Academy out to unearth new stars to make it big in leagues overseas

ABIDJAN - The pitch is riven with gullies gouged by rain and stray balls sometimes splash into cauldrons of stew steaming in nearby street kitchens.

ABIDJAN - The pitch is riven with gullies gouged by rain and stray balls sometimes splash into cauldrons of stew steaming in nearby street kitchens.

Despite the shortcomings, the "Future Talent Academy" hopes to discover the next Didier Drogba.

The Chelsea striker and the Ivory Coast Elephants he captains are leading a soccer renaissance in the west African country, their spirited if unsuccessful World Cup finals debut and Africa Cup of Nations hopes offering relief to a nation divided for years by civil war.

"Everybody does their best to get the centre what it needs," said Xavier Konan, who runs the academy in Yopougon, a crowded suburb of Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan.

"Emmanuel Eboue, Gilles Yapi Yapo, Zezeto Venance, Didier Zokora... they've all run youth tournaments here," he said, proudly rattling off the names of players who made the leap from the local league to top European club sides.

Many of the players to have hit the international scene in recent years, including Arsenal defender Eboue, graduated not from under-resourced soccer schools like this but from the lavishly elite "MimoSifcom" soccer school down the road.

A partnership between league champions ASEC Mimosas and a sponsor that made its money in cocoa, Ivory Coast's main export, MimoSifcom opened in 1994 as the brainchild of ASEC chairman Roger Ouegnin and former French international Jean Marc Guillou.

With alumni such as Kolo Toure, Dindane Aruna, Bakary Kone and Salomon Kalou, the centre has triggered a wave of look-alike academies as coaches, former players and amateur enthusiasts try to copy the recipe for success.

"It's business," said an official at one centre who declined to be quoted by name. "From a social point of view, we are looking after children who would otherwise be on the street. At the same time we are offering them the chance of a better life." Charlatans and rogues have jumped on the bandwagon, however.

Early this year police in Mali, north of Ivory Coast, found more than 40 Ivorian teenagers living in a cramped villa in the southern city of Sikasso.

Each youngster, or their family, had paid up to 300 000 CFA francs (about R4 200) to get to Europe on the promise of a placing with a club side but their travel documents never materialised.

"Football has become a real industry and lots of people are making money from it. This is not what we want in Ivory Coast," said Ivorian Football Fed- eration president Jacques Anouma.

"We will no longer tolerate our kids leaving to go abroad. We have to bring order not only to the profession but also to the training," Anouma told Reuters.

Bringing order to a virtually unregu- lated industry is tough, especially in a country that has been split in two for the past four years since a brief, ethnically-charged civil war that has rattled the economy and all but destroyed public administration in much of the rebel-held north.

Forty-three percent of Ivorians live below the poverty line, up from 38 percent before the war, increasing people's desperation and the attractions of soccer as a way out.

In sharp contrast to its political woes, Ivory Coast's sporting fortunes have taken on a new lease of life, the soccer side's successes offering mental escape for the masses.

Ivory Coast's group-stage exit from their first World Cup in Germany last year belied a sparky performance that could well have put them through with a kinder draw. Drogba and his fairy-tale rise to sporting fame embody the hopes many have of joining the few lucky and talented enough to make it as professional footballers in Europe.

"Everybody agrees we have a beautiful national team. But we still haven't won anything. We need to win titles now because only titles count. Champions don't come second," said Drogba. - Reuters