As a Harvard-trained journalist embedded with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, the subject of Sebastian Abbot’s latest book, The Away Game, might seem like a far departure. Yet behind his (and the book’s) fascination with the mechanics of the game itself, is the human story of young boys, vying for the chance to become the next soccer superstar and rescue their families, and themselves, from the strife of the developing world. Abbot’s journey will take him from the arid landscapes of North Africa, to the elite soccer camp in Doha, Qatar, where the boys trained, and to the glittering European clubs that recruited the players. It’s a deeply personal story—which not only highlights the behind-the-scene machinations of the international soccer industry—but the duality of rabid human ambition: crippling failure and stunning success.
Josep Colomer knows soccer. He started his first training center when he was just a teenager in Spain, helped Brazil’s coaching staff win the World Cup in 2002, and rose to become youth director of soccer juggernaut FC Barcelona. He also helped jump-start the career of one of the greatest players in history, Lionel Messi.
Colomer knows markedly less about Nigerian militants. For example, they hate being called militants. They much prefer the term “freedom fighters.” Not surprisingly, Colomer never ran into a Nigerian militant during his years working as a scout and coach at the pinnacle of international soccer. But now he stood on a weathered dock in Nigeria’s turbulent Niger Delta. A small gray Yamaha motorboat floated nearby on a carpet of green water hyacinths. One of its passengers was Clemente Konboye, a Nigerian militant with a potbelly, a missing front tooth, and an intimidating air. His eyes were fixed on Colomer.
He wasn’t the only one staring. All around the ramshackle boat launch in Warri, one of the main cities in Delta State, locals working out of rusty metal shacks and battered motorboats stopped to ponder the squat, bald bulldog of a man in his late 30s. As usual, he looked like he was headed to the gym. Colomer always seemed to be dressed in a T-shirt, soccer shorts, and running shoes. Warri was no different. No attempt to blend in here.
The summer of 2007 certainly wasn’t the safest time to be a foreigner standing on a dock in the Niger Delta. The militants’ fight for a greater share of the impoverished region’s vast oil wealth was at its peak. Armed with AK-47s and RPGs, the militants raced about in small motorboats attacking government forces and kidnapping foreign oil workers. They eluded capture by speeding off into the labyrinth of waterways and mangrove forests that dominated the area. Many of them, including Konboye, followed a colorful leader known as Tompolo. His gang started the trend of targeting foreigners for ransom in 2006 by kidnapping nine oil workers from a barge stationed near the small fishing town of Ogulagha, where Tompolo’s mother lived. Colomer also happened to be headed to Ogulagha on that cloudy August afternoon in 2007. Konboye was at the dock because he and his fellow militants had been tipped off. But he wasn’t there to kidnap Colomer. He was there to protect him.
Colomer wasn’t interested in the Niger Delta’s oil. He wasn’t drawn to Africa in search of diamonds or gold, the kind of spoils that had long brought foreigners to the continent’s shores and interior. He had no interest in what was underneath Africa’s soil. He was hoping to find his prize on top of it. It could be next to a highway in Nigeria’s teeming megacity, Lagos, or on a sparsely populated island in the Niger Delta. It could be anywhere really. That was just one of the many difficulties he faced.
Knowing exactly what to look for was also a challenge. The process was more art than science. Science can easily tell you whether you’ve found gold or diamonds, but the answers are much less definitive in Colomer’s line of work. Experts have long relied on intuition drawn from years of experience rather than hard data, although that is slowly shifting. Either way, it can take years to reveal whether you actually found what you were looking for. But if you’re successful, the accolades are global. Forget oil and diamonds, Colomer was in Africa pursuing something much rarer. He was looking for the next Messi.
The trip to Ogulagha was one of hundreds Colomer and his team of scouts made across the African continent in 2007 as they launched what may be the biggest talent search in sports history. In that year alone, Colomer’s team held tryouts for more than 400,000 13-year-old boys in seven African countries looking for soccer’s next superstars, and that was just the beginning. They eventually expanded the search, named “Football Dreams,” to over a dozen countries in Africa and held tryouts for more than 5 million kids. Each year, the scouts chose a handful of the best players and trained them to become professionals at a billion dollar sports academy in the wealthy desert kingdom of Qatar. To call these kids elite would be an understatement. The process was over a thousand times more selective than getting into Harvard.
The Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán once described soccer as “a religion in search of a God.” Nowhere is that more true than Africa. There might be a few countries in the east known more for their world-class runners, but soccer is worshipped almost everywhere else with unbending faith, especially by the continent’s children. Their backgrounds and places of worship are almost always humble, but they still dream of becoming gods.
It’s little surprise then that Africa has produced some of Europe’s biggest soccer stars in recent years, including Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba. But Colomer believed these players were just the tip of a massive iceberg of talent and that much of the continent remained overlooked. By casting a wide enough net across Africa, he believed he could uncover players who could become soccer’s next superstars. That’s why he was standing on a dock in the Niger Delta in August 2007.
But things weren’t going as planned. The trouble started as soon as Colomer pulled up to the dock and got out of his Toyota SUV with the two paramilitary police officers armed with AK- 47s who were protecting him. Colomer and the other European scouts who were part of the program had taken police with them everywhere they went in Nigeria as a precautionary measure. But their man on the ground in Warri, Austin Bekewei, knew that wasn’t going to be possible in Ogulagha. The militants would never allow armed government forces into their territory. He was keenly aware of that because he was from Ogulagha and knew many of the militants personally, including Konboye, who was standing beside him when Colomer arrived at the boat launch.
Bekewei was a good decade younger than Colomer and now faced the unenviable task of telling him he couldn’t bring police to guard him as he traveled to one of the most dangerous parts of the Delta. He also needed to convince Colomer that Konboye would provide protection and return him to Warri unharmed. He had spoken to Konboye and his fellow militants beforehand, who assured him they had no problem with Colomer’s visit. The residents of Ogulagha wanted him to come because they saw it as the only chance for their kids to showcase their skills. They had never even had a Nigerian scout visit, much less a European one who had worked at the pinnacle of world soccer and helped nurture one of the best players in history.
Bekewei, Colomer, and his police guards huddled on the dock discussing the situation. Bekewei pledged that nobody would harm Colomer but was more concerned than he let on. He knew he couldn’t totally control what happened during the one-hour boat ride from Warri through the creeks to Ogulagha. The militants in his hometown had given their word, but what about other groups in between? There was largely no cell phone service out on the water, so they would be on their own if something happened. It was a risk Bekewei was willing to take. He was a budding soccer agent himself and knew Colomer’s visit would give local players exposure and boost his standing in the community.
It’s fair to say most people faced with Colomer’s situation would say thank you for the opportunity, get back into the Toyota SUV, and get out of there. But Colomer had been obsessed with looking for undiscovered talent ever since he was a teenager growing up in the small medieval town of Vic, north of Barcelona. He spent weekends there searching for skilled young players for his fledgling soccer school while his friends partied and chased girls. If there was anyone who was going to get in a boat with a Nigerian militant on the chance that the world’s next soccer star was living in a small fishing town in the Niger Delta, it was Colomer. And that’s precisely what he did. He was scared but followed Bekewei and Konboye down the dock and stepped into the motorboat that was waiting for him. As the driver pulled away, careful not to tangle the propeller in the floating water hyacinths, Colomer looked out toward the Forcados River that would take him to Ogulagha. He wondered what he would find when he arrived, and who would find him.
The boat quickly picked up speed as it left the dock, and they were soon moving so quickly that the muddy water whizzed by like a solid dirt road. A seemingly impenetrable green wall of mangroves and palm trees dominated both sides of the river, which was only about a hundred feet wide at times. Narrow creeks occasionally branched off on either side, but mostly there was nowhere to escape if they ran into trouble. The buzz of the motor was so loud that even basic communication was difficult.
The boat eventually pulled up to Ogulagha, a jumble of mostly dilapidated wood and metal shacks perched on the sandy bank of the river. Bekewei and Konboye led Colomer from the riverbank into the heart of town, following dirt paths that snaked through Ogulagha. A couple dozen kids trailed behind them, curious about the white man who had made such an unexpected visit. Most of the buildings they passed were rusty shacks made out of corrugated metal that reached baking temperatures during the hottest months. They crossed makeshift wooden bridges over small canals clogged with trash. The air was filled with the pungent odor of frying fish, one of the main staples in Ogulagha.
They were late, so the kids whom Colomer had come to see had been waiting for hours at the community field in the center of town for their tryout. They weren’t the only ones who had showed up. When Colomer arrived, he saw spectators of all ages crowded around the pitch, a sea of green surrounded by metal shacks strung with drying laundry. The organizers had even set up a tent so old men could sit in the shade and watch.
Normally, the tryouts observed by Colomer across Africa that year included 176 players each, enough for sixteen 11-a-side teams that would play a total of eight 25-minute games. Colomer and the other scouts would pick the best 50 players from each country out of this pool and invite them to the capital for a four-day trial. The three best field players from each country, and several goalkeepers from across Africa, would then be invited to a final tryout in Qatar that lasted several weeks. The top players at this final test would then be invited to join the academy in Doha and train to become professionals.
Setting up these tryouts required nearly 6,000 local volunteers in Africa, about the same number of people needed to operate an aircraft carrier. Football Dreams was like nothing the soccer world had ever seen, and not simply because of its size. Soccer has long been called the global game, but the program took globalization to an almost absurd new extreme, for Football Dreams is not simply a story of European scouts chasing future African stars. It’s also a tale of rich Arab sheikhs who play soccer on their palace grounds, South American wonder kids who grow up to become legends, and small-town European fans worried about the takeover of their little local club. The combination of these disparate worlds made Football Dreams one of the most radical experiments in sports history. It was up to Colomer to find a small number of African boys who were good enough to make the experiment work. He would make soccer history if he succeeded. So would the boys he found.
In Ogulagha, Bekewei couldn’t quite assemble 176 players for the tryout, even though he had paid for several dozen kids from neighboring communities to take boats to the town. The players who had showed up were a hodgepodge. Some wore proper soccer gear, complete with cleats. Others were barefoot or planned to play in their socks. The field turned out to be a great equalizer. From a distance, the grass looked a little overgrown but fairly inviting. Closer inspection revealed a swampy bog. It was the rainy season in Nigeria, and water had flooded the pitch. The goalmouths sported small ponds that ducks used to bathe when the field wasn’t in action.
The players who took the field wore reversible Nike training bibs that were several sizes too large for many of the kids. They battled against each other and the conditions on the field in an attempt to impress Colomer. It wasn’t easy. An encouraging dribble could be stopped dead by a pool of water, knocking the player off balance and into the mud at the same time. A key skill was being able to flick the ball out of this standing water to get the game restarted—not something you see youth players at Barcelona practicing. The conditions showed just how difficult it could be for Colomer and his team of scouts to evaluate a player’s true level of skill at some of the fields across Africa. But Colomer was intent on casting his net as wide as possible. There was no way to know where the next Messi might be hiding.