiralling descent into political turmoil and then civil war. In 1998, as the country looked increasingly unstable, Asec won Africa’s most important trophy, the continent’s Champions’ League. The following year, just before the head of the army took over the country in a coup d’état, an Asec side of academy players barely 18 years old beat Esperance of Tunisia 3-1 in the African Super Cup. Dodgy elections, attempted coup d’états, and then finally a civil war in 2002, which has split the country in half, have done little to slow the down the progress. In 2006 several days of violent street protests against the United Nations left several dead, but a national side, stuffed full of academy players got to the final of the African Nations Cup, losing on penalties to Egypt, and played in their first ever World Cup finals, unluckily thrown in at the deep end with the so-called ‘Group of Death’ of Holland, Argentina and Serbia.
The Asec style of play has become the national style. The motto of the academy, written above the training pitch is ‘Les enfants s’amusent’. “Sometimes I worry for teams like Chelsea and Manchester United, who have so much money”, says the Swiss director of the academy, Walter Ammann. “If football isn’t a pleasure any more, the football will die. Here we need to win with lots of goals. It’s all about the manner in which we win. We want to play like Barcelona – that’s our objective. Sometimes Africans like dribbling just to dribble, not necessarily because it’s the most effective tool. You always need to be getting pleasure in what you do.”
It’s also what the home crowds expect from the national side. In the last four competitive matches at home the Elephants have scored 17 times, without conceding a single goal. “The way we play, it’s like we’ve been together for 15 years”, says defender Kolo Touré. “It definitely makes a big contribution coming from Asec. We just know each other like brothers and sometimes on the pitch, we just forgot to bring that on the pitch and I think that when that will come I think we’ll be really strong.”
A campaign by football’s governing body, FIFA, and UEFA, to ban the transfer of under-18s could potentially change the fortunes of the Asec academy. It’s had deals with European clubs for several years, including Charlton Athletic and Belgium’s Beveren, which during the 2002-03 season featured ten Ivorians from the academy in the starting eleven. But if new quotas on ‘home grown’ players like those planned for next season’s English Premiership season and bans on under-18 transfers could lead clubs to work even closer with top academies in the developing world. Arsene Wenger has been critical of the plans to make it more difficult for the world’s biggest clubs to train the world’s most promising talent, but both Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter are fighting hard to bring in the changes to end what they see as practices similar to child trafficking.
The rise of the Ivorian national team, while the country’s political, security and economic situation descended into chaos, has given football a powerful position. As an increasingly influential figure in the country, Didier Drogba, uses football to heal some of the divisions in the country and his organisation of a World Cup qualifier in the rebel capital Bouaké is regularly cited as one of the turning points of the Ivorian crisis.
There’s financial power as well. The players easily out-earn the country’s government ministers. That brings with it considerable pressure on talented boys to fulfil their family’s expectations. Uncles and aunts will often group together to send someone overseas or pay for a training academy, all with the hope of lucrative returns. It’s always a gamble. As Papa Touré – father of Yaya and Kolo Touré – told us, it leaves parents with hard choices. “Kolo came to me once after he’d passed his 11-plus and said he wasn’t going to carry on with school, but play football instead. I said, ‘Hey Kolo?’ Can you really play football? You know it’s difficult?’ I didn’t doubt his quality, but I said to myself that it was an area where it’s really difficult to succeed. Would he succeed? If he failed, what would he do in life?”
In a country where half the working population is unemployed or underemployed, football seems like the only hope many boys have. While those with doctorates at the local university can be selling pay-as-you-go phone credit on the roadside, footballers with just a few years schooling have fast cars and vast mansions. And there are plenty of fraudsters ready to exploit these hopes, no matter how poor the families. Moussa, a local journalist, was himself a victim of a scam that saw him lose £500 to someone promising a group of 13-17 year old players a contract in Europe. They were left in Tunisia, were some still remain. The promises are so seductive that some of that same group were tempted again; one is now stranded in Moscow with neither a team nor a visa, while another is in a similar situation in India. “One parent said to me, ‘Even in Iraq they play football’! People are so desperate to send their children overseas to play they’re prepared to believe what anyone tells them”, he told me.
The reputation of the Asec academy puts it head-and-shoulders above the hundreds of other ‘training centres’ that have sprung up over the past few years. For those who pass the trials there can already be a sense of having a foot in Europe, and academy players are quickly popular figures in their neighbourhoods. For the coaches, it’s a constant battle to keep the students thoughts away from the celebrity lifestyle to concentrate on their studies. The Asec alumni are of course frequently cited – the dorm rooms carry their names – Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou and Portsmouth’s Aruna Dindane, and many players – notably Zokora – make an effort to visit when they’re in town.
But not everyone at the academy will turn professional. “All those who are here at the moment, think they’ve already made it” says Ammann. “That’s why nearly every day I don’t talk about players that have already made it, but I speak about a lot of players that didn’t make it that can’t find a club today. I’ve seen more talent that hasn’t made it arrived than talent that has arrived. In fact to arrive at the highest levels isn’t a question of talent but a question of mentality.” Ammann worked with Guillou from 1997. “I saw Kolo Touré, Yaya Touré, I saw Aruna, when they were just little kids. There’s a big difference with that first generation. First, they were the first. They didn’t know where they could go”, he tells me.
For those who have made it, there’s an endless list of demands that can be overwhelming. All but the national side’s reserve goalkeeper plays his football in Europe, but when they come back for matches, many keep hidden in their hotel rooms to avoid the constant appeals from distant cousins and old neighbours. An organised network of women looking to so-called ‘Elephants hunters’ use mobile phones to track down the players when they head out in the evening. Didier Drogba can barely spend five minutes in any public place before being swamped by thousands.
But at the risk of spoiling the Ivorian party, the signs aren’t positive that the current generation will be renewed; critics fear next year’s World Cup and Nations cup is the last chance for the squad to make its mark. While the Asec academy was a first, there a now similar structures being set-up throughout the developing world. Jean-Marc Guillou, who subsequently fell out with the club and is still in a legal battle that has cost both the club and him dear, has set-up academies in Thailand, Madagascar, Vietnam, Egypt, Algeria and Ghana. It’s notable that whereas Ghana’s under-20 team recently won the junior World Cup, while Ivory Coast didn’t even qualify for the finals. Nigeria reached the final of the recent under-17s World Cup. Ivory Coast didn’t qualify for the African under-17s tournament.
These are all worrying signs that Ivory Coast is travelling down the path already taken by Senegal, who shot to glory in the 2002 World Cup, only to disappear just as quickly sink back into the lower ranks of African football. The scenarios are similar, with a successful national side acting as a cover for a host of ills, including administrative problems at an under-resourced football federation and a weak national league. “A decade ago in Kolo Touré’s day we could keep players for 2-3 years in the main squad and really do something”, former Asec coach Patrick Lewig told me. Now it’s hard for players to refuse a contract overseas that in many cases will go on to feed, clothe and take care of the wider family back home. The father of Didier Zokora, ex-Tottenham midfielder, now with Seville, says he wouldn’t be alive if his son hadn’t made it as a professional. Zokora’s salary helped pay for his dad’s diabetes treatment.
All that only heightens the sense that 2010 is a critical year for this group of players to make their mark. The trophy cabinet remains frustratingly empty; the team lost in the final of the African Nations’ cup in 2006 to Egypt, who then knocked them out of the tournament two years later at the semi-final stage. The Ivorian public expect nothing less than first place at the 2010 Nations’ cup in Angola. A big ask for Drogba and co.