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Diamonds in the Rough: Scouting the Streets of Nima – Derek Boateng’s tale

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Derek Boateng walks down the dusty paths of Nima, Bukom and other poor neighborhoods in Ghana. The hot sun beats down, but he barely notices – his gaze fixed on the small dirt fields ahead where groups of kids kick ragged balls back and forth.

To some, this looks like just any other pickup games in a struggling community. But to Derek’s trained eye, it is a field of dreams waiting to be harvested. He scans the players intently, looking for that spark of raw talent that could be nurtured into something greater.

Derek is not oblivion of the struggles these kids face. He grew up in a similar, raised by his single mother in desperate poverty. Football had to be his escape, his salvation from the harsh realities of life in the slums.
“Bukom, Nima, those places are really tough so it is always good to come here to see if we can find the next Kudus or Kamaldeen.

Kids that come here are from a really hard background and they are very tough. I see myself in them because here is where I normally came to play when I was young,” Derek said.

At age 12, he had become the man of the house, a father figure to his younger siblings while his mother scraped by with menial jobs. Those experiences instilled in him humility and drive that propelled him to the top levels of the game – starring for clubs like Fulham, Getafe, FC Koln, Panathinaikos and earning 47 caps for the Ghanaian national team.

“I grew up in Accra, Ghana with a single mother. I have to take care of my mother because she is not working. I became a father figure at the age of 12 for my family (brothers and my sister). It taught me how to be humble and respect people. If you always remember where you are coming from, it makes you appreciate life,” he revealed.

But through it all, he never forgot his roots. That’s why, at 40 years old and with his playing days behind him, Derek has taken a job scouting for the Right to Dream Academy. The renowned program not only developed elite footballers, but gives impoverished youths an education and a real path to escaping poverty.

As he watches the kids play, Derek’s eyes are drawn to a number of wiry boys and at times girls who dribble circles around their friends. The speed and control with the ball are undeniable – raw talent just waiting to be refined.
“When I started working with Right To Dream and had the opportunity to go to some of the kids houses and saw how they are living, I got sad because I have been there before. If you are a human being and you watch these kids daily you need to come to their aid. It gives me great joy to move into their lives knowing I can change a kid’s life,”

Sad smiles and tears always cross Derek’s lips and eyes as he imagines having to leave most of the kids behind at the end of the day. Memories flood back of his own agonizing recruitment years ago, the tears when he made the cut but friends did not.

He blinks the memories away in the hardest way. This was why he had to keep scouting, keep fighting. To find every last ounce of potential out here and nurture it into something special. These kids faced insurmountable odds, but football could inspire hope and change lives, just as it had changed his own.

“If I have a choice of choosing between winning career trophies and helping these kids, I will always choose helping the kids. My first time in this job, I cried. We went to Kumasi and had to select 14 kids out of about 50. Seeing the 36 kids go home was heartbreaking. Anytime is see the kids, I see them as my kids at home and I will do all I can to protect them,” Derek concluded.

Derek has been making notes on his clipboard. New gems are being discovered amidst the rough streets of Nima. Soon, these children would have their worlds open up to opportunities nobody in their families could have imagined. All because of the beautiful game.

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