The ball was often makeshift, a few paper bags knotted together or a pile of folded clothes tightly wound by rubber bands. The children kicked it around with their bare feet, the bottoms caked with dust and sand. The street was their pitch, and the kids scurried in and out of oncoming traffic.
It wasn’t perfect. But it was soccer.
For junior forwards Umar Farouk Osman and Mohammed Zakyi, this was how their careers started. Long before being teammates at Michigan, they roamed the red clay streets of Tamale, Ghana, as neighbors from lower-middle class families who played every day until the sun went down.
“Everyone knew who I was, everyone knew who Umar was, because anywhere there was a soccer match going on, we were there,” Zakyi said. “That’s how Umar and I knew each other, we were always playing soccer.”
Osman and Zakyi’s paths from Ghana to Ann Arbor started together and largely remained together. Each departed Ghana — Osman at 15, Zakyi at 17 — to attend preparatory high schools in Connecticut on scholarship. Before that, each attended the prestigious Right to Dream Academy in the country’s Eastern Region.
Founded in 1999 by Tom Vernon, Right to Dream doubles as both a school and soccer factory, designed to outfit younger players with opportunities to advance their skills on and off the pitch — opportunities they might not otherwise have.
“I got to the Academy and it meant everything,” Zakyi said. “I was provided with soccer cleats. I was given food, given shelter, given education. Everything was provided for, and that’s when I started taking soccer more seriously.”
Spots in the Academy are both limited and highly coveted. Once a year, Right to Dream sends scouts to each of Ghana’s 10 regions to hold tryouts. Osman remembers close to 500 kids swarming his, with each hopeful having only 20 minutes of playing time to prove himself.
From the initial field, scouts chose 11 players from each region to move on to the second tryout. This pool is then narrowed down to one final group of 11 who compete against current Academy-goers, a test to see if they can hang with the tougher competition.
Osman and Zakyi each joined Right to Dream in 2009, each only 10 years old.
“It was very stressful,” Osman remembered. “First the tryouts, then leaving your family that young to go to a completely different place. There were points when I got homesick, but I kept thinking that my institution at home wasn’t that great, and Right to Dream was giving me this great opportunity. So I had to overcome my fear and I think at that moment I became a man, working for myself and my family.”
At Right to Dream, the opportunities were boundless. Osman and Zakyi traveled the world, competing against other top academies. Zakyi spent time from the U12 level to the U18 training with Manchester United. Each had access to training, expertise and invaluable experience in a professional soccer environment. Soon, scouts took notice and America beckoned.
But to get to America — to earn a scholarship to a preparatory school — prowess on the pitch wasn’t enough. Soccer skills had to be accompanied by good grades.
“Growing up, I didn’t want to go to school,” Osman confessed. “My mom, she always wanted me to go to school, but we didn’t always have the financial support. Right to Dream came along and I learned the value in getting an education because soccer isn’t going to be there forever.”
Soccer can be a passion, but it can’t be life. It’s a lesson Zakyi learned the hard way.
A torn meniscus suffered early on in his career at the Academy forced him to the sidelines for two years, stripping him of his foundation.
“That’s when I decided to take school very seriously,” Zakyi said. “Because I knew if I don’t do anything about school and this happens to me in the professional world, my life is done. It was all soccer, soccer, soccer until the injury. But after, I started studying really hard, taking a lot of exams so I could not only come to America but also succeed in the classroom.”
Getting an education is a luxury that Zakyi’s dad, a high school dropout, never could afford. Same for a handful of Zakyi’s childhood friends who quit school and reverted to hustling and violence after their respective soccer careers flopped. None were fortunate enough to use soccer, a passion, as a springboard to greater heights in life.
Zakyi knows this easily could’ve been him.
“I was one of the luckiest that went through and got selected,” he said. “I know there are a lot of talents back home that have so much potential. I know a lot of the guys that went through the tryouts, they all went back home and they go home to nothing.
“That’s why it’ll always be my motivation, that I’m going to give back no matter what.”
Before staying at Michigan for summer classes last year, Zakyi would spend his summers in Ghana. During his first week at home he’d volunteer at the Academy: talking with younger kids, offering up advice, telling tales about America, helping out in the classroom. He wanted every kid to know that he’s still a part of them, “part of their family.”
“Whether it’s with my success, my knowledge or my experience, I know I can always have an impact on someone’s life,” Zakyi said. “I want to be able to put someone in a better position just like I was given a better life, too. It’s something that I owe to my community, that I owe to people who aspire to be great people. I want to be a part of their journey. I want to help them achieve their dreams.”
Osman has been back once, the summer between his senior year of high school and freshman year of college. He called it “very different,” returning to the Academy and seeing all the younger kids in the shoes he once wore.
“I had just won the Gatorade National Player of the Year, which was talked about at the Academy,” Osman said. “So when I went back, a lot of the kids knew of me.
“I always value the idea of giving back. Right to Dream gave me something special, so in the future I hope that I’m going to go back to my village and help give back and inspire young kids to follow their dreams.”
As for their own dreams, Osman and Zakyi are living them, preparing to leave Michigan next spring with four years of collegiate soccer under their belt and, more importantly, college degrees.
Their roots — from the clay streets of Tamale to the Academy — are with them every step of the way.
“Looking back home and the situation my family and everyone is in, it just gives me motivation to keep pushing to get to my goal,” Osman said.
“Then one day, all this hard work, all these sacrifices that I’ve made will pay.”