The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars. By Sebastian Abbot. W.W. Norton & Company; 284 pages; $26.95. To be published in Britain in June; £22.
OF ALL the professions that trade on teenage fantasies, few are as brutal as football. Just 1% of the 10,000 youngsters in English clubs’ academies go on to make a living in the sport. Two-thirds of those who earn a contract at 18 are out of the game by 21. The path is even tougher for prospects in Africa, as Sebastian Abbot shows in “The Away Game”. His engrossing book follows the fortunes of a handful of teenagers who made it into Football Dreams, perhaps the most ambitious scouting programme in sporting history. Run by the Aspire Academy in Qatar, the search involved 5m boys across the developing world at a cost of more than $100m.
The tale opens in 2007 as Josep Colomer, the scout who nurtured Lionel Messi at Barcelona, navigates the Niger Delta escorted by armed rebels. Supported by 6,000 volunteers across Africa, he aims to assemble a squad of the continent’s most promising 13-year-olds by testing half a million of them—every year.
Mr Abbot’s book focuses on a clutch of early candidates who are plucked from Ghana and Senegal and transported to unimaginable luxury in Doha. The motives of their benefactor, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, are unclear. Ostensibly they are there to provide practice for local players in the hope of strengthening the national team, ahead of a bid to host the World Cup in 2022. Some think the real plan may be to make Qatari citizens of Africa’s finest.
Not that the players mind. The academy’s well-drilled squads thrash youth teams from Manchester United and Real Madrid. They beat a Brazilian side including Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, later the two most expensive players in history.
From there, however, the trajectory is downwards. Some of the trainees flounder; some turn out to have lied about their age. Though FIFA, the sport’s governing body, forbids European clubs to sign outside players younger than 18, some of the older ones leave the academy in the hope of finding a glamorous suitor. None succeeds, and most forlornly return home. Those who stay graduate to a second-division Belgian club that the Qataris have bought. One makes it to Barcelona, but never breaks into the first team. After failing to find the next global superstar, the programme closed in 2016.
Mr Abbot describes the exploitation that many African starlets face. The unluckiest are ferried to Europe by dodgy agents, left without a club, and resort to begging rather than returning to Africa in shame. Since he concentrates on the academy, Mr Abbot gives only limited space to such poignant stories, and to the experiences of youngsters from Asia and South America.
Yet that is a minor shortcoming in a masterful account of the drama and science of scouting. One of the strongest predictors of intuition on the field, he finds, is the amount of kick-about football a youngster plays, which gives poor South American kids an edge. Such insights are woven into a lively evocation of football mania in Africa, where every corner bustles with locals in replica shirts: “Messi adjusting the straps on a donkey, Ronaldo patching a fishing net in the shade of a tree.”
Sounds like an interesting but tragic read