- Ghana – Origin of the success
- The FC Nordsjaelland project – a novelty in club football
- Expansion plans without borders
It was the 19th of May 2012 when the Ivorian Didier Drogba helped Chelsea London FC to climb the throne of European football with two goals (to make it 1-1 after 90 minutes + the decisive goal in the penalty shoot-out to make it 5-4) in the Champions League final against FC Bayern Munich, almost single-handedly.
What the 34-year-old achieved at the time is the dream of millions of children in Africa. Professional football is the goal of many ambitious boys and girls; only the perspective is missing. Many Africans are still victims of financial exploitation and human trafficking. It is the striving for a better, financially independent life and the fulfilment of a dream that drives families to get involved with unscrupulous agents who see only capital investments in the children. But there is reason for hope, and it has a name: Right to Dream! Founded by former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon, this academy, unlike many others, does not primarily pursue the goal of creating football players, but socially capable people. It is the story of a somewhat different path, in which everything humanly possible is being done to make the world of football, which is so profit-driven, a bit more humane and sustainable.
2. Ghana – Origin of the success
It is 1999 when the then 19-year-old Briton Tom Vernon sets off for Ghana. Driven by the desire to offer young Africans a better perspective through football, he founds the Right to Dream Academy (hence RTD). What is now known as a global and opportunity-creating success story originally began on a dusty pitch in the Ghanaian capital Accra. Due to an initial lack of infrastructure, he accommodated the children in his own house, where he also teached them. It quickly became clear that Vernon’s idea had a lot of potential. In the following years, he continued to develop the site, which helped it to grow significantly. Finally, in 2010, RTD built a new, contemporary campus in Asuogyaman on the banks of the Volta River, a three-hour drive away from Accra. With eight training fields and a school, the new academy offers the best conditions for training future footballers and leaders. The site seems to be the gateway to a better life, but the way there is difficult, as not everyone can handle the rigorous recruitment process. While the academy scouts a number of up to 30,000 children in over 70 tournaments every year, a maximum of 20 young footballers/year make it to RTD.
Right to Dream goes against the flow
Anyone who imagines the project as an ordinary football school will be deceived, because common practice is vehemently different from Vernon’s approach. Usually, clubs come to Africa, buy any football schools they want and implement their European philosophy there. The focus is exclusively on the sporting aspect. But Vernon and RTD are taking a different approach. Their vision is to create a global chain of academies, that fundamentally changes the role of clubs in today’s football. For example, football academies should not only train pupils to become professional footballers, but first and foremost support children in their development towards becoming reflective, balanced and committed individuals.
The underlying philosophy is, that we need to train a generation of leaders and role models, who can do something to give the next generation of Africans the chance to compete on the world stage!Tom Vernon, Founder of Right to Dream Academy
This also explains the strategy in the recruitment process, which always focuses on the cognitive ability of the participants, as Joe Mulberry, recruitment director of RTD and FC Nordsjaelland, reports. In this context, the educational institution sees football simply as a tool for social change by creating opportunities for disadvantaged children. The core of the strategy, therefore, is shaping people, not shaping footballers.
Much more than a football academy
In order to achieve the described goal in a sustainable manner, a clear philosophy is required, which at RTD is based on the following columns:
2. Character development
3. Football talent
The academy is aware, that not every graduate can make it as a professional footballer. Consequently, the development of educated and socially capable characters is the focus of the curriculum. A look at the graduates also shows the lack of alternatives to a high-quality education. According to this, most children move in the academy with little or no education, which is due to the great local poverty. A full 70% of the students come from families whose daily income is less than two dollars. In order to offer the young people the best possible education, the academy’s own school is accredited to the Cambridge International Examinations. In addition, Tom Vernon is building RTD on the model of American athletic scholarships by establishing collaborations with American and British educational institutions. Consequently, the doors are open to any student because, unlike the European approach, students are not kicked out even if they fail to perform well in school and sports. Once you are part of the academy, you will graduate from there. This education costs RTD quite a bit, a whole 25.000 dollars (approx. 20.800 euros) per year per student (10.000 dollars football education plus accommodation, food, travel, equipment)!
But this expenditure is worth it for the academy, since according to Vernon, the purpose of the model is to develop the country rather than the goals of a first football team. Beyond the actual school education, each student also enjoys a formal character development program, which benefits the primary goal explained earlier.
In order to generate as much social added value as possible, RTD also focuses on recruiting young, football-loving girls in a male-dominated sport. Thus, the academy is characterized by a strong commitment to gender equality and also offers young women the high-quality training. In the context, RTD opened the first residential girls’ academy in Africa in 2013, from which 14 girls have gone to the USA on full scholarships to date.
Where there is light, there is also shadow
Despite all the positive aspects associated with its foundation, the academy has also been in the center of fierce criticism in the past. As revealed in 2018 in documents published by the revelation platform Football Leaks, the academy and the English top club Manchester City agreed on a cooperation in 2010 that was to last until 2016. In return for an annual payment of 850.000 pounds (approx. 960.000 euros), RTD should search for suitable talents throughout Africa and, if the Skyblues wished, ensure that they signed with the English top club. Despite the FIFA restriction on generating money with underage players, the Sheikh Club secured the rights to the young players early on in this way, even if they were not formally signed until they were 18. But the idea, that the African schoolboys could improve the Citizens’ team in the long term was one, that few at the English side pursued. As a revealed ManCity strategy paper shows, the club saw the young athletes solely as a capital investment. According to the document, the club expected a return of no less than 24%. A look at the academy’s transfer history also provides evidence for the cooperation. No less than half (11 out of 22) of all departures between 2010 and 2016 left RTD for Manchester. In the end, the cooperation came to an end when it was realized, that the graduates were not getting any playing time with the Citizens.
In addition, there are serious accusations from former graduates. For example, Collins Tanor (23 years old, currently without a club) reports violence against the students, who were subjected to beatings or deprivation of food if they did not perform well. Kamal Sowah (21 years, moved from RTD to Leicester City’s U23s in 2018 and currently on loan to OH Leuven) reports the same. Vernon has never commented on either allegation but maintains, that the players were never forced to transfer at any point. Furthermore, the Tanor and Sowah allegations are the only ones to date accusing the academy of physical and psychological violence, so the allegations should be viewed with caution.
3. The FC Nordsjaelland Project – a novelty in club football
RTD’s expansion strategy shows, that its philosophy is not only going against the flow with the academy in Ghana. As part of this, the Danish club FC Nordsjaelland was bought in 2015 to serve as an extension of the Ghanaian training center in Europe. With the takeover, Vernon completely turns the classic ownership model of football on its head and ensures an absolute novelty in football! The purchase of FCN is the first takeover of a European football club by an African non-profit company (NGO).
A very well-planned strategy
Looking at RTD’s development in detail, it is clear, how meticulously work has to be done at the grassroots level to give graduates the future they aspire to. Vernon wants to achieve similar success with his overseas strategy. With the takeover of FC Nordsjaelland, RTD is thus pursuing the vision of anchoring the academy’s own philosophy in Europe in the long term. By implementing RTD at FCN, Vernon is aiming to put together a team with a core of players, who have passed through the Ghanaian or the Danish academy created after the takeover. In this way, the youngsters can develop in an environment that is familiar to them, so that they can then firmly establish themselves in European football. FC Nordsjaelland is proving to be an ideal springboard for young African players to prove themselves at a high level after turning 18 years old. For RTD, this also brings financial advantages. Vernon was tired of spending years on the same players, developing them academically and athletically, only to have to flog them off to Europe and the world for a few thousand euros. With the purchase of FCN, RTD finally wants to reward itself for the immense effort – also financially! The Briton explains, that African players are highly undervalued on the market and can generate many times the transfer fee in one fell swoop as soon as they are signed by a European club. From this point of view, there seems to be no alternative to RTD’s move to Europe, considering the fact, that the sums generated by player sales are reinvested directly into the project.
The reasons for taking over a European club are therefore easy to understand. At the same time, however, the question arises, why RTD explicitly chose the club from the little town of Farum, sitting close to Copenhagen, with a population of only 19.000 inhabitants. But the reasons are obvious. Vernon explains, the values and goals of FC Nordsjaelland are consistent with those of RTD. Both have a proven track record of putting a lot of emphasis on talent development. FCN, for example, has been recognized as one of Denmark’s leading clubs in youth development since the club was founded in 2003 (from the Farum Boldklub club) and also has a social vein, as does RTD. Nordsjaelland is thus considered the first club in the world to join Common Goal, an initiative that supports football-related social projects worldwide. Co-founded by Juan Mata, almost 150 professional footballers (including stars such as Serge Gnabry, Mats Hummels and Paulo Dybala) now donate 1% of their monthly salary to these programs.
Work sustainable, harvest high rewards
In modern football, countless examples of years of mismanagement can be seen. Too often, those in charge of clubs see financial subsidies as the solution to all problems. The most recent example of this is Hertha BSC Berlin, which is lagging far behind its own expectations halfway through the current season despite recent large-scale investments.
The prime example of RTD shows, that long-term success is possible without large cash reserves and with sustainable management. Since the takeover of Nordsjaelland, the results of the profund long-term work are visible to everyone. A look at the transfer income shows, the danish side has generated over 50 million euros through player sales since RTD began to exert its influence, with the vast majority coming from players who have emerged from the internal academies. These include players such as Mohammed Kudus (to Ajax Amsterdam for 9 million euros in July 2020), Andreas Skov Olsen (to FC Bologna for 6 million euros in July 2019) and Mikkel Damsgaard (to Sampdoria Genoa for 6.5 million euros in September 2020), revealing the financial success was undoubtedly achieved due to the top-class youth academy, through which players often significantly increase their market value. The next youngster with great potential on the pitch and on the transfermarket is Kamaldeen Sulemana – a graduate of the academy in Ghana and scouted by Bayer Leverkusen recently.
4. Expansion plans without borders
Although RTD has had fantastic success with FC Nordsjaelland, they are not satisfied with what they have achieved so far. They want to expand further to offer even more children the opportunity to develop through the power of football – a new cooperation with the Mansour Group, a global family-owned conglomerate, was recently announced. The billionaire Egyptian company, led by Mohamed Mansour (one of the 15 richest Africans in the world, according to Forbes), is investing a sum of 100 million euros to support RTD’s expansion plans. Vernon sees the conglomerate, which is characterized by a great enthusiasm for football (Mostafa Kamel Mansour represented Egypt at the 1934 World Cup) and a strong social commitment, as the ideal partner. As a result of the investment, Mohamed Mansour takes over as chairman of the board, while his son Loutfy becomes a board member of RTD. Vernon, however, remains a significant shareholder and, through his role as CEO, will supervise the projects of the collaboration in Egypt and the UK.
The cooperation with Man Sports, established by the Mansour Group specifically to mark the company’s first foray into the world of sport, not only helps RTD to enter the next phase of global expansion, but also to attract more young players to the project. Together, both parties are aiming to create a new standard of purpose-oriented sport for club academies and players. Egypt and England are the primary focus.
As a result, a new academy will be built in West Cairo, following the same model of those in Ghana and Denmark. The training facility is expected to welcome its first students in 2022 and launch a new professional women’s football team shortly after its opening, which is also in line with the Egyptian government’s plans to massively raise awareness of the importance of gender equality in sport. But that is not all! As explained, RTD has big plans in the UK as well. Founder Tom Vernon wants to use the 100 million euros from the Mansour Group to buy a British football club in order to expand the organization’s internal network. There are not yet many details about the planned purchase, and it is not yet known which club RTD has in mind. The only thing that is certain is, that it should be a club based in London that is not currently competing in the Premier League (so the choice is likely to be Queens Park Rangers, Charlton Athletic or Millwall FC). The project is still in the planning phase, but it is clear that the philosophy of developing young players will be maintained, and that a possible purchase will probably be accompanied by the establishment of a new academy on British soil.
The RTD example shows: Alternative training models with a focus on people rather than football players can also bear fruit with a lot of commitment and a sustainable strategy. With the imminent purchase of a professional English club, RTD will have fulfilled its dream of developing from a small local football academy into a global player. This will bring Vernon significantly closer to its specifically advertised goal of making football more sustainable from within and establishing RTD academies worldwide. The implementation in English football will probably only be one of many further steps in the expansion strategy – accordingly, it remains to be seen where the journey of the non-profit organization will lead in the future. But one thing already seems clear: Tom Vernon and RTD have attracted attention in the football world and seem to be slowly but surely leaving their footprints. The next superstar à la Didier Drogba, possibly trained by RTD, seems to be only a matter of time.
Picture sources: Sky Sports England, Adam Bate / Instagram @right2dream