Patience Kum strides across the training pitch of the Right to Dream academy, a football centre of excellence nestled in the Ghanaian countryside, and welcomes visitors with an assured handshake.
The 14-year-old managed to convince her mother she should go to the school some 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the capital Accra, because it teaches more than football.
“My mother didn’t want me to come to the academy because girls aren’t thought to play football but the teachers explained to her that RtD is a good opportunity to get a good education,” she told AFP.
At Right to Dream (RtD), all 93 students, aged nine to 15, train in the sport and study hard.
Patience is from a family of poor fishermen and came to the residential school’s attention because of her football skills.
But she said it’s not just her shots on goal that have changed in the last three years.
“Beforehand I couldn’t even talk in public,” she said.
“Of course, I would like to play for (Ghana’s national side) the Black Stars one day but there is not enough money in football for girls to sustain my family... My dream is to become an accountant.”
Dreams of Europe
The boys finish their training session as the sun sets behind the hills overlooking the River Volta. For them, football is a path to wealth and they have their sights set on a contract with a European club.
Ghana has a rich footballing heritage studded with stars such as Marcel Desailly, the Accra-born former Chelsea, AC Milan and France defender; former Juventus and Fenerbahce midfielder Stephen Appiah; and the Boateng brothers, Kevin-Prince and Jerome.
Geoffrey Acheampong, a former student at RtD, has just signed for French side Bastia. Now his photo has been added to a prominent world map that uses such snapshots to show where former students are currently playing around the globe.
The academy, founded in 2000 by Tom Vernon, the chairman of Danish club FC Nordsjaelland, has a reputation across Africa and beyond.
Sponsors include sportswear firm Nike and Tullow Oil. Private donors also contribute to running costs, as do former pupils, while the school takes a cut of their transfer fees.
In 16 years the academy has nurtured more than 30 professionals now playing in France, England and Scandinavia.
Grants have enabled about 40 youngsters to study and train in the United States.
But before fame comes schoolwork -- an essential fall-back measure in case of injury or if players don’t make the grade on the pitch.
Unscrupulous “agents” often prey on young African players, making empty promises of playing in Europe in exchange for thousands of euros in up-front fees.
“Ghanaian players end up stranded in Europe or Asia or elsewhere,” said Ibrahim Sannie Daara, spokesman for the Ghana Football Association, which has more than 40,000 licensed players on its books.
“We hear from the foreign federations that they end up begging for money to survive.”
“Many young Africans have tragic stories; they are abused, because the continent doesn’t have the right structures and opportunities for them to fulfil their potential,” added RtD director James Meller.
“They need a transition to Europe on this critical stage of development”
Mickael Lion is 14 and has just come back with his classmates from a world tour that included Brazil and Denmark. It was the first time he had been out of Ghana.
“It gives us a small idea of how it could be if we go” the teenager said with remarkable confidence.
For him, “football is not only a passion. It’s work”.
Among the quotations on the walls of the school, his favourite is: “Do not expect to accomplish your dreams if you are not willing to help others accomplish theirs.”
During their school holidays, the students are encouraged to identify the needs of their home communities and then raise funds and start projects to meet them.
Thomas Yegbor, who lives in a village near the sports complex, bought benches for his former primary school and raised money for a market trader to open a restaurant.
One day, the 15-year-old hopes he will wear the colours of his country.
Before that, Thomas, whose parents farm a small plot of land, will go to a US high school near Atlanta, on a study grant.
“School is very important,” he said. “If I fail in football or if get injured, I will always find a way to make it.”
Like everyone else at the school, Thomas has to learn how to dream. But also to keep his feet on the ground.