cover image The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars

The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars

Sebastian Abbot. Norton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-29220-6

African teens vying to become pros in elite soccer leagues find their dreams turning to dust in this alternately hopeful and dispiriting sports saga. Journalist Abbot follows the Football Dreams program, started in 2007 by coach Josep Colomer, a former youth scout for FC Barcelona, to engage 400,000 13-year-old boys from seven African nations in tryouts to find the two dozen best for an advanced soccer academy. To Colomer, this selection promised to uncover potential superstars; to the impoverished kids it promised a shot at million-euro contracts with top European clubs. The program did find superb players, and Abbot presents an interesting exploration of the science of soccer talent, delving into the athleticism, ball-handling skills, strategic game sense, and grit that create success; he suggests that these are honed in the pickup games that Africa’s soccer-mad youth delight in. Alas, few Dreamers made it to the pros thanks to exploitative coaches and agents, rigid FIFA rules, and their own duplicity: the best “13-year-olds” probably faked their IDs and were several years older, meaning they were not quite the prodigies they seemed and did not blossom as anticipated. Abbot’s narrative features vivid profiles, engrossing play-by-play, and a sobering lesson: bad breaks and cold business calculations sometimes trump ability in the making of champions. Photos. (Mar.)