In the space of 2 months I went from knowing little about Étoile Lusitana to working for them.
Étoile Lusitana are a football club which are based in Dakar, Senegal. They were officially opened in 2008 by José Mourinho, who continues to have strong links with the team. The club is owned 80% by Portuguese, and 20% by Senegalese investors. The main goal of the club is to identify and train young Senegalese talents, making it possible for these players to be transferred to top European football teams in the future.
Unlike many other clubs in the footballing world at the moment, Étoile do not have wealthy foreign owners, and have a fully self-sufficient business model. The initial start-up money was used to invest in a small team of coaches and to provide basic training facilities, whilst also allowing the management to tour Senegal in order to discover the best young footballing talent Senegal has to offer. This money was also used to provide travel to some of the top European football tournaments – something which they are keen to increase participation in. They then generate funds in order to sustain this activity by selling their youth players to top European teams, who identify them at said tournaments.
This is obviously mutually beneficial: the players get a shot at 'the big time', for many of whom this may be their best opportunity to get out of the poverty which some suffer from in Senegal; for the club, they generate funds from these sales to allow them to develop and grow.
I came into contact with Étoile through a friend of mine, whose father helps run a youth football tournament in Northern Ireland: the Milk Cup. I had been over once before to help look after an English club, but this time it was different. I was going to be helping Étoile get around and help organise meals and transportation to matches and training. I was initially paired with Étoile due to the fact that I am fluent in French, language having been a slight barrier when they attended in the past. Étoile enter the 'Premier' section of the tournament, for those players aged under 16. This was in fact their third appearance at the tournament, taking everyone by surprise in 2010 when they beat Bolton Wanderers in the final, in a tournament which included Manchester United.
In the following two tournaments, they repeated similar feats and achievements, finishing in the top 5 (of the 20 entrants) on each occasion, beating established clubs such as Athletico Del Pinto, CSKA Moscow and Porto.
Witnessing other teams and players of 'bigger' European clubs, I was struck by how humble the players from Étoile were. They knew that this was their big chance to be noticed by a scout and invited to a trial. The football they were playing was also incredibly sophisticated; following the Barcelona blueprint, Étoile would always play from the back and their game is very focused around pass and move, which was a joy to watch, and difficult to miss given their unmistakable bright pink home shirt.
They've had several successes too. Since their conception, three of their players have moved to Benfica in Portugal, two to the French league and Ibrahima Mbay was signed by Inter Milan in 2010 and now is a first team player. One of their former goalkeepers was also selected in the Senegalese 2012 Olympic squad. Of the current crop of players, following the Milk Cup and an earlier tournament in Italy, several players went on trials and could be signing for top clubs in the very near future.
This project and the warmth of the players and managers alike, led me to getting in touch with them again after the tournament, as I was very eager to get involved in their project and help in any way I could. They were delighted and I have since been working with them to develop their project, raising awareness and searching for new and exciting tournaments and opportunities which will help give their players and the club more time in the limelight to highlight what incredible work they are doing.
They have all the usual methods of communication at their disposal: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, which would be well worth a follow in order to find out more and keep up-to-date with all the new exciting developments for both club and players.
It was a refreshing change to see how football can really make a difference and be used in this way, a mile away from the current trend for prima donna footballers on six-figure salaries, with which I, and many others, are becoming increasingly disenchanted.