Young footballers chase the dream

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"Ronaldo" was not good enough to secure a highly-coveted spot at an internationally-linked Vietnamese football academy. Neither was Ronaldo nor Ronaldo.

Several children wearing the Portuguese star's jersey were among thousands who tried out recently for a chance to join former French star Jean-Marc Guillou's global training network.

"I dream of becoming a famous footballer like Cristiano Ronaldo," said Pham Ngoc Anh, 10, hoping to impress Guillaume Graechen of the HAGLArsenal-JMG Academy when he stopped in Hai Duong Province east of Hanoi last month.

But the amiable Graechen, 32, is not easily impressed and most of the young dreamers had only about three minutes to catch his eye before three toots from his blue whistle ended their hopes for stardom and wealth.

Graechen spent one night in Hai Duong as part of a nationwide five-week tour to find players with the "small genius" that sets them apart.

"I choose only quality and not quantity," said the coach, a former professional player in France.

Football-mad Vietnam remains a largely rural society but is rapidly industrializing, a trend reflected in Hai Duong where factories and farms coexist.

The country's annual per capita income is about US$1,000 but the best Vietnamese player in the country's professional V-League earns twice that in a month, according to state media.

"My friends say that if I play football well, I will earn a lot of money," said Do Thanh Hung, 12, who came from the nearby port city of Hai Phong.

"My family is very poor and I am the fifth child," he said.

The venture between V-League club Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and Guillou's Academie JMG is designed to prepare boys to play professionally in Vietnam and perhaps elsewhere in Asia or even England or Europe - alongside stars like Ronaldo.

Ronaldo became the world's most expensive footballer when he joined Spanish club Real Madrid in June for a reported salary of 13 million euros ($18.5 million) a year.

HAGL has a partnership with English Premier League side Arsenal, where some academy graduates could potentially end up on trials, Graechen said.

Arsenal also sends a manager to monitor students' development once a year.

In Hai Duong, the road to stardom began on a field with patches of dirt and grass, rusting goal posts but no nets.

In the dirt, Graechen and his assistant marked with plastic cones a small pitch where randomly-assigned teams of three played each other.

Hour after hour the children came, their names and home towns called over a loudspeaker.

They jostled barefoot on the scorching earth while shouts of encouragement came from parents and other children in a tightly-packed circle around them.

Graechen watched, fingers resting thoughtfully on his chin. The hardest part, he said, is the limited time available to make the initial selections.

For the would-be stars, it is also difficult.

"Maybe I didn't succeed in my test, which was too short," said Le Van Ban, 11, from the neighboring province of Thai Binh.

"I couldn't score because the others didn't pass me the ball," Ban said with disappointment in his eyes.

But goal-scoring is not necessarily what Graechen looks for.

He watches for technique and intelligence, something that must strike him fast, in the short time each group is on the pitch.

"You have some players, they were born with this. God gives it," says Graechen. "Sometimes when you have a good player, you see immediately."

A similar recruitment drive two years ago found 16 boys to form the academy's first class. Aged between 11 and 14, they spend half their time on football training and the other half at a nearby school.

Before it opened, Doan Nguyen Duc, chairman of HAGL, said the $4- million academy would be the first of its kind in Vietnam.

A sister facility in Thailand is also part of Academie JMG founded 15 years ago in Ivory Coast by Guillou, who wore 22 caps for France and played in the 1978 World Cup.

The seven-year program in Vietnam is free, paid by HAGL for those who qualify.

"They dream to become a professional player, maybe to help their families," Graechen said.

Of 9,291 children Graechen saw during his national tour, he pulled aside only 21 for final testing in Pleiku, the Central Highlands town where the academy is based.

JMG general manager Vincent Dufour helped narrow the selection even further and, in the end, only 10 boys were chosen to join the academy.

"Selection of a young candidate for the academy is too difficult, even more difficult than for a pilot," said Le Van Loi, 42, father of the disappointed boy Ban.

Rejection does not deter everyone. Graechen recognized some of the would-be Ronaldos from his previous recruitment drive two years ago.

They were back, still chasing the dream.

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