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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 06:36 GMT 07:36 UK
Vieira helps drive African dreams

Brian Alexander
By Brian Alexander
BBC Radio Five Live presenter

Patrick Vieira epitomises the African dream - raised in poverty in Senegal but now a multi-millionaire, highly-acclaimed French international footballer, who has reached the heights of club football with Arsenal, Juventus and now Inter Milan.

Born in Senegal's capital Dakar 31 years ago, Vieira is the icon and role model for many impoverished African children.

But his iconic status is not only due to his skill as a footballer. Vieira never forgot where he came from and he wants to give as many Senegalese children as possible a chance of repeating his rags-to-riches story.

In 2003 Vieira laid the first foundation stone for the Diambars football academy.

Four years on, the academy houses 90 Senegalese youngsters from the ages of 13 to 18.

They are trained on decent sandy pitches, attend academic classes every morning and live in rooms with proper walls, sanitation and lighting.

Patrick Vieira photographed during his trip to Senegal
Vieira visits a training centre for young players in Senegal

The contrast to the rest of their family lives is startling.

During the two-hour drive from Dakar to Saly, where Vieira's academy is based, you are constantly reminded of the alternative.

Huge, sprawling shanty towns, built from corrugated iron, scrap wood and plastic sheets, line the main road.

Entire families spend their day selling fruit, old car tyres and engine parts - that is when they are not trying to hide from the intense heat.

Vieira left Senegal for Paris when he was eight and knows that his career benefited from a decent education and other opportunities.

While making "The African Boys", I met and spoke to the directors and coaches at the Diambars (or Champions) Academy and to several of the students, including a 16-year-old called Ali.

Four years ago he was found begging on the streets of Dakar after being abandoned by his parents at the age of 10.

Having arrived at the academy speaking a complex local dialect, he can now speak fluent French, has a smattering of English and can read and write.

In a country where 70% of children never see a classroom, Ali has grabbed the opportunity given to him by Vieira and his prospects of living a good life have improved immeasurably.

But others are not so lucky as Ali.

It is easy to see why so many young boys fall prey to unscrupulous so-called agents and middle men who offer youngsters a life in the promised land of Europe.

The boys are offered the chance to join European clubs and academies in return for about 2,000 - a fortune in Africa.

Parents and extended families are fleeced of the money before the boys are sent to Europe and effectively dumped.

Jean-Claude Mbouvin from the charity Culture Foot Solidaire, knows of 800 African boys who have been effectively lost in Europe.

Patrick Vieira
Vieira helped Inter Milan win Serie A this season

Boys who dreamed of following in the footsteps of Vieira, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien but were soon confronted by a very different reality.

The boys are often too ashamed to return home because of the money their parents have paid.

Tougher immigration laws have tightened the flow of trafficking, but it still goes on.

Mbouvin wants embassies in Europe's major capitals to demand better documentation to prevent the boys even leaving Africa.

At Diambars, boys are given the opportunity to plan their futures on their own terms - not at a middle-man's whim.

The academy has good contacts in Europe, and even if a player makes the grade and joins a professional club, Vieira and his staff will monitor their progress and continue to provide protection and guidance.

The United Nations are aware of the exploitation of African boys, but have no official figures of the number who have been abandoned in Europe.

One official said between 2,000 and 3,000. Another said possibly as many as 5,000.

What we do know is 90 youngsters at the Diambars Academy are the very lucky ones.

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