Wesley Mukerinkindi and Gaetan Ekoondo wanted to help youth pitch their skills to professional sports teams. Here’s what they created.
Senegalese boys play football in Dakar, Senegal, 26 January 2005. (EPA Photo/Nic Bothma)
Wesley Mukerinkindi was just two years old when his family fled ethnic violence in Rwanda to escape to France in 1996.
Today, Mukerinkindi, who was educated in Belgium and won a soccer scholarship to Southern Oregon University before studying at the University of Utah, devotes his time and energy to transforming the lives of other refugees and underprivileged youngsters through the power of sport.
In collaboration with Gaetan Ekoondo, who escaped war in the Congo at the same time and studied at Harvard, Mukerinkindi has set up an online platform called Search Your Team, which helps talented young people join a professional soccer club in Europe or a North American college basketball team.
Creating opportunities for young athletes
The concept behind Search Your Team is both simple and ingenious, and was developed by the pair when they were working in deprived areas in the commune of Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris.
Young athletes upload videos of their performances to the website. The videos are edited and then sent to targeted clubs or universities listed in a copious database compiled by Mukerinkindi and Ekoondo.
Traditionally, outstanding young footballers have been identified as school children by physical education teachers or youth leaders, who then alert scouts at local soccer clubs.
Mukerinkindi, whose father died when he was nine years old, was raised by a single mum. “Myself, I wasn’t an excellent soccer player, but I was motivated enough to get a scholarship,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mukerinkindi met Ekoondo in Belgium. The pair recognized they shared the same vision to help others and developed the idea to change life for athletes.
“Mantes-la-Jolie was like a laboratory for me. While I was doing this I thought, okay, I’m doing it for the kids in France but why couldn’t we do it for kids in Africa? So we went back to Africa and the Congo and started a collaboration with the soccer federation.”
Helping youth worldwide pursue their sports dreams
Today, Mukerinkindi said, Search Your Team helps “kids from all over the place. We have Indian kids, we have kids from Ukraine, from South America, from Africa. We have connections with college coaches and with club coaches.”
Speaking about the platform’s impact, Mukerinkindi cites the example of Igor, a Ukrainian refugee who can be viewed on Search Your Team.
“Igor is a young man from Ukraine who found out about Search Your Team on social media. In fact, he contacted us after he was rejected from other platforms who judged that his level was too low. We welcomed him and offered him the opportunity he deserved because we believe in equal opportunities.”
Mukerinkindi and Ekoondo brought Igor to a trial with a professional club in France, but he didn’t make the cut. “That did not stop us from helping him,” Mukerinkindi said. “We offered him a second chance. We got him a French working visa for him to work as an au pair and signed him in an amateur soccer club so he could continue to practice soccer and get noticed.”
“We continued to look for a professional opportunity for him so he could achieve his dream, and after a few months, we found a club for him.” They ultimately helped Igor sign with a German semi-professionial team.
Search Your Team has also set up a partnership with the French Olympic Committee under which each person who gains a U.S. college scholarship will become a paid ambassador for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“It will allow them to earn income while studying and playing sport. That way they will cover their costs,” said Mukerinkindi. “Our goal is to put everybody at the same level. Just because you are raised by a single mum, it doesn’t mean you can’t have the opportunities.”
Questions to consider:
- How does Search Your Team create opportunities for underprivileged youth?
- How are promising young athletes traditionally identified by professional sports teams?
- Have you ever created something to address a problem in your community? Why or why not?
John Mehaffey has worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.