The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer's Next Superstars [Interview with Sebastian Abbot] • Latino Sports

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The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars [Interview with Sebastian Abbot]

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What was your motivation behind your book?

I recently penned an article about how I ended up writing a book about the largest talent search in soccer history. Here’s the link, click here.

Here are some key parts of the article related to my motivation:

Over a decade ago, I was running on a treadmill at a hotel gym in downtown Cairo, where I was working as a journalist for The Associated Press. The place was small and gloomy, but given Cairo’s terrible traffic and pollution, it was one of my only workout options. The gym’s saving grace was that it had TVs that allowed me to watch European soccer matches while I ran.

On this particular day in 2007, a commercial showed a young boy playing soccer at a glittering sports academy called Aspire in the tiny ultra-rich desert kingdom of Qatar. I’ve been a soccer fan my entire life. I started running around the pitch as a five-year-old and had the pleasure of playing at Princeton under future U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. So when I got home from the gym, I Googled “Aspire Academy” to learn more.

I was surprised to discover that Aspire, a state-owned sports academy built at a reported cost of over $1 billion, had launched the largest talent search in soccer history earlier that year. They were, in effect, looking for unicorns: those rare young players who can excel at elite international soccer. I would eventually join the search and learn much about both the sport and the nature of talent itself.

The program, called Football Dreams, was bankrolled by one of Qatar’s richest men, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, a member of the country’s royal family. It was led by Josep Colomer, a former youth director at FC Barcelona who helped launch the glorious career of Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

In 2007, Colomer and his fellow scouts held tryouts for more than 400,000 13-year-old boys in seven African countries as they looked for soccer’s next superstars. Out of this pool, they chose the best two dozen players and flew them to Doha where they were scheduled to participate in a weeks-long final tryout at Aspire. The plan was to select a handful of the best kids and train them to become professionals at the biggest clubs in Europe.

Aspire presented Football Dreams as a humanitarian program, but many people suspected the true goal was to lure these boys into playing for Qatar’s national team since the country lacked the population to produce world-class players on its own.

Soccer has long been called the global game, but the program took globalization to an almost absurd new extreme. Where else could you find a Spanish scout working for a Qatari sheikh hunting for African players to send to European clubs and possibly one day the World Cup?

I flew to Doha in January 2008 to spend a few days with the African boys while they were at Aspire for their final tryout. I tried to make sense of what I found and wrote an article about the program for the AP.

Years then passed as I moved to Islamabad to cover Pakistan and other parts of the world. I embedded with U.S. troops battling the Taliban in Afghanistan and spent time with Libyan rebels waging war against Qaddafi. But Football Dreams stayed with me.

I always wondered what had happened to those talented African boys I spent a few days with in Doha. I was intrigued by whether Qatar would find soccer’s next superstars and what the country’s motivations really were.

In 2014, I decided to leave my job at the AP to write a book about Football Dreams. The program had become even more fascinating over the years as it expanded outside Africa and held tryouts for millions of boys. Qatar also bought a club in Belgium to serve as a farm team for these players as they sought to complete the journey from the academy to the world’s top clubs.

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