(CNN)European football academies have long been considered a global conveyor belt for talented young footballers aspiring to break into the lucrative world of professional football.
But a training school in Nairobi has shown its prowess on the world stage, beating top European youth teams like Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, presenting Kenya as a hotspot for future talent.
Acakoro Football Academy, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, has modest training grounds. They have a single pitch which often fills with large puddles during Kenya’s long rainy season. The grass is long, and the club’s grounds are surrounded by tin-roofed informal housing.
The academy draws its players from the local area, many of whom come from single parent or HIV positive families that often live in poverty. Alongside the pitch is Dandora, Nairobi’s largest dumpsite, where before Acakoro, several of the team’s children used to work scouring the hills of trash for food or recyclables to sell.
“Every kid in Korogocho faces a challenge everyday,” Mohamed Rashid, Acakoro’s coach, tells CNN.
That being said, this is one of the country’s only professional football academies, and a chance for young, aspiring Kenyans to nurture their skills, and have a shot at the big time. And they have proven themselves on the world’s stage.
The future of football
Over 100 boys and girls train every afternoon.
Acakoro fosters a positive, team-spirited culture, and a holistic approach that ensures the students also develop academically.
It was set-up in 2013 as an NGO by Stefan Koeglberger along with a Kenyan partner. The students receive full school tuition and meals.
While still in its early years, the training formula is paying dividends — and the team have won prestigious competitions.
A winning formula
In Kenya, and the wider region, footballing obsessions are mostly focused on European leagues, as opposed to domestic ones which lack the backing of billionaire bankrollers.
It’s little wonder that when Acakoro got the chance to compete in Europe it represented a huge opportunity to showcase their talent in the continent which still dominates the footballing landscape.
Every year the team compete in the Donauauen Cup, one of the toughest youth championships in Europe.
Indomitable sides like Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were swept under the carpet by Acakoro, who won the cup last year — and the year before that too.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a group of kids from Kenya who don’t have the sort of sport scientists, nutritionists and technology seen in European youth programs.
“When we finished that match everyone was so happy, was so surprised to see that we are the Acakoro Football Academy, we are from Africa and we have gone in Europe and we have managed to win the cup,” says Teddy, one of the stars of the team.
Football’s sleeping giant
Compared to West Africa, players from East Africa have not been well represented in the world’s top leagues.
It’s easy to roll off a top roster of world-class players from Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and elsewhere: think John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and George Weah who was the first African winner of FIFA World Player of the Year and is the newly elected president of Liberia.
By comparison, East African players and national teams have underperformed.
Strong and structured youth academies, like Acakoro, will part of the solution. So will funding and improving Kenya’s domestic league.
Koeglberger is undoubtedly positive, and given his team’s performance he has good reason to be. “I think that Kenya is really a sleeping giant in football because there is so much talent.”