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Last Updated: Monday, 26 April, 2004, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Ivorian academy breeding success
Arsenal's Ivorian defender Kolo Toure
Toure, a former Asec player, is now facing Europe's best with Arsenal

Among mango trees and clipped hedges, on wide fields by a lagoon in the Ivory Coast, a group of young Africans practise their football skills and dream of playing in Europe.

And these teenagers in West Africa have a better chance than most of realising their dreams.

They are pupils at an Abidjan football academy whose graduates include Arsenal's Kolo Toure, Anderlecht's Aruna Dindane and 10 members of the line-up at Belgian Cup finalists Beveren.

"It was a dream for me to come to the academy," said 14-year-old Cesar Troh, a central defender sitting on the sidelines of a training session.

"I want to be like Kolo, the only Ivorian at Arsenal."

The story of the academy is one of brilliant success, followed by a rebirth and now a struggle against the effects of war in the former French colony.

The academy is part of the city's top club Asec Abidjan and was a frontrunner among a clutch of football schools which have sprung up around Africa over the past decade.

The school, which is located at Asec's training complex, was founded by Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international, in 1993.

Taking children from the street and giving them a general education and top-class football training, the academy soon supplied a stream of players for the Asec first team.

I want to be like Kolo (Toure), the only Ivorian at Arsenal
Cesar, an academy trainee

The high point came in 1999 when an Asec side filled with academy graduates with an average age of 17 -- including a young Kolo Toure -- won the African Super Cup by beating overwhelming favourites Esperance of Tunis 3-1.

"We knew about the academy because of players like Kolo," said Ibrahim Kone, a 16-year-old midfielder whose ambition is to play for Manchester United.

Guillou left Asec and took many proteges with him to Beveren where he is now sporting manager, yet the academy has been relaunched under the leadership of former Caen coach Pascal Theault.

And the school's stated aim is to produce well-educated young men who can also be leading footballers.

"Our philosophy is: the more the man grows, the better the chance he will be a great footballer," said Benoit You, another Frenchman who is part of the academy's new management.

Although the school began again with new recruits, its bosses are confident it will be able to match the original academy when it comes to producing future internationals.

And it's so good so far since almost half of Ivory Coast's recently-named under-16 squad are among its pupils.

Aruna Dindane with his wife
Arunda Dindane, another former Asec player, is now a leading player with Belgium's Anderlecht

Yet selection for the academy is rigorous with coaches having watched 30,000 players in trials across the country before picking just 18 - aged between 12 and 15 - to be the first intake of the relaunched school last year.

The trainees live at the school during the week and sleep in bunk beds, with four to a room.

They get two sessions of football training most days, play a match on Saturday and receive regular checks from a doctor, who also sets their diet.

The management insists general education is similarly important and if a player hasn't done his homework, he misses training.

"School is the priority," declared You, the head of administration and education.

If Europeans have more money and come and buy our players, it's good for Africa
Xavier Minougou, a coach at the Asec academy

Relaunching the academy was always going to be a tough task, but it got tougher when a civil war broke out in the Ivory Coast in 2002.

Although the conflict has been declared over, large parts of a peace plan remain unimplemented, armed rebels still control the northern half of the country and an economy which was once a regional powerhouse has been badly battered.

With fans staying away from the stadium and sponsors short of money, Asec has had to make cuts.

Teachers at the academy do not get paid, and a handful of faithful sponsors keep the pupils supplied with T-shirts, schoolbooks and bottled water.

Yet the players themselves may be a valuable source of income one day.

Football academies in developing countries will always be open to the charge that they are exploiting young African players to sell them on for big profits.

Yet defenders of the academies say they give children a free, all-round education they would not normally receive as well as the chance to become football professionals.

"If Europeans have more money and come and buy our players, I think it's good for Africa," argued Xavier Minougou, an Ivorian coach at the Asec academy.

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