The Nordsjælland Files: Denmark, Right to Dream, and Africa’s Footballing Potential

The continent of Africa has long been a source of wealth, power, prestige, and above all, potential. When it comes to football, that reality remains the same.


Many forget the influence of political and social entities that the likes of Carthage, ancient Egypt, Mansa Musa’s Malian kingdom, and the Songhai Empire all possessed; all of which held a prominent place in the known world across their respective period of existence. 


Much like across the landscape of human history, Africa has been the home of a collection of footballers who once held the world at their fingertips. Names like Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Abedi Pele, Mohamed Salah, and Yaya Touré, all invoke a spirit of optimism that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Africa can stack itself against the rest of the world when it comes to talent.


But like so many other stories across the annals of football history, Africa’s is one that has yet to be told in full. 



For a variety of factors, including political corruption, a lack of national funding and investment, and the simple fact that the continent has long been viewed as a resource pit rather than the jewel it truly is, we have yet to see what African nations, and so many of those in its talent pool, truly have to offer.


There have been attempts in the past to change the narrative in the past, though. Dutch giants AFC Ajax maintained long-standing connections to South Africa, which helped bring the rise of national icon Steven Pienaar. 


French outfit FC Metz have also done well in helping Senegalese outfit Génération Foot slowly but surely become a credible source of talent development which culminated in the likes of Sadio Mané, Pape Matar Sarr, Ismaïla Sarr, and Papiss Cissé making their way to the highest levels in the European game. But perhaps no one has done it better, and continues to do so, than Danish side FC Nordsjælland.


Nestled in the town of Farum and just twenty kilometers from the heart København, Nordsjælland has become a hotbed of talent development since the club was rebranded (formerly known as Farum BK) after its purchase by Allan K. Pederson in 2003.



The club’s initial foray into the youth development sphere came by way of the establishment of Fodbold Samarbejde Nordsjælland; a network of affiliated clubs in Zealand with the aim of focusing not just on youth development, but also community building and cooperation. And it is that very framework which ultimately led to Ghana-based organizaton Right to Dream acquiring the club outright in 2015. It is a deal that not only has changed the footballing landscape in Denmark, but West Africa as well.


In the near-ten-years since FCN and RTD have come together, Farum has seen a multitude of talented young African players arrive with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and then leave ready to take on greater challenges in England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. 


I was privileged to sit down and have a chat with Antonin and Arnaud from Nordisk Football to discuss the influence that Nordsjælland and Right to Dream have established on the continent, and how that could translate to further gains not just for their partnership, but Africa as a whole.


When asked how they gauged the success of Nordsjælland under the RTD/Pederson umbrella, the pair rated it a success and then some, at least from a developmental standpoint.


It’s a success. Obviously, we see it from France, so from an outside perspective. But how could we analyse it differently? I mean, just look at the pitch in Farum. It’s just as if they had a new jewel from the Right to Dream Academy to show each season.


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Or take a look at the transfers. With Ernest Nuamah, Ibrahim Osman (who’s flying to Brighton this summer), Kamaldeen Sulemana, Mohammed Kudus, and Simon Adingra; five of their seven biggest sales are products from RTD.


That is big and very important money for a Danish club without big TV rights as we can see in the top five leagues. And FCN is spending it smartly, improving their infrastructure rather than throwing money around on the transfer market. But that is the question too: Do they have to spend more to improve the team? Because their last trophy is still the 2011/12 Superliga…”


And it is that success which has proven that the development formula in Farum can make a difference, with young players rapidly maturing in Zealand and capable of making the jump to bigger clubs in no time at all. But without RTD, it likely would not have been possible for them.


“I don’t know if they would have been spotted by other clubs while in Africa,” Arnaud stated, but surely, once they are in Nordsjaelland, they are at the place to be! FCN trust its young players. They are often one of the youngest starting eleven in Europe, if not the one.


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They allow a lot of playing time to their youth. And this has been the case for a long time, while some other clubs have been doing it more recently. So those looking for young players with a good experience already, know where to look. This benefits the players and the club.”


At the core of the successful partnership is one that will certainly be familiar to Arsenal fans across the globe during the Arsène Wenger reign, or devoted Ajax supporters based in the Netherlands and elsewhere; developing players not just on the pitch, but also away from it. The club helps them acquire life skills that can aid them in their careers while also giving them a landing pad if football does not pan out.


“The main ideology is to make the boys grow up as players AND as men. They want fulfilled guys, so they are improving them on and off the pitch. They give them responsibilities and the chance to succeed in their career, trying to give them confidence and helping them keep their head on their shoulders. Ex-Olympique Lyonnais and Chelsea player Michael Essien is very important in this perspective. As assistant coach, he’s like an advisor for the RTD players and the guy they can talk to if needed.”


“Moreover, the club is trying to find the best exit for them when they are leaving Farum. We saw it again with Ernest Nuamah. The sports director, Jan Laursen, then explained that it was not always about money, but also about being at the right place. So Essien and Nuamah apparently decided together to make him sign in OL despite other offers.”



With the success of FCN and RTD, as well as the aforementioned links that have – or still do – exist between Ajax and Metz with Africa, there is certainly scope to suggest that other clubs across Europe should be aiming to establish similar academy connections in nations such as Mali, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon, and Nigeria.


Not only could this open a pathway for young African players to get real exposure off the beaten path where they can develop at a natural rate, but it would also allow them to make a name for themselves with further opportunities along the way.


Right to Dream has featured in Sweden’s Gothia Cup on numerous occasions while going on to win the tournament seven times, most recently in 2023 under coach and former Champions League winner Djimi Traoré.


It was a culmination of just how far RTD has come, with Traoré stating “We know the people in Ghana are watching us, we know the people in Egypt are watching us, and from Denmark as well.”


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Given RTD’s remit of shaping the lives of young athletes and with their success rate being as high as it has, it comes as no shock that Mansour Group swooped in to gobble up the organization in a massive financial takeover before RTD then purchased Egyptian club TUT FC to bring into the fold.


Additionally, Mansour Group are at the helm of Major League Soccer’s San Diego FC expansion club that is set to debut during the 2025 season, with RTD set to establish another academy location in California as a result.


As of the time of writing, FCN and RTD have, through their combined efforts across their existence, produced 146 professional footballers, 67 of which have gone on to represent their nations at international level. The success story is what dreams are made of, and for Arnaud and Antonin, more of it is needed, especially in Africa.


“We don’t really know what RTD wants to do in the future. But it’s obvious that, given the success of this project with Nordsjælland, some clubs will want to do the same with other academies, or even with RTD directly, which will bring a certain amount of competition. After that, what could make the difference is that the Danish championship is perfect for bridging the gap between Africa and the professional world, especially as Nordsjælland has had a certain know-how in youth development for several years.”


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“Infrastructure in Africa is not very modern, which makes it difficult for young African players to develop. So having a partnership like this allows the most promising players to undergo real training as well as schooling. It may seem secondary, but at least these youngsters have a back-up if ever football doesn’t work out for them. What’s more, this kind of partnership allows us to see the emergence of real talent, who certainly don’t forget where they come from. So, in the future, they’ll be able to help out (especially financially) at the club where they started out, and that’s how African soccer will develop.”


“It’s clear that young Africans are under-assisted. But the problem is that clubs in Ligue 1, La Liga, Serie A, the Premier League, and the Bundesliga want players who can make a difference, who are ready to play, whereas most have to be trained first. While this is traditionally done at clubs like Nordsjælland and Metz, more and more big clubs are showing an interest.”


And it is in that light that I sat down to consider five African clubs or academies whose development track record could come into a similar if not identical partnership with European clubs moving forward, in a bid to continue Africa’s slow-but-increasingly-steady development both at home and abroad.


Mohammed VI Football Academy


Located in Salé, Morocco, the Mohammed VI Football Academy is strikingly similar to RTD in terms of its mission in not just developing young footballers on the pitch, but also off it. 


With a remit that initially included finding young talent in Morocco, focusing on underprivileged areas in Rabat, relying on a sport-study education curriculum, and preparing youth footballers to make the jump to the professional ranks, MVI FA has since established locations in Agadir, Tangier, and Saïda.



The results have already spoken for themselves as former graduates Nayef Aguerd, Youssef En-Nesyri, and Azzedine Ounahi all featured prominently for The Atlas Lions during the 2022 World Cup under head coach Walid Regragui in their march to the semi-finals; a first for an African nation.


Étoile Sportive du Sahel


The second-largest club in Tunisia behind rivals Espérance Sportive de Tunis, Sousse-based ES Sahel has the makings of a development hub already in place at the time of writing after establishing a youth training center which has already sought to export talent across the Mediterranean to European shores.


Étoile Sportive du Sahel is also the first African club to win all official club competitions which are recognized by CAF, and such pedigree at the domestic level allows them access to youth talents across the nation. But given the fact that Tunisia has yet to truly benefit in the same vein as the likes of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, or Morocco when it comes to its players featuring at the highest levels in Europe (only three of the current 23-man squad ply their trade at the highest level in Europe), a development/transit link akin to RTD-FCN would certainly benefit the nation as a whole.


Pyramids Football Club


Formed just six years ago in the summer of 2018, Pyramids has quickly built a reputation for itself on the Egyptian footballing landscape in short order, finishing second in the Egyptian Premier League in the last two seasons while also reaching the final of both the Egyptian FA Cup and the Egyptian Super Cup.


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What’s more, Pyramids are now recognized as one of the most valuable clubs in all of Africa as recently as 2022, ranking fourth behind Al Ahly Sporting Club, Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club, and Zamalek Sporting Club, while also benefitting from its own television channel. 


The financials exist for Pyramids to delve deep into the youth development sector with a propped-up academy set-up should it choose, and given the success of Egyptian footballing icons the likes of Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny, and Omar Marmoush (two of which first cut their teeth in Europe at FC Basel and away from the limelight), Pyramids could position itself in similar fashion as those mentioned above.


Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club


A domestic powerhouse and league champion in eight of the last ten seasons in South Africa, Mamelodi Sundowns are the gold standard of football at the tip of the African continent.


Lauded for a brand of football that has been likened to Tiki-Taka which has brought breathtaking success in recent years, the club has sought to develop talent in its youth ranks with the aim of being able to immediately transition to senior football at the technical and tactical level. 


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This key factor, as well its financial muscle by way of owner Patrice Motsepe, could see Sundowns lead a resurgence of football in the country. Given the national team’s inability to feature at the World Cup since it hosted the tournament back in 2010, as well as being unable to boast a single player in Europe’s top leagues in its most recent squad, it high-time that a link be re-established in the country akin to former Ajax-affiliate Ajax Cape Town (now Cape Town Spurs FC) and give a pathway to budding talent.


Association Sportive du Real Bamako


Current Malian Prèmier League holders and seven-time winners AS Real Bamoko are a force to be reckoned with on the domestic front, and have already proved themselves to be a hotbed of budding young talent in Mali.


The former club of Yves Bissouma, Diadie Samassékou, Cheick Doucouré, Mohamed Camara, and Boubacar Diarra, Bamako’s track record of exporting talent to the highest level in England, France, Germany, and increasingly with Austria, has helped the nation’s profile increase both at home and abroad. 


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Though the national team has yet to become a consistent player in CAF despite the talent that does exist in its ranks, there is no denying the level of player that has emerged from the West African nation in recent years, and a well-established route to Europe could potentially accelerate growth at home.


FIFA’s Chief of Global Development, the legendary Arsène Wenger, recently spoke about the “gold mine” of potential that currently – and has always – existed on the continent amid plans for football’s top governing body to develop the continent further.


“There have been remarkable improvements since the last [AFCON] tournament. On the pitch, off the pitch, the organisation, the quality of the pitches, the level of organisation on the pitch – the commitment was intense.” 


“Over the next six months to one year, our plan is to open more academies in Africa. We are now close to opening new ones in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Ghana and Zambia. By the end of 2026, we’ll have 75 academies all over the world. That means football education has moved forward and that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment.”


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“We want the game to be more competitive and of better quality and there is only one way to do it: it’s the quality of the football education and quality of the competitions.”


“It means just to make the ball your friend. Football is played with your feet and that’s not completely natural, it has to be educated. To do it well, you have to start at a very, very young age. Once you have that basis, you have to prepare the players to adapt to every style of play.”


“But they can only do it if they have the right level technically and that’s what we want to do. Our academies for boys and girls start at U-12. At 17, they go into competitive football but first, you have to prepare them.”


If these words ring true and FIFA’s plan come to fruition, I suspect that FCN, RTD, and many other organizations will be able to sit back and say a job well done for carrying the flag before so many others took the leap of faith while giving many others the right to dream.


By: Andrew Thompson / @GeecheeKid

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Baptiste Fernandez / IconSport – FC Nordsjælland