Lawyer hopes academy in Ghana helps end exploitation of young African players

A lawyer who has dealt first hand with the exploitation of young African players is now providing a safe space for them to showcase their skills to Premier League clubs.

Cynthia Quarcoo, a dual UK-Ghanaian national and a single mother of six, is the founder of the Africa 1 Sports academy which is hosting its first event in Ghana over the course of this weekend and will be attended by representatives from Arsenal, West Ham and other European clubs.

Around 300 boys aged 15 to 17 are due to attend, with the majority who are visiting from outside the capital Accra being housed in accommodation at the University of Ghana.

While Quarcoo hopes some of those will be at the beginning of their journey to football superstardom, what she most wants to do is help them become rounded, educated individuals who are aware of the pitfalls that exist for young players, especially those from Africa.

Quarcoo has built a reputation as a lawyer in the entertainment sector in Ghana, and first took an interest in football when her son Franklin began training with Liberty Professionals, the former club of ex-Chelsea star Michael Essien.

“He said to me after a training session: ‘Can you give me some money to give to my friends? They haven’t eaten all day’. That broke me as a mother,” she told the PA news agency.

“After consulting with people within the football space, I really wanted to understand what the issues were.

“So I took about six to nine months off and started to have stakeholder meetings with the Ghana Football Association and legendary footballers to identify what the issues were.

“Clearly one of those issues is exploitation of this talent. In my career as a lawyer, I have had young footballers come to me who have been exploited, whose family members have been taken to some European country somewhere with promises of playing for some club somewhere.

“The more I did my research into it, I started to put together a concept paper. I realised that something had to be done.”

She recalls helping one individual extricate himself from a contract which granted 90 per cent of his earnings to his agent, while other unscrupulous intermediaries take advantage of the extreme poverty in which some of the players and their families find themselves.

“An agent comes to a mother and says: ‘Your son has talent, I can take you places, sign this agreement’,” Quarcoo said.

“They don’t even read it to understand what’s going on in this agreement, because this person then becomes their way out. This person is probably feeding a family by giving a little pittance here and there.”

Africa 1 Sports hopes to provide a safe scouting environment for talented African players
Africa 1 Sports hopes to provide a safe scouting environment for talented African players (Handout from Africa 1 Sports/PA)

This weekend’s event features education workshops on Friday, before tournament action on Saturday and Sunday.

Quarcoo insists she is meticulously following FIFA guidelines and standards to offer reassurance to parents who may be understandably anxious about the academy.

She added: “If I was a mother and my child was coming to this tournament, what would I want to see? We have been very lucky because we have had people on the team from FIFA, ex (professional) footballers.

“We want to operate on an international level, we want to make sure that every policy, every law that we are supposed to adhere to, we adhere to, because at the centre of all of this is the welfare of a child. We’re different because we care.”

Quarcoo hailed the Right To Dream academy, also based in Ghana, as a great initiative, adding: “There are definitely people who are already fighting to make this (change) happen.

Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus is a graduate of Ghana's Right To Dream academy
Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus is a graduate of Ghana’s Right To Dream academy (Martin Rickett/PA)

“We want to cut away the rogue agents in the middle who are taking advantage of young boys and be able to present a platform where there are credible people coming from all over the world who will not exploit these boys.”

Quarcoo and her team are already working on further events to take place next year, and want to provide a similar platform to female players.

“I really do believe that it’s about also sanitising the system, that’s the way I look at it,” she said.

“One way to change the narrative of what’s happening is to get a few people who are doing the right thing.

“And if we do the right thing, other people will have no option but to join because you can’t tackle it any other way.”