Tom Vernon was 20 when he arrived in Ghana to coach soccer in 1999. The young Brit was immediately transfixed when he looked out a car window at kids kicking a soccer ball.
“If you’ve been to West Africa and stop at the traffic lights, you see the kids playing on the street and say, ‘These kids look so good. They look like world beaters. Why is no one organizing anything here?’” he told me recently in our Charlotte office. “I was looking at these kids and thinking, ‘Somebody has to do something structured around this.’”
And so Vernon did. He immediately founded an academy, Right To Dream, which started from humble beginnings but has now produced more than 30 professional players. But more than just a talent system, he’s been successful in emphasizing character development and academics, as well as changing the lives of poverty-stricken young men and women and making a difference in West Africa.
|“We are passionate about changing the situation across West Africa. Our graduates have to be the agents of change.”
— Tom Vernon
The 39-year-old Vernon is a serious study, not afraid to offer a hint of humor, but he largely comes across as focused on the task at hand. When you realize what he’s built in resource-starved Africa, combining top-notch education with premier soccer training that has five graduates playing in MLS, including the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Abu Danladi, and more than 25 players throughout Europe, you get a true appreciation for his vision and doggedness.
“At first, I would just beg, borrow and steal wherever I could to get it going,” he recalled. “A few of the big European clubs had come in and tried to create academies in Africa, which failed spectacularly. We had the blessing (of) having no money. It’s a lot easier to make mistakes when you don’t have any money. We wanted to create an academy which was tailored to the child. When…