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African football academy creates future stars

By Mark Tutton for CNN
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Going for Goals: The 'Right to Dream' academy creates more than just football stars
  • Ghana's "Right to Dream Academy" is a football school for talented youngsters
  • It emphasizes education and many graduates go on to university overseas
  • Academy hopes graduates will help develop Ghana

(CNN) -- A football academy in Ghana is giving youngsters the opportunity to be a success on and off the playing field.

The "Right to Dream Academy," in the city of Kumasi, was set up in 1999 by British football coach Tom Vernon. But unlike most football academies, it puts as much emphasis on education as football, and its graduates are as likely to gain scholarships to U.S. universities as they are to play professional football.

It was while coaching teams in the Ghanaian Premier League that Vernon realized the country had a wealth of enthusiastic and talented young football players, but a lack of opportunities for them to develop their sporting ability and get an education.

"I was struck by the talent of the kids and the lack of potential being fulfilled when they get to premier league level," he told CNN.

"So we decided to look at the problems the kids might be facing as they grew up between 12 and 18 and try to do something about that through the academy."

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Vernon said the youngsters often had to contend with poor education, poor nutrition and a lack of a stable home environment.

"They had an awful lot of pressures to work long hours for their family, meaning they didn't really have the time to concentrate on education and the talent they had, and spend some time having fun as well," he said.

I know I can play the football, but now my main concern is to be a doctor.
--Emmanuel Boateng
  • Ghana
  • Football
  • Africa

Vernon said the academy focuses on education as much as football training, with the result that of its 30 graduates, 21 are at universities in the United States and England, following scholarships at boarding schools. Another three are playing football professionally in Europe.

Emmanuel Boateng became a student at Right to Dream in 2006. Talented and hardworking on the field and in the classroom, last September he began a four-year scholarship at the prestigious Cate boarding school in California.

"I know I can play the football, but now my main concern is to be a doctor," Boateng told CNN before he traveled to the United States.

"My secret is to put much effort in everything that I'll be doing over there. When we are doing something in class I'll make sure I do everything extra so that I'll catch up with them."

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Vernon said Boateng, 15, has been true to his word. "Cate School is one of the best in California and I've been told he's the first kid at the school to get straight As in his first term."

"He's also an exceptional footballer. He played in a tournament in Europe last summer and Manchester United and Manchester City both saw him and are calling me about him coming on trials. He's got the full package going for him."

The academy holds about 70 recruitment events each year in towns and villages around Ghana. Potential students are assessed on their football ability and their school grades.

"If they look promising we bring them to the academy for six to eight weeks and really look at their strength of character, which is the most important characteristic of the kids who come to the school," said Vernon.

Successful candidates are given full scholarships to live, train and study at the academy, funded by the academy's sports tourism business, and private donors.

But football success is only part of the game at the academy.

"The real focus of what we're doing is the development of the country," said Vernon. "So this isn't a deal where a kid comes in, makes it as a footballer and says 'thank you very much.'

"It's a lifetime commitment to develop their talents for the betterment of the country -- whether that means becoming a footballer who has a slightly more socially responsible outlook on life than some of the current professional footballers from Africa, or whether it's going off and using your football to get yourself a world-class education."

It's a lesson Boateng seems to have taken on board.

He told CNN, "My dream is to make the best out of this scholarship that I've got so I can go out to get a better job in the future and come back to help the people in Ghana as well."