PAW’s Q&A Podcast — March 2018

Sebastian Abbot ’98
Courtesy Sebastian Abbot
Sebastian Abbot ’98 first heard about Football Dreams, an ambitious Qatari-backed talent search that aimed to identify promising soccer prospects in Africa, when he was an Associated Press correspondent in Cairo. He returned to the subject a few years later, digging deeper into the story by profiling three of the program’s prominent players for a new book, The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars.

The book is Abbot’s first, and writing it was tremendously rewarding, he says. “If you have an idea that you feel passionate enough about and that you sort of can’t stand the idea of a book not being written about that subject, then I would dive in — but do it with eyes wide open,” he says. “It’ll be harder than anything you’ve ever done.”

This is part of a monthly series of interviews with alumni, faculty, and students. PAW podcasts are also available on iTunes — click here to subscribe.

A shop in Senegal that specializes in repairing soccer cleats
Courtesy Sebastian Abbot


Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s Q&A podcast. I’m Brett Tomlinson. This month our guest is Sebastian Abbot ’98, author of a new book called The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars, which tells the story of a truly remarkable talent search in Africa, led by a prominent Spanish scout and funded by a wealthy backer in Qatar. Sebastian has been an Associated Press reporter and bureau chief in Africa and the Middle East, and he has a soccer background as well, he played on Princeton’s team. Sebastian, thanks for joining us.

Sebastian Abbot: Thanks for having me.

BT: Your book covers this talent search that was known as Football Dreams, and it includes some elements similar to those in Hoop Dreams, the 1990s documentary film about aspiring basketball players in Chicago. How did you first come across this story, and what drew you in?

SA: I first came upon the story back in 2007, when I was working as a correspondent for the AP in Cairo. And I actually used to go to this gym across the street at a hotel to go work out, run on the treadmill, because if you’ve ever been to Cairo, you know that if you try and run on the streets in Cairo, you’re going to get run over by a taxi. And so I was over there one day, running on a treadmill, and there were these TVs there that I would watch old European football matches, soccer matches, while I was running. And a commercial came on the TV that showed this sort of gleaming sports academy in Qatar, and it had a kid juggling a soccer ball. And so I was kind of curious, I went back and did a bit of Googling, and it just so happened that at this time, they had launched this massive soccer talent search called Football Dreams. And so, I went to Doha in January of 2008, when the first class of kids they found in Africa was there for their final tryout, spent a few days with the kids, wrote an article for the AP, and it had basically always been one of my favorite articles I ever did for the AP. And even at that time, I thought this would be an amazing book. But wasn’t really in a place to do it at the time.

So years later, when I was actually living in Pakistan and working as a bureau chief for the AP, I was kind of thinking about doing something different, ready for a new challenge, and wondered if anybody’d ever written a book about this Football Dreams program, and did a bit more digging and realized nobody had. And so, decided I would take a leap of faith, and leave the AP, and write a book about it.

BT: And it’s a tremendous amount of reporting, you’re going to, in some cases, some very remote areas to tell this story. Give me a sense of what football means to the kids in Africa who you came across in writing this story?

SA: It really meant everything to them. You know, I spent about five months in West Africa, doing research for the book, in addition to traveling to Qatar, and Europe, and other places. In Africa, for these kids, soccer is clearly the most popular sport on the continent, millions and millions of kids grow up dreaming about becoming soccer stars, and for a lot of them, they view it as really the only way out. I mean, for American readers you can kind of think about it as what basketball is for a lot of inner city kids in the U.S. They kind of focus on it as sort of their one chance of achieving fame and fortune, finding a better life for themselves and their families. And so, you travel across, especially West Africa, and kids are playing everywhere you go. I’ve seen kids playing under highway overpasses in Nigeria, seen them playing in cemeteries in Ghana, I’ve seen them playing on the beach in the Ivory Coast using goals made out of palm trees. I mean you just see them everywhere, because for them, this is their passion, they see this as their future, and they spend as much time as they can playing.

BT: And on your website for the book, one of my favorite pictures is of a shop in Senegal, where they refurbish soccer cleats, and some of these cleats have been worn out to the point that you can barely tell it was ever a shoe. I mean it’s obviously — the amount of play, and the amount of just hard work that these kids are putting in is obvious.

SA: Yeah. And you know, that shop there is also a testament to the lack of resources for the sport in Africa. You know, the reason why the shoes looked like they did is because they’re so valuable to the kids that they have them repaired over, and over, and over, and over again, because they can’t afford new ones. And so, a lot of the places you travel in West Africa, you see that the sport has very little resources in Africa in general. And that was actually one of the things that made this Spanish scout who launched the search, Josep Colomer, who helped — he was previously the youth director of Barcelona, and helped launch Lionel Messi’s career — one of the reasons he decided to do this search, because when he was at Barcelona, he was scouting in Africa. And one, he realized that you know, the amount of undiscovered talent in Africa was very high, and two, the amount of resources there were for sort of talent identification and development in Europe were very low. And they don’t have anything like the academy system that you have in Europe that develops top professional players. There are a few, but not very many.

And so his idea was that if you went and conducted a blanket talent search that one, you would find amazing kids. And then if you had sort of a world-class development program to put them into, then you could produce, you know, soccer’s next superstars, the players who are going to make it to Barcelona, and Chelsea, and Manchester United, and all the other big teams that come to mind.

BT: And you mention in the book that the idea of Africa having this tremendously promising pool of players is not new, that Pele in the 1970s famously predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000, and that has not happened, but there has been enormous growth in the number of African-born players in the European pro leagues. The New York Times had a piece, I think in late December showing the makeup of national backgrounds of players in various leagues. And Premier League had something like 9 percent of players coming from Africa, which is very significant. What was Football Dreams doing differently than say, the European academies might have done in their search for talented players in the African countries?

SA: Well the thing is, is that European academies, as much money as they have, they sort of pale in comparison to Qatar, and the amount of resources that Qatar can bring to bear. And so, the search that European academies, or European teams make in Africa looking for players, is much more piecemeal than what Qatar was trying to do with Football Dreams. There’s a couple reasons for that. One, it costs a huge amount of money to do what Qatar was trying to do in Africa. And two, there are rules about basically, importing players into Europe from Africa and other places outside Europe. Officially, kids are supposed to be 18 years old before they make the move from Africa to academies in Europe, although as we’ve seen with the punishments that have been handed down by FIFA to Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and then one that was just announced against Chelsea, this is a rule that has been widely broken in the past, and many say continues to be ignored, that kids much younger than 18 continue to make their way into Europe, and if you’re a great player, there’s no real impediment to making it to a European academy.

But even then, the European academies aren’t going to Africa and doing sort of a blanket talent search. They talk to some of the clubs in the major cities, or go to the big international tournaments, like the Africa Cup of Nations and look for promising players there. But what Qatar was trying to do was different. They were trying to do a real sort of blanket, kind of grassroots talent search, where you know, they were just traveling to hundreds and hundreds of fields across the continent, and watching millions of kids play on dirt fields, and with the sort of group of European scouts they had doing this search, they would basically pick the best from all these countries, and eventually through a series of tryouts, bring a group of about 50 every year to Doha for a final tryout, keep them there for a month, and then take the top 20 kids and put them in their academy.

And so, it was just, the scale of it, it was just like nothing the soccer world had ever seen. In truth, like nothing the sports world had ever seen. You’d never had a country with the kind of resources that Qatar can bring to bear sort of take on this kind of ambitious agenda before in soccer, or really any other sport.

BT: And in your mind, what was the motivation? Was it the good of the game? Was it driven by ego — the idea that you could find the next superstar? Was there, you know, hope for some benefit to the Qatari national team program that was training alongside some of these players?

SA: Yeah, well the backstory is that there’s a guy named Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who is one of Qatar’s richest and most powerful men. He’s a member of the royal family, the brother of the current Emir of Qatar, and actually Sheikh Jassim was in line for the throne himself, but people say he’s a lot more passionate about soccer than he is politics. And so, he actually gave up his right to the throne, and so his father ultimately chose his brother.

And instead of pursuing a life of politics, of running the country, he decided to spend a billion dollars and build one of the highest-tech sports academies in the world in Doha called Aspire. And the reason he did that is because his dream had always been to produce a world-class Qatari national team. But Qatar is a really small country — it only has about 300,000 citizens, about 2 million people living there overall, most of them migrant workers. But he had the money to spend, and was bent on doing this. So, he built this academy, hired the best coaches and scouts from Europe, and they started out basically by holding tryouts for every boy in Qatar, to see what kind of talent they had on their hands. They quickly realized they didn’t have enough young players to form a real world-class national team. And so, they started scouting piecemeal in Africa and South America, and bringing — looking for kids that they could bring to Aspire in Doha on scholarship to train with the Qatari players.

The stated reason for this was that the kids would train with the Qataris and they would improve the level of training, because they were such good players, and that would make the Qatari players, and the Qatari national team, better. But, Qatar also has a history of handing out passports to foreign players, foreign athletes in all sorts of different sports, so that they take Qatari citizenship and compete in things like the Olympics, in sports like sprinting, and badminton, and volleyball, handball, chess, you name it, they’ve probably done it. And so, I think that they had that kind of intention at the beginning. But what happened along the way was that FIFA changed the rules and made it more difficult to naturalize young soccer players. So, the shift of the program really changed to more of a prestige project, that if they could find the world’s next superstar, the next Messi, that it would reflect well on Qatar, people would say they had one of the best soccer development programs in the world. And it was just sort of, to be honest, it was a smaller, a small part of a larger strategy which Qatar has carried out across sports, the arts, politics, where basically they use this vast wealth they have to try to buy a place on the world stage.

They’ve consistently tried to punch above their weight, and so this was one of the ways they were doing this. Doing it in the soccer realm, you know, obviously they also bid for the World Cup, they’ve bought famous European teams like Paris Saint-Germain, and so they were just trying to get the Qatar brand out there.

BT: Early in the book, you tell the story of these three remarkable 13-year-olds, Bernard, Diawandu, and Ibrahima, who are identified from a gigantic pool of kids as the best of the best. What sorts of pressures were they under after they’d been given this extraordinary opportunity in this Aspire Academy, this palatial soccer center?

SA: One of the biggest pressures was just, for many of them, the desperation of their family members back home who were sort of relying on them, and saw them as kind of, again, the ticket to a better life, and so while they were at the academy, and then you know, ultimately after they became professionals, there’s constantly pressure from back home to, “Send us money, where’s our money? We need help. When are you going to make a lot of money?” You know, that kind of thing. So, it constantly weighed on their minds while they were at the academy, and afterwards, knowing that they had so much riding on their shoulders, that  because they’d been picked out of millions as just exceptionally talented soccer players, that everyone back home then assumed OK, well then these guys are going to become the next superstars, he’s going to be next Messi, or Ronaldo, and he’s going to make millions and millions and millions of dollars. And then that’s going to help me, and so they had to grapple with that.

And then sort of something else that was related to that, that was difficult for them, is that in that soccer world, that youth soccer world, especially for players from developing countries in Africa and South America, there are a lot of sort of shady agents and coaches hanging around, trying to contact players, trying to form a relationship with players so that they can profit off what they see as a player’s bright future. And so because these kids were, knew they had pressure at home from family members who were desperate for a better life, that they were often susceptible to agents and coaches coming to them and promising them great things, like “Look, if you just leave the academy now, I can help you get to a big club in Europe, I can get you trials with Manchester United, Barcelona.” And sadly, some of these kids took the wrong paths and sort of fell by the wayside because they trusted people they shouldn’t have. But the reason they did was understandable. Again, because they were desperate to kind of improve their own lives, and the lives of their family.

BT: Yeah, the human story is fascinating. There’s also kind of a scientific element that plays into your book, this idea of just how difficult it is to identify, to quantify, to find greatness in soccer. And the European academy system has not had a particularly impressive success rate, and has plenty of critics. But you lay out some of the sports science aspects of scouting, and the intuitive ones as well. As someone who knows the game pretty well, can you tell me what surprised you in terms of what the scouts emphasize, and what they don’t emphasize?

SA: Yeah, I think to be honest, as a player, this was one of the most interesting parts for me, because I played my whole life, as you mentioned, I played at Princeton, and — but I’d never really read much into the science of what makes a great player until I started working on this book. And to be honest, you don’t see a lot written about it. You see it talked about in very general terms, but you don’t see it written about in specific terms in a lot of places.

And what I found was that, interestingly, at the youth level, in terms of what science tells you what you should or shouldn’t look for when you’re trying to spot the next big star is that you should basically, more or less, ignore physical characteristics. Because if you start picking kids because they’re the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, the tallest, you’re making a huge mistake. Because those physical characteristics at a young age are going to tell you very little about whether a kid has the chance to make it. Speed’s probably the most important of those, but even it can’t really tell you very much. And then you kind of move up the value chain of what is important. Technique is way more important than the physical characteristics, but even a very fast player with great technique, good acceleration, it’s still not going to tell you very much. Because the things that matter most are the things that are hardest to measure.

One of the key ones is vision, or game intelligence. And that’s the ability to sort of read the game, and make split-second decisions based on what’s happening around you in a very fast-paced, dynamic situation. And so, there’s a lot of interesting research that’s been done about, what is game intelligence? What’s going on in a player’s brain that allows them to make split second decisions that others can’t? In fact, interestingly enough, they found that the best thing you can do to form game intelligence is not sort of an official practice, or games, it’s pickup soccer, or street soccer, the kind that you see kids playing in the developing world, places like Africa and South America. And that’s why often, those players are so good. And then the other is personality. Personality is probably the most important, but it’s also the hardest to kind of judge in any real kind of objective quantifiable way.

For me, because I would — I play myself on the weekends still, and you know, you find yourself doing things on the field that you didn’t really understand in the past how you were able to do those things, but after reading it, you understand why you’re able to kind of look up and instantly know the right pass, or the right dribble, and it comes from these thousands of hours of playing that I’ve done in the past. And the other interesting thing was that, scouts, at the highest levels — they’re conceptually aware of a lot of this. They don’t know the science necessarily, but they’ll know they’re looking for smart players. They’ll know they’re looking for players with great determination and grit. And they know that they shouldn’t necessarily be looking at picking the biggest, the fastest, the strongest players. But if you look at the data, what you find is that they often still do. They often still go out and pick the biggest kid, or the strongest kid, and that’s a real mistake.

And so as you said, the success rate of academies in general, and academies in Europe, have not been great. And part of it is just, you know, it’s so difficult to know which kid is the right kid. And part of it is if you’re just picking kids on physical characteristics, you’re going to get it wrong. But one of the statistics that really stood out in my mind was that it at a Premier League academy, the percentage of kids that make it from the youth level to the first team is a half a percent. And then if you look at the entire academy system in England, which has about 10,000 kids at any one time, the percentage of those kids that make a living in soccer at any level, not at the Premier League, but any level, is only 1 percent. So it’s really long odds for the scouts to pick the right kids, and then to pick a real superstar, you know, is even that much more difficult.

BT: I imagine we have some fans of the U.S. men’s national team listening, and kind of taking mental notes about the things that you mentioned, the pickup soccer and all that. It seems like youth soccer in the U.S. maybe doesn’t understand the pickup nature as much as the very structured instruction. I don’t know if there’s anything to be learned there.

SA: Yeah, the other problem you have in the U.S. is that, you know, there’s this sort of pay to play system in the U.S., where it’s very expensive for kids to play on the best teams in the U.S. when they’re growing up. And so, the problem is, is that then you may be, one you’re excluding a big population of kids who just can’t afford to participate, so that limits your talent pool. And then because you’re doing that, you might be systematically excluding the best kids. Because again, if the best way to develop the kind of skills you need to succeed in soccer are through things like pickup soccer, rather than formal practice and games, the kids who come from poorer backgrounds, who maybe aren’t playing as much formal soccer, but are playing a lot more pickup in the streets, or the schoolyards, or whatever, they may actually have the best potential, but if they can’t afford to participate in sort of the formal soccer system in the U.S., they may be left out.

BT: Are you going to run for president, the next president of U.S. Soccer? Apply these things?

SA: It sounds like there’s enough candidates already, I don’t think they need one more.

BT: I’m also curious about the process of writing this book. You’ve been a reporter, you’ve worked on deadline. Had you written anything this long, and this in depth before, other than your senior thesis?

SA: No. I mean, this is by far the longest thing I had written, and I think I was a little bit naïve going into the process, which was probably a good thing, because I think probably most first-time authors, if they had any idea of really just how difficult the task they’re taking on is, you’d have a lot less first-time authors.

But, it was again, an amazing experience. I mean, both the experience of researching the book, and again, traveling across West Africa, and Qatar, and Belgium, and Spain, was amazing. You know, reading all about the science of youth scouting, and what makes a player great, was fascinating. And then, just the process of writing the book, and learning what it takes to kind of structure a coherent and compelling narrative for a reader. I was lucky enough to have an amazing editor at my publisher, Norton, and so I benefited a lot from his expertise. And so, it’s just been a great life experience, great learning experience. And so, I would tell anybody out there who’s wondering whether they should write a book that if you have an idea that you feel passionate enough about and that you sort of can’t stand the idea of a book not being written about that subject, then I would dive in — but do it with eyes wide open, it’ll be harder than anything you’ve ever done.

BT: Sound advice. Well, thank you Sebastian, I really appreciate you taking the time to join me.

SA: No, thank you. It was a fun conversation, I appreciate you reaching out.

BT: Sebastian Abbot is the author of The Away Game, due out this month. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, we invite you to subscribe on iTunes, and if you’re already listening on iTunes, please leave a review. We’d love to hear what you think.