How Not to Scout for Soccer Talent

Two new books raise interesting questions about the ethics and effectiveness of the sport’s selection system, with its early and intense winnowing process for aspiring players.

Jonathan Bartlett

In 2001, Nadia Nadim, a 12-year-old Afghan girl living with her mother and sisters in a Danish refugee center, looked up and noticed a soccer ball in the branches of a tree. On the other side of a nearby fence were lush soccer fields where youth teams from the local town practiced. Players sometimes sent balls flying into the woods near the center. Spotting more, Nadim and her friends shook the trees and threw some of the balls back over the fence. They kept a few older ones so they could play, too.

As Gwendolyn Oxenham writes in Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer, Nadim played with friends and by herself, juggling the ball for hours. Eventually she approached the coach in the town fields, and he invited her to join his team. In her first game, she scored three goals. From there, a string of youth coaches nurtured her talent. She graduated from high school and college, and eventually attended medical school; she also became a professional soccer player. Today, she is a star of the Danish national team and, after becoming a member of the Portland Thorns, one of the top women’s professional teams in the United States, now plays for Manchester City, in England.

Bernard Appiah grew up in Teshie, a poor seaside town near Accra, Ghana. He played soccer constantly as a young boy, and when he was about 8, a coach recruited him to a local team. The team had 50 players but only two soccer balls, so, as Sebastian Abbot writes in The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars, they spent much of their time in practice “simply running around in the dust.” Appiah outplayed everyone, earning the nickname “The Tornado.” Soon after, another local coach recruited him to a better team, one with proper equipment and a good practice field, hoping to nurture his talent for a professional career in Ghana or abroad in Europe.

In 2007, a Spanish coach named Josep Colomer came to Teshie on a first-of-its-kind tour of Africa in search of the best young players he could find. On offer were three scholarships to Aspire Academy, a lavishly endowed new soccer-training program in Qatar that boasted a stadium, six fields, and speakers that piped in “the sounds of birds chirping throughout the day.” Appiah, at that point a young teen, was chosen as one of the best players in Ghana, and was brought to the Aspire Academy, along with 23 other players from throughout Africa, for the final tryouts. He was awarded one of the coveted scholarships, and began what was supposed to be a multiyear program of honing his talents. His coaches pegged him as the next Lionel Messi, whom Appiah met when the Argentine superstar visited Aspire. Today, however, Appiah lives in relative poverty in Ghana, his dreams—and those of the coaches and institutions that invested in him—largely evaporated.

Soccer is the most popular sport on the planet, a universal language like no other. Billions of people play and watch the game. Many of its greatest players, like those in other sports, have come from the margins of society. Part of what draws multitudes is that soccer is a place of possibility, where even those born into the most difficult of circumstances can become global icons, celebrated for playing a game that explodes with joy and creativity.

Yet the men’s side of professional soccer has given rise to a merciless process of talent identification and development that operates on a global scale. Many promising young players sign contracts with clubs whose finances depend on buying and selling those contracts in an international market. The “transfer fees” exchanged between clubs have risen vertiginously over the past few decades. Last summer, Paris Saint-Germain, a team bankrolled by Qatari investors, set a record by buying the Brazilian star Neymar from Barcelona for $263 million. For top players, as well as the clubs and intermediaries involved in the soccer market’s chains of speculation, there are fortunes to be made. For the masses of aspiring players, whose chances of succeeding are infinitesimal, the costs are human and in many cases quite brutal.

Abbot and Oxenham offer us riveting portraits of players trying to make it, bouncing from team to team and continent to continent, often in deeply precarious circumstances. Their accounts raise questions about the ethics and effectiveness of the current soccer system. Does the ruthless selection that male athletes face—driven by a top-down structure, an emphasis on early winnowing, and intensive youth training—go against the grain of a game based on shifting, unpredictable play? And might women’s careers, which unfold differently because of the gender inequalities that shape a notably underfunded sport, have some lessons to offer?

Starting in the 1980s, European national teams and professional clubs began organizing youth academies aimed at identifying and cultivating male players at a very young age. Those academies have now spread all over the continent, and the competition among the kids there, some brought in as young as 5 years old, is fierce. A recent study of English academies, cited by Abbot, concluded that out of about 10,000 kids in the system, roughly 100 will become professionals. And among those who do get professional contracts as teenagers, two-thirds will no longer be playing by the time they are 21.

The net is cast wide at the youth level because it is so difficult to determine which players have the talent, skills, and drive that will allow them to succeed. Soccer doesn’t require a particular body type. Lionel Messi is 5 foot 7 and suffered from growth-hormone deficiency as a child, but was nevertheless recruited to the Barcelona academy when he was 11. Nicknamed “The Flea” by his teammates, he had amazing technique with the ball and consistently outplayed them. As he matured, Messi stood out thanks above all to what coaches call “game intelligence”—“the ability,” as Abbot puts it, “to evaluate a dynamic situation and execute the right decision almost instantly.”

Game intelligence can be nurtured, but it is difficult to teach. The only surefire way to cultivate it is to play a lot. And the more structured training approach taken by many academies may, ironically, be a hindrance. Abbot invokes research suggesting that play in informal environments—on a patch of dirt or in the courtyard of a housing project, for example, rather than on a well-manicured pitch under adult supervision—is key to the development of game intelligence. In these settings, kids also tend to one-up each other with flashy play—dribbling adroitly around someone, kicking the ball over a head or through a thicket of legs, juggling the ball in the air for a while, executing a back-heel pass to a teammate—which is a great way to master technical skills. Such pickup games demand creativity and improvisation, and reward those who are constantly observing their surroundings and recalibrating their moves accordingly. Coaching is no doubt useful, but even players at academies do better when they spend a lot of time in free-form play.

No wonder, then, that Africa, which over the past several decades has produced some of Europe’s greatest soccer stars, has beckoned as a vast and untapped recruiting ground. Structured academy training of the kind now prevalent in Europe is rare there. The next star, the thinking goes, could be anywhere, honing his talents under an overpass in Lagos or oceanside in Dakar. The prospect appealed to Sheikh Jassim, the founder of Aspire Academy. In line to be the next emir of Qatar, Jassim had renounced the throne to focus on his true passion, soccer. (A doctor once summoned to his palace to cure his insomnia saw the problem immediately: wall-to-wall screens in the bedroom, showing games being played all over the world, around the clock.) Setting out to train a great Qatari team, Sheikh Jassim decided that importing talented African players would help, and hired Josep Colomer to search the continent.

Called Football Dreams, the enterprise was, Abbot writes, “the largest soccer scouting project in history.” The first year, when Appiah was selected, nearly 430,000 boys participated in the tryouts. By 2014, more than 3.5 million youths had been scouted by the program. At one field in Ghana, more than 100 young players showed up two days early, sleeping on the ground while they waited for Aspire Academy representatives to arrive. In the first year, Colomer persuaded Jassim to expand the number of scholarships awarded by setting up an academy in Senegal, which welcomes 20 students a year, in addition to the few who get to train in Qatar. Still, as Abbot notes, the winnowing process is “a thousand times more selective than getting into Harvard.”

If young players thronged to the tryouts, it was because Aspire Academy seemed to point the way to a professional career in Europe—the dream that drives soccer throughout Africa. At 8, Appiah was already a commodity. His second youth coach, Justice Oteng, paid an informal transfer fee for him and other players when they joined the team. Oteng also paid for the Ghana Football Association license that qualified Appiah to play in the country’s official leagues, and he provided housing for several years.

For Oteng, these were speculative investments that he hoped to recoup one day. Like Oteng, however, most local coaches don’t have direct links to European clubs. So young players end up vulnerable to unscrupulous agents, many of whom demand money up front and never follow through on promises to introduce players to recruiters. Such a large number of aspiring African players are left stranded and homeless in Europe that one retired soccer player has created an NGO in France to help them. He describes this trade in young players as a kind of “modern slavery.”

Football Dreams was presented by its leaders as an alternative to this kind of exploitation. Yet as Appiah discovered, the pressures of the industry are inescapable. With the eyes of European teams on him as he played exhibition matches with Aspire, a conflict developed between Oteng and the academy over when he should go professional and who would negotiate, and profit from, the move. The struggle over Appiah’s future eventually short-circuited it. He left Aspire Academy after a year, and his attempts to get a contract in Europe floundered, despite his top-level training and connections to coaches there. He ended up playing professionally in Ghana, where the pay is low: The going salary is about $50 a month, which sometimes is barely enough for food and shelter. Now in his mid-20s, he remains optimistic that he will get a break, but time is running out for him to have a professional career in Europe.

Describing Appiah’s departure from the academy, Abbot writes that he was “headed back to the mine where he was found.” The echoes of colonialism are clear. In soccer’s global order, Africa is seen as a supplier of raw material to be
refined and then sold on the international market—or, far more likely, discarded. Encouraged to stake everything on the game, young players confront intense expectations and financial pressures. One of Appiah’s classmates at the academy did ultimately go professional in Europe, playing for a year with Barcelona and then with a lesser-known team. A few more-recent Aspire graduates have gone professional as well. Still, Abbot’s book paints a portrait of institutions so obsessively geared toward producing the next star that little thought is given to what is consumed, and lost, in the endeavor.

What if the system were structured differently, focused on the experiences of the vast majority of aspiring players who will fail rather than on the tiny number who will succeed? This would be more ethical and less exploitative, and might well produce just as many great stars, at a much lower personal price. As Abbot’s book highlights, the Aspire Academy quest has yielded strikingly mixed results, especially given the massive investment involved. A blunt truth emerges: Seeking out players when they are very young is surely not an ideal formula for scouting success. The development of game intelligence remains fairly mysterious; the asset is one whose eventual emergence can be hard to predict early on.

What boys like Appiah may need most of all is more time, and a comparatively modest space upgrade. Instead of six practice fields in Qatar, he and other young players could have used another good one in Teshie. With better conditions there, he might not have felt the need to leave home to hone his talents, and when the time was right—when he was old enough, and ready—he could have made a move to Europe. Recruiters could still travel Africa looking for star players, but they would be looking for young men rather than boys, and have a better chance to truly judge whether they were ready for European club soccer. Cutting back on intensive training in childhood might have downsides, of course. Yet the gains, especially for the many players who never become stars, could be seen as compensation enough.

The world of women’s soccer portrayed by Oxenham provides inspiration here. To be sure, the absence of big money doesn’t mean freedom from exploitation. Most of the players we meet in Under the Lights and in the Dark are barely eking out a living, even in the U.S. league, which is better-funded than most countries’ leagues. Marta Vieira da Silva, a star of Brazil’s national team—and considered by many to be the world’s greatest female soccer player—earns about $40,000 a year playing with the Orlando Pride, though she makes more from commercial endorsements. The financial realities reshape the entire process and ethos of women’s soccer. Young players can only ever think of soccer “not as a destination but as a route,” writes Oxenham, once an aspiring professional player herself. “From the beginning of our playing careers, we prepared for the end.”

That means the path for even the most skilled and ambitious girls begins as, and remains, a broader one. Like Nadim, one of the American players in Oxenham’s book attends medical school; a star of the German national team is in the police academy. “I can’t just be a soccer player,” she explains. “I’d be bored.” Gaëlle Enganamouit of Cameroon uses the money she earns playing professionally to invest in a taxi business run by her family back home.

Nadim discovered soccer for herself, and got her teenage training thanks to the generous government support—local and national—for youth sports throughout Denmark. She saw the ball in the tree in part because well-equipped programs meant that young players didn’t bother to go after the balls they kicked into the woods. A dose of that spirit, spreading soccer’s benefits wider, would serve everyone, including stars. Soccer, at its heart, is all about creating openings where there seem to be none. Utopian though the dream of a more just and equitable soccer system may sound, that’s only more reason to nurse it.

This article appears in the July/August 2018 print edition with the headline “The Wrong Way to Scout for Soccer Talent.”