The following is a translation of an article by French outlet Mediapart relating to Premier League champions Manchester City’s involvement with Ghanaian youth academy “Right to Dream” (RTD).
Get French Football News takes no responsibility for the authenticity of the content.
Each year, the Right to Dream academy scouts 25k young footballers in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, thanks to a network of 1.3k small clubs. From this enormous pool of talent, just 20 privileged youngsters enter the Right to Dream academy, a 2-hour drive away from Accra.
Even if they don’t end up as professional footballers, they still get to experience better living conditions than they were used to.
17-year-old Abu Francis, who has been at the Right to Dream academy since he was 11, had the following to say, in reference to a village he goes through to get to training: “We see how people struggle to get out. They do not have the luck that we have.”
At Right to Dream, 90 young people, including about 15 girls, attend classrooms that are named after famous figures: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. Quotations cover the classroom walls:
“If if you learned from a defeat, you have not really lost.” and “Whoever asks a question is considered an idiot for 5 minutes, but the person who does not ask any questions is an idiot all his life.”
Mubarak al-Hassan, 17, comes from a village in Ghana: “My family does not have much. So when I came to Right to Dream, I was happy, because they help me with everything.” On leaving his family at the age of 10, he said “sometimes you have to move to make your dreams come true.”
Much like Divine Naah, who left his continent of origin and unless you are a fan of 2nd division Belgian outfit AFC Tubize, you will never have heard of him. But his journey summarises the rollercoaster of emotions that African footballers find themselves in all too often as they chase for stardom in Europe.
Many fail, or get led down the wrong path, but Naah succeeded. The 22-year-old once dreamed of playing for Manchester City, but the midfielder is now at a much more modest club. Manchester City is the eventual destination of the Right to Dream academy’s most promising prospects, but it can also be the place where RTD’s best’s hopes are utterly dashed.
Even if he never played at the Ethiad Stadium, Divine does not regret signing for Manchester City: “All my team-mates dreamed of it.” But from the ages of 18 to 22, he suffered: “At some moments, I thought about putting a bullet in my own head.” He went on 5 consecutive loan spells, which proved to be psychologically destructive: “The moment you get used to a place, you have to leave… For some loans, I did not have a say… because if you do not leave, you stay in Manchester without playing.”
Created as an idealistic project, RTD has become a springboard for big business in football. Football Leaks documents show that the academy has become a reservoir of talent for Manchester City.
Mediapart claim that in 2013, RTD founder and president Tom Vernon assured Manchester City that the academy could guarantee him an “almost total domination” over the recruitment of 8 to 18-year-olds in West Africa. He followed up: “RTD and City must use this unique period of domination to put in place structures that give us control of the region and intimidates clubs who want to enter the market.”
In 2016, in Manchester City’s “Talent Development Plan,” the club uses banking vocabulary, referring to “young talent” as “asset management”. In this “increasingly competitive” market “venture capital” investments focusing on 16-to-20-year olds is paying off, according to documents seen by Mediapart.
The RTD academy has essentially served as a satellite for the English club, even if they claim that “nobody was ever and never will be forced into a decision,” to join the Premier League champions – but what player wouldn’t?
No member of this academy has ever made it into the Manchester City first team, yet for the Citizens, the advantages of this arrangement are undeniable. Whilst it is illegal for international transfers to be made involving minors up to the ages of 16, this academy arrangement seemingly allows them to control the futures of footballers from the ages of 10 upwards and to value them, before re-selling them at a profit.
Mediapart claim that an internal club document states that “investing in young players has been beneficial for City.” With the £30m worth of investment from 2012 to 2016 said to have brought in £34m, with a market value of £76m for their investments “which could go as high as £151m” – a 5 times return on their investment.
Even if these values remain untested and largely unprovable by an outside source, City clearly thought highly of this strategy, with the report allegedly adding: “We plan to invest £48m” over the next 10 years, which equated to €60m at 2016’s exchange rate “for a 24% return on our investment concerning the development and sales of 130 players”.
Is this operation still running? Manchester City refused to provide comment when prompted by Mediapart.
On the Right to Dream academy’s side, they have defended their partnership with Manchester City:
“Without these partnerships, RTD would no longer exist and we would not be able to change the lives of so many children. These partners have supported the RTD academy without guarantee of return, including Manchester City.”
However, the contract in question with Manchester City and a Danish club, now appear to be on the back-burner:
“They have not been applied for some time, for reasons that have nothing to do with your investigations.”
Even if this contract was no longer being applied, the boss of the academy, Tom Vernon, confirmed on Friday 9th November that “cooperation” between RTD and City was ongoing.
Where is the bombshell you may ask?
RTD claims to have “a positive impact” on the lives of many Ghanaians to whom it has provided education at no cost, with Tom Vernon asserting “in all modesty” that his success “is one of the most remarkable contributions to the development of children by an institution in Africa”. He defends his “holistic approach, not for purpose of profit” and believes that criticism comes from the fact that there is “money to be made” on young footballers.
Mediapart claim that thanks to a contract that appears to defy FIFA regulations, the club draws from the RTD talent pool whilst simultaneously preventing other clubs from signing players from the Ghana based academy. Under an alleged secret partnership signed for 10 years in 2010, RTD gave City the right “to acquire the signature of any player” and the academy in this agreement did not have the right to “transfer a player without the written consent of Manchester City”.
Dan Chapman, a sports lawyer, believes that this veto power “means that the club has third-party influence on the status, registration and career prospects of players, similar to the one that Doyen Sports had over FC Twente in the Netherlands.” This practice is banned by FIFA.
Mediapart reached out to FIFA for a comment, and the organisation responded: “We have not seen the contracts that you are talking about. If you send them to us, we will look at them.”
RTD claim that there is no Third Party issue because the academy has “never prevented and will never prevent a student from being transferred to another club.”
In this secret agreement, RTD has some seemingly extensive obligations, including that they must “scout in the 15 West African countries” to sign players between the ages of 10 and 18 who have “the potential to join the first team” at Manchester City. In return, the English club agreed to pay the academy £850k a year, as well as a lump sum of £1.1m, plus bonuses relating to the successes of the players that RTD have recruited.
Until 2016, this money passed through a company called Africa Sports Management (ASM), based in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, via a bank account in the Cayman Islands, according to Mediapart reporting. “It is not just ASM that is based in the Virgin Islands, but me personally,” claims Tom Vernon. In 2016, Africa Sports Management was dissolved and replaced by a company called RTD Limited, that was registered in the UK.
RTD added when asked to comment: “All the structures used for our business are legitimate and legal.” The money was then deposited in Ghana in the form of a donation, which in 2010 and 2011, made up two-thirds of RTD’s annual budget. The academy does not pay corporation tax: “In Ghana, we are a limited company, which means that all money is invested into development and is not distributed amongst our shareholders.”
As time elapsed, the RTD began seeking to bring minors in at a younger and younger age. In 2012, it allegedly explored partnerships with schools in Ghana, signing 7 or 8-year-olds for the U10s. “We watch them between the ages of 8 to 10, up to 12, before offering the promise of security for 15 years,” RTD acknowledges.
End of Part 1.