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Inside FC Nordsjaelland and the Right To Dream Project

Inside FC Nordsjaelland and the Right To Dream Project

The Danish men's national team made headlines during EURO 2020. Following Christian Eriksen's shocking on-field cardiac arrest against Finland, the team's togetherness and all-round quality gained them admirers across the continent, as they marched all the way to the semi-finals and were only denied a place in the final by a dramatic Harry Kane winner in extra-time. A number of players featured in that squad have established themselves as standout players across Europe's top leagues, including Kasper Schmeichel, Andreas Christensen, and Pierre-Emile Hojberg, while young stars like Rasmus Hojlund and Mikkel Damsgaard are rising up as the next generation.

Meanwhile, Denmark's women's team are widely regarded as one of Europe's best; they smashed their qualifying group for the upcoming 2023 FIFA World Cup, gaining a maximum 24 points from eight games, and have a talented roster that includes Bayern Munich star Pernille Harder and Arsenal's 19-year-old midfielder Kathrine Kühl. On the coaching side of things, Brentford FC have helped pioneer the development of specialist set piece coaching in football thanks to the commitment of well-respected Danish head coach Thomas Frank, and in the Championship, Blackburn Rovers are seeking to regain promotion to the top flight after a long absence, under the stewardship of fellow Dane John Dahl Tomasson

All this is to say that Danish football is in a strong place right now, thanks to the hard work and innovation of a long list of individuals. In the country's top flight, the Danish Superliga, there's one side that embodies this commitment to doing things a little bit differently. This article will be dedicated to exploring the unique identity of that club: FC Nordsjælland.

A Brief History of FC Nordsjælland

Founded officially as Farum BK in 1991 following the merger of two clubs, Farum Idræts Klub (formed in 1910) and Stavnsholt Boldklub af 1974, the club now known as FC Nordsjælland caused some controversy in its early years. Merging two separate clubs is a move that's always likely to draw criticism; however, the club's early seasons were successful. After gaining promotion from the second group of the Denmark Series (the country's fourth tier), Farum BK established themselves in the first group before reaching the 2nd Division in the 1997-98 season and turning fully professional.

A successive promotion campaign took the club to the 1st Division, where they remained until the arrival of innovative coach Christian Andersen, which helped transform a solid second division side into serious promotion contenders. Farum BK went up to the Danish Superliga, the country's top flight, in 2002, and their first season at this level culminated in an impressive third-placed finish that guaranteed UEFA Cup qualification for the following season. However, it wasn't all roses at Farum BK — behind the scenes, trouble was brewing.

While the newly-promoted Superliga side were showing their credentials on the pitch, Farum's chairman Peter Brixtofte was wrapped up in a sponsorship scandal that led the club close to bankruptcy. In stepped KP Holding, the holdings company of local businessman Allan K. Pedersen, who rebranded the club as FC Nordsjælland in an effort to move away from the negative associations of the club's former owner. The name, 'Nordsjælland' is the Danish translation of North Zealand, a reference to the club's representation of both the geographical region and the town in which it was based.

Several difficult seasons followed; Nordsjælland were wrapped up in relegation battles for most of the mid-late 2000s, before a Danish cup win in the 2009-10 season sparked a change in their fortunes. In 2011-12, thanks to the performances of star players such as Mikkel Beckman, Andreas Bjelland, and Tobias Mikkelsen, FCN won their first ever Superliga title. Since then, they've consistently finished in the top half of the table, establishing themselves as one of Denmark's top clubs.

In 2018, FC Nordsjælland Women was founded, and it wasn't long before this branch of the club was competing at the highest level too. After back-to-back promotions in their first two seasons, the women's team finished third in their debut top flight season, before winning the Danish Cup in 2020. Just like the men's team, the women's side play at the Right To Dream Park, a 10,300-capacity stadium renamed in 2016 to honour a project that has been central to the success of FCN in recent years.

What is Right To Dream?

FC Nordsjælland haven't just received attention for their meteoric rise on the pitch. They've also gained recognition for their close relationship with a unique sporting organisation. In 2016, Right To Dream, a multi-club, multi-academy group that started as a football academy in Ghana, acquired Nordsjælland, becoming the first African organisation in history to buy a European football club. Allan K Pederson's 97% of shares were bought by the organisation's 'Pathways Group', with Tom Vernon taking over as the new Chairman. But what exactly is Right To Dream, and why did they get involved with FCN?

According to the organisation's website, Right To Dream is "a football community dedicated to expanding people's understanding of excellence through football." Their goal as an institution centres around "nurturing young talents and creating opportunities for them to pursue their dreams on and off the pitch through a unique blend of football, education, and character development."

A key principle of the organisation relates to breaking down historical barriers and challenging the colonial attitude towards the African continent, which was shaped by "narrow minds and short-sightedness, seeing what they could gain economically but missing much of the cultural richness, resilience and success that already existed". This vision plays an important role in the everyday work done by RTD, which at its core revolves around identifying and developing young sporting talent in Ghana and beyond. In order to shed light on the foundations of the project, let's take a look at some of the key moments that have defined the Right To Dream story so far.

The Origins of Right To Dream

Right To Dream was founded in 1999 by Tom Vernon, an ex-Manchester United scout in Africa who set up the academy to provide coaching opportunities to local boys in Accra, Ghana. Built independently of any professional team, the unconventional academy programme had humble roots, kicking off in the home Tom shared with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Helen. 

Helped by an assortment of volunteers and staff, in the following years the project gradually expanded; training scouts to identify young talents with exceptional footballing abilities, educational potential, and the right kind of character, Right To Dream have grown their scouting network to cover over 180 communities, watching over 100,000 kids each year in an effort to reach talent that is being missed elsewhere. 

In 2004 a partnership with US boarding high schools was launched, offering athletic scholarships to graduates of the programme. The support of Chairman John Powers facilitated the establishment of Right To Dream USA, which supported these graduates in following an education pathway in the USA, in both high schools and colleges. Meanwhile, the growth of the programme meant that a new facility was needed.

In 2010, the Right To Dream Academy relocated to Old Akrade, a village in Ghana's Eastern region of Asuogyaman. Situated on the banks of the Volta river, the new Academy allowed RTD to increase their capacity, expanding from 40 to just over 100 students. The residential-based academy allowed children aged 10 and above to gain access to professional training and coaching; however, it wasn't just about football. Crucially, the programme also provides advanced educational opportunities to each of its students, as part of a holistic model that combines elite-level football training, a structured academic curriculum, and a character development programme. At the core of RTD is a commitment to partnering football and education.

In 2013, RTD launched Africa's first fully residential football academy for girls, initially taking in nine female students on scholarships. Two years later, the first Right To Dream School opened in Takoradi — this programme sees RTD partner with a leading private school in each identified location. 2015 was also the year that Right To Dream made history by buying FC Nordsjælland, becoming the first-ever African organisation to buy a European football club. Today, the impact of that takeover can be seen at the very top of the game.

Graduates Of The Programme 

A number of high-profile players have made their way to the upper echelons of world football via the Right To Dream academy. Perhaps the most famous is Ghanaian international Mohammed Kudus, who lit up the 2022 Qatar World Cup group stages with a series of extremely impressive performances, before his nation were beaten to knockout qualification by Portugal and South Korea. Kudus started his career at the Right To Dream Academy, which he joined aged 10. At the age of 18 he was signed by Nordsjælland along with two teammates, Ibrahim Sadiq (who now plays for Häcken in the Swedish Allsvenska) and Gideon Mensah (who plays as a left-back for French Ligue 1 club Auxerre).

Mohammed Kudus (right) vs Liverpool

After making his debut for the Danish club just three days after his 18th birthday, Kudus quickly became one of the league's most promising young players. He was signed by Dutch giants Ajax in the summer of 2020 for €9 million, on a five-year contract, being labelled a player with "incredible potential" by then-manager Erik ten Hag.

Another player who has benefited from FCN's talent spotting abilities is Mikkel Damsgaard, who joined the Superliga side from his hometown club Jyllinge FC, making 84 appearances before joining Serie A side Sampdoria, where he played for two seasons. In 2022, Damsgaard made the move to the Premier League, with Brentford spending €15 million on the talented youngster.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old fellow Dane Kathrine Kühl, one of Denmark's best young women's players, also testifies to the effectiveness of the Right To Dream project. After gaining widespread praise for her role in Nordsjælland's Danish Cup win in 2020, Kühl moved to Arsenal in January 2023 — the RTD graduate is fast becoming one of the most exciting young talents in the WSL.

Right To Dream: Future Expansion

The story of Right To Dream so far is one of continuing expansion and growth, and it doesn't look like that's something that will be stopping any time soon. In 2021, the Egyptian multinational conglomerate Mansour Group invested $120 million in a takeover and announced it was forming a brand new entity, ManSports. This move was followed by Right To Dream's acquisition of Egyptian pro football club TUT FC last year.

The organisation now owns academies in both Ghana and Egypt, on top its club portfolio, which was added to in May 2023 with the founding of the new MLS club FC San Diego. Set to begin competing in Major League Soccer in 2025 having fought off competition from Las Vegas to be handed a new franchise, San Diego is a reflection of not just the increased role of soccer in American society, but also of the lofty ambitions of the Right To Dream project. The academy's involvement in club ownership may have started with FC Nordsjælland, but things seem to be progressing well beyond just Denmark.

Right To Dream aren't the only football organisation seeking to reshape how the global game is managed behind the scenes. The rise of RB Leipzig has caused controversy amongst German football fans, but its representation of the ever-growing role of corporations and businesses in modern football cannot be ignored. To find out more about how one of the world's biggest drinks manufacturers has become heavily involved in the world of football, check out our article on the Red Bull Philosophy and the origins of the multi-club ownership model.