NAIROBI – A soccer academy in a slum area of Kenya’s capital Nairobi has for the past five years been growing the East African country’s next generation of talent.
Through rigorous sessions, the Acakoro youth academy in the Korogocho slum not only trains its young members in the skills needed to take on international squads abroad, it also provides them with access to education.
“We have played against teams like Barcelona, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, some of the biggest teams in Europe,” said Nobel Buleti, 13, who plays for the U-15 team.
Korogocho is renowned for its high levels of violence and festering garbage dump, but the academy’s coaches are proud that in just a few short years, the neighborhood has also become known for having Kenya’s best soccer academy and the area is now considered safer.
Established in 2013 as a joint Kenyan-Austrian project, Acakoro relies on 12 coaches to train its 124 players who slot into six teams: boys Under 11, U-13, U-15 and U-17, and girls U-12 and U-17. Each age group trains four times a week and plays matches on Sundays.
The players have already tasted success, with the U-11 side beating FC Barcelona at the “Donauauen Cup” in 2015 and then Atletico Madrid the following year.
People came out into the streets of Korogocho to celebrate and welcome the new national heroes home from the tournament in Austria.
Teddy Sirma, 14, who scored the winning goal against Barcelona, described it as a motivating experience during which all the teams Acakoro had beaten throughout the tournament came to support them.
Sirma aspires to be like Brazil’s star forward Neymar and wants to play in the English Premier League for Manchester or Arsenal.
Buleti, the goalkeeper during Acakoro’s win against Barcelona, also dreams of playing in Europe one day, his eyes on Spanish clubs in particular. “One day maybe I can play for Barcelona or Atletico, one of the teams in Spain.”
It’s not easy to get into the academy. Only those who exhibit the best qualities and come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds stand a chance of getting a place.
Off the pitch, the children from one of Kenya’s most dangerous slums are awarded scholarships allowing them to go to school, have access to books, meals, healthcare and transport home.
None of these players would otherwise have had the chance to study, with their parents and guardians having to save up to cover the costs of sending their kids to school.
Traveling to tournaments abroad has been “an extraordinary feeling” for the children, who have been able to meet new people from different countries, coach and academy administrator Rashid Mohamed said.
“One of the most positive things about these children is that every training is a chance for them to improve,” he said. “They have been able to overcome every opponent in their matches, every opponent, I mean locally and internationally.”
In the streets of Korogocho, people sell Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts, and while Acakoro does not yet have its own strip, those running the academy hope that one day their players will make it onto the national team and bring back the FIFA World Cup to the neighborhood.