SBJ/July 17-23, 2017/Opinion

Right to Dream finds footing with soccer standouts

Tom Vernon’s trip to Ghana sparked a life-changing idea for an academy

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Tom Vernon was 20 when he arrived in Ghana to coach soccer in 1999. The young Brit was immediately transfixed when he looked out a car window at kids kicking a soccer ball.

“If you’ve been to West Africa and stop at the traffic lights, you see the kids playing on the street and say, ‘These kids look so good. They look like world beaters. Why is no one organizing anything here?’” he told me recently in our Charlotte office. “I was looking at these kids and thinking, ‘Somebody has to do something structured around this.’”

And so Vernon did. He immediately founded an academy, Right To Dream, which started from humble beginnings but has now produced more than 30 professional players. But more than just a talent system, he’s been successful in emphasizing character development and academics, as well as changing the lives of poverty-stricken young men and women and making a difference in West Africa.

“We are passionate about changing the situation across West Africa. Our graduates have to be the agents of change.”
— Tom Vernon
The 39-year-old Vernon is a serious study, not afraid to offer a hint of humor, but he largely comes across as focused on the task at hand. When you realize what he’s built in resource-starved Africa, combining top-notch education with premier soccer training that has five graduates playing in MLS, including the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Abu Danladi, and more than 25 players throughout Europe, you get a true appreciation for his vision and doggedness.

“At first, I would just beg, borrow and steal wherever I could to get it going,” he recalled. “A few of the big European clubs had come in and tried to create academies in Africa, which failed spectacularly. We had the blessing (of) having no money. It’s a lot easier to make mistakes when you don’t have any money. We wanted to create an academy which was tailored to the child. When you take a kid into an academy in Africa, you assume everything because they come from poverty, they have nothing. At the European academies, if you haven’t been performing on the pitch, at the end of the year, you’re out. We said, ‘Let’s make our academy about the human being and make a long-term commitment to every kid that we take, rather than judging it on soccer performance.’”

He left his position as a scout for Manchester United to focus on a non-resident academy in the capital city of Accra.

Focusing on two communities, they tried out 80 kids and took in 15. The first three months were a struggle.

“We realized that it wasn’t going to work. These kids wake up, do work around the house, go to school and by the time they came for training, they were wiped. So we rented a bigger house, moved all of these kids into the house, put a classroom in the living room, rented a couple of teachers for around $100 a month, and started a resident academy.”

Tom Vernon with his first group of student athletes in Ghana.


Of those first 15 kids in 1999, three ended up playing for Ghana’s national team, six became Division I scholarship athletes in the U.S., and five went pro in Europe. Vernon’s initial thoughts were confirmed.

“If you’re just dipping into two communities in Africa and you have no idea what you’re doing because you’re 20 years old, with no money, and to be able to produce those kinds of results, it makes you think this is Africa’s biggest resource. Everyone else talks about gold, diamonds and oil. There is so much talent in these countries like Ghana, but we have done nothing to develop it.”

To fund the program, Vernon combined his own resources with outside investors and a “Gap Sports Abroad” program that drew young men from Europe and the U.K. to serve as instructors at the academy as they filled their gap year. All that was poured back into developing the campus, which they’ve invested over $3 million in building.

Vernon’s next strategic move was targeting the United States to develop the student-athlete concept. Vernon met a missionary whose son was a soccer coach in California. The missionary watched the kids play at Right To Dream and asked about their academic performance. Six months later, Vernon and his two best students were on a plane to Santa Barbara where they became the first two Right to Dream students to attend high school in the U.S. “After that, it really started to spread, and then we were able to place kids at Hotchkiss, and the East Coast was better for our kids than California. On the East Coast, they’re up in the snow and they get pushed really hard.”

Today, Right To Dream admits 20 kids out of roughly 25,000 reviewed each year to the Ghana campus based on their academic and athletic potential. “We’re telling our scouting team that with very few tools, you have got to find the kid who’s good enough to play for Harvard but bright enough to get into Harvard. And you’ve got to find the kid who’s going to be good enough to play in the Champions League. That’s a challenge.”

Each of the children receives a full scholarship. Students arrive at Right To Dream at 10 or 11 years old, and those who go to the United States leave at 15 to start ninth grade. Those turning pro stay at the academy until 18, per FIFA rules. The selection process is as much about character and development as athletics. “We are all about character development. What does it mean to be a role model? What are your responsibilities within society? How can we start practicing them now when you’re 10 and 11 years old so that it’s part of your DNA by the time you graduate?”

Roughly 50 percent of students go pro and they go to the U.S. for education and athletics. “Kids going to the U.S. get the life-changing opportunity of an excellent education. For me, this is the differentiator of our project, that our kids can go this route and not just go pro in Europe,” he said proudly.

Over the years, more than 45 student athletes have left West Africa to attend schools such as Hotchkiss and Taft in New England, and then gone on to get full scholarships at colleges such as Georgetown, Michigan, UCLA, Virginia and Wake Forest. Vernon stresses that students remain engaged even after they leave Right To Dream’s academy.

“Some students come back to work here. That’s the vision and the culture that we’ve tried to create at Right to Dream. We are passionate about changing the situation across West Africa. Our graduates have to be the agents of change. The vision for all these kids is that whatever situation they find themselves in, they’ve got to be giving back to West Africa.” He runs through a litany of efforts by graduates to give back, from financial investment, to establishing tournaments and local training for schools.

Looking to expand his concept and culture, Vernon bought Danish Superliga club FC Nordsjaelland in 2015, which gives Right To Dream graduates a path to professional soccer in Europe and puts revenue generated from the club back into the Academy system. It is also designed to export the philosophy of West Africa to European football.

A Right to Dream mentorship group gathers for a character discussion on creating opportunities for others.
“We’ve introduced this whole giving-back culture into our Denmark club, and we have 12-year-old kids in our academy going out and contributing within the community,” he said. “They’re starting to get that character piece. It’s a bit of a mini revolution within football that we’re challenging how things can be done in a first-world environment and a third-world environment.”

The business model around Right To Dream remains rooted in investors as well as corporate donations and sponsorships. Vernon admits that much of his time is focused on fundraising, as it was the reason he was visiting the U.S. during our meeting, with a staff of roughly 140, including the club in Denmark, handling the day-to-day efforts.

“The biggest challenge has always been the money,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s always been money. There hasn’t been any government support for what we’re doing, which is a real shame. It’s been a challenge trying to get local traction. I’ve been in front of 15 sports ministers and they could help us out a lot if they wanted to, so that’s been a frustration.”

He also thinks Right To Dream has become a valuable and successful proposition for sponsors.

“We spent a decade telling people, ‘This is what we’re going to do. This is what these kids are going to become.’ Everyone was like, ‘Well, come back when they are.’ Now, we’re to the point where they are succeeding and we’re trying to tell the story a little more.”

Retired Ghanaian-German player Otto Addo paid a visit to the Right to Dream academy and its captains last year.
Tullow Oil, an independent African oil company, has been the main sponsor of Right To Dream, and there is also an annual fundraiser in New York City that supports its girls program, which now has 17 members. Right to Dream also shares in transfer fees for players in their program.

Vernon needed to get to the airport to catch a flight to New York City to spread the word and shake the tree for funding. Constantly traveling, Vernon recently moved his family to Copenhagen, where one son is playing soccer, leaving Ghana after 17 years. “It’s tough not being in Ghaha, which I love,” he admitted.

It’s easy to see the idealist in him.

“I fell completely in love with the game from a young age, and when I see where it’s going, it’s pretty disillusioning. FIFA has a huge amount of responsibility in that regard, as they’ve allowed the game to slip in terms of values and culture and what it stands for. Trying to do something to change that is really exciting, because the game has got a lot of problems.”

Vernon’s vision has come a long way from his first days in Ghana gazing out the car window.

“When I was 20, it was just, ‘Let’s try and do something about this. I’m young, why not give it a go?’ It wasn’t a calculated masterplan. It was those kids needing an avenue out and so let’s try and do something about it. And we’ve made progress. We’re putting kids into the best schools in America on full rides and we could help so many more if we had the resources to look for more kids and bring them into the program. We get contacted all the time from people saying, ‘We need a Right to Dream in Kenya, in South Africa, in Algeria, or Latin America.’ So there’s a lot of potential for the academies to be replicated.”

As we walk out of the office, he spoke optimistically about changing the lives of so many who need it, and noted the growth of the academy’s women’s program — as opportunities for women in West Africa are extremely limited and marred by gender bias. Overall, he can sense progress.

“We feel like it’s a boulder we’ve pushed 95 percent of the way up the hill and we’ve now got enough proof of concept that we hope to push it over the hill and have it snowball, so if we go to these countries where kids don’t have these opportunities and can recruit and get the best kids, we could supply a new chain of talent and inspiration to these countries.”

He paused before thinking out loud.

“Right to Dream hasn’t even hit 1 percent of its potential — and not fulfilling 1 percent of the potential keeps me going and excited.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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