Keanin Ayer’s early life tilted listlessly between a haven for vulnerable children and his violent, alcohol- and drugs-ridden home. But he had a sanctuary: the football field.
Now, the 20-year-old is about to embark on a career in Sweden’s top flight football. It’s a remarkable achievement in a rocky, turmoil-filled journey that has taken him from a Johannesburg township, via an academy in west Africa, to Scandinavia.
His is a story of hope, resilience, care and kindness, and of what it has taken to give a vulnerable kid an opportunity. When he finally gets the chance to step onto the field in Sweden – with the 2020 Allsvenskan season postponed from 4 April to 14 June because of Covid-19 – he will be carrying his hopes and aspirations, and those of the people closest to him.
Ayer was voted the best player at his small and unknown Swedish club, Varberg BoIS, when they won promotion to the top flight last year for the first time in their 95-year history. Varberg is a small town on the west coast of Sweden with a population of just over 20 000.
Winning promotion is something of a fairytale and the prospect of facing some of Sweden’s legendary clubs, like Malmö, IFK Göteborg, IFK Norrköping and current champions Djurgårdens IF, means the new season was eagerly anticipated before the coronavirus pandemic postponed the kick off.
Ayer is unknown back home in South Africa, primarily because he has hardly spent any time in the country since he was 12 years old. He has also not played for any of the junior national teams. He is a midfielder, “a six, eight or 10,” he says of his role on the field.
“But I prefer to play No. 8.” Last season he was a wingback on both sides of the field, “mostly right.”
He comes from Eldorado Park, the township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that is anything but the gilded city of mythical Spanish times from which it takes its name. There he grew up in a dysfunctional household with an alcoholic and abusive father who stays under the same roof with his mother and her boyfriend, along with his brothers who are all hooked on drugs. He saw his uncle get shot.
His love of football and obvious ability, along with the help of those who saw his potential from early on, offered him a different trajectory than some of his peers. He was offered a lifeline at the age of nine when he and a group of other boys from Eldos were chosen to play five-a-side indoor football in Randburg at the weekends. Jeremy Seethal spotted him there.
“I used to go there and have fun on a Saturday. They made a team out of the best players there and he was one of the coaches,” explains Ayer.
Seethal, 35, is originally from Pietermaritzburg and from a sporting family. He always loved football. He spent time in England after school before returning home to a marketing job and then sudden retrenchment.
Blessing in disguise
If there was one positive to losing his job, it was that it offered him time to indulge his love for coaching and he was soon working with the kids at Randburg, immersing himself quickly into work both on and off the field. Ayer was a talent he came across via a project that Crawford Schools initiated, blending kids from the rich suburbs with contemporaries their own age from Alexandra, Eldorado Park and Katlehong.
“Keanin was nine at the time, going on 10, and tiny, but he was pretty good for his age. Particularly in terms of being a ‘thinking player’,” recalls Seethal.
Samantha Toweel-Moore, who set up a haven for young kids called Growing Champions, which became an alternate home for Ayer, says: “He was a very traumatised young man, who found it hard to put anything into words. He used to spend most of his time in tears and the only time you really noticed a difference in him, and where there was a strength that was unconquerable, and a spirit that wouldn’t stop, was on the football field.
“At home there was a lot of violence, criminality … everything upset him. But he was a real leader on the field, a powerful force. He never wanted to leave the pitch.”
Toweel-Moore is the daughter of former world boxing champion Willie Toweel and her organisation works with children born into danger.
“To break the shackles of poverty, criminal rings, violence, addiction and abuse, we use education, personal development and sport to cultivate youth determined and armed with tools to create positive change in the world,” reads their mission statement.
She provided a refuge and Seethal set about looking to find a way out, writing away to clubs in England to recommend the boy’s potential. Manchester City were one of those who replied and suggested Seethal try and place Ayer at Right to Dream, the Ghana-based academy that they had ties with.
The Right to Dream story is a remarkable one of success on its own, founded just over two decades ago by an idealistic 19-year-old coach from England called Tom Vernon. It is an academy up there with the best, and likely the most successful of its kind on the African continent, with an imposing campus in the eastern region of Ghana that offers schooling, boarding facilities for both boys and girls, and eight training fields.
“We have three pillars, which are character, academics and football,” explains Vernon, now 41 and regarded among the gurus of youth academy work worldwide.
“I actually prioritise character development over football or academic development, because the typical paths that our students are going to go down are going to be defined more by character than, let’s say, elite academics or football.”
Over the last decades their success has been quantified by more than 20 graduates going on to play for Ghana’s national team, the Black Stars, but those who don’t make it as professionals invariably end up at college in the United States and go on to gain a tertiary education.
Seethal first met Right to Dream when they came down to South Africa to do some scouting at the 2011 African Youth Championship, played mostly at the Dobsonville Stadium in Soweto and where a young Mohamed Salah was one of the star attractions.
Seethal used the opportunity, seated among a phalanx of scouts from a cacophony of European clubs all looking to sign top talent, to learn more about the art of scouting and was obviously a fast learner. He was invited to Ghana and then offered a job at Right to Dream. By that time, Seethal had developed a strong bond with Ayer.
“Jeremy said he wouldn’t come unless we gave Keanin a place in the academy,” explains Vernon. “I explained to him the difficulties for a boy who was not Ghanaian but he was insistent.”
Europe via Ghana
In Seethal’s thinking, the link with Manchester City meant Right to Dream had the better bona fides than a local pathway. “If a set-up with strong links to a top European club trusted us enough to say, ‘come over and train,’ then I was going to put my trust more with them as opposed to Keanin wanting to go [to] Kaizer Chiefs, where he would have been in the same [home] environment and unlikely to succeed. That was the biggest thing; it was about keeping him safe, away from all the nonsense around him.”
So, the vulnerable 12-year-old headed off to distant and strange climes. “And I was just 26,” adds Seethal. “I knew Keanin could get to the top, but it was a question of making him a man. I felt huge pressure taking him from his mother at the age of 12, asking them to sign documents and asking for their trust. I don’t know what made me just go with it, I suppose it was trusting his talent.”
“I was still small and I was thinking about how I’d miss home, how I would have to go alone on the plane,” remembers Ayer. “My two older brothers were drug addicts and I thought I’d rather spend the last days with them before they die, from the drugs or something else, instead of going to achieve my dream.
“It was really tough. They used to come home and fight a lot. Right to Dream saved me because I could have gone the same way. Eldos has so many bad temptations. But in the end I went with Jeremy, so it was good. When I arrived in Ghana I saw I was the only light-skinned boy, I couldn’t speak the language and the food was very different. They have a lot of oil in the food and I got so big. I had to train extra to lose the weight.
“But I was accepted straight away. Some players even washed my clothes, because you have to wash your own clothes. They taught me how to do it.”
After a year, he found it a little easier, but not always. “Sometimes I’d miss home and sometimes I’d cry. When I cried the other players would come to me, saying, ‘It’s OK, it’ll be fine.’ But it happened a lot. The Ghanaian boys got to go home every three months but I was there the whole year, I only got to go home at Christmas.”
Ayer learned to speak Twi, the dominant language in Ghana, and some words from other of the country’s multitude of different languages. “I learnt French in school as well,” he says proudly. “The education I got was one of the main points I went there, although football [was] a big part of it. My dream was always to be a footballer. I always saw football as my path in life.”
Time at the academy was sometimes tough. “But Keanin has always been confident in his ability as a footballer,” says Seethal, “and that carried him a long way. When he got to 16, things opened up for him a lot more and it got a lot better for him.”
After graduation from the academy, Ayer went with his Right to Dream teammates to FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark, the club that the academy now owns. He was in the youth set up there for a while before being farmed out to Varberg, arriving midway through the 2018 season, aged 18.
Varberg is across the water from Denmark and a train trip of some three hours. “I had no idea where it was, but as I hadn’t been offered a contract at FCN in Denmark, I thought I had nothing to lose by going to go and trying out there. It was the first time I’d been on a trial but after a week they said they liked me and they offered me a contract.
“We played a game the first day I got there on trial and I knew I had to do it, even though mistakes are part of life. I made some mistakes but I played really well. The coach told me straight away that I had made a good impression.”
Success in Sweden
Ayer played the last eight games of the 2018 season at Varberg, helping them to narrowly avoid relegation.
“They didn’t make many changes, it was the same coach with a few new players brought in,” Ayer says of the 2019 campaign, where Varberg finished second in the Superettan to win promotion.
“I think it was just the mentality. A few had written us off, saying we would be relegated but we used what people were saying as motivation before every game. ‘They think this about us, let’s show them.’ It was a great year, the club had never been up to the first league.”
Varberg went unbeaten through their opening 12 games of the season, faded a little through the second half of the campaign but still clinched their promotion in a dramatic last game of the season against Mjallby, the team who finished two points above them and won the league.
“It’s going to be tough but I think we have the players who can rise up to the level of the Allsvenskan,” adds Ayer. “It won’t be a problem for me, I know. We’ve played cup games against top teams and I did really well, playing out of position.”
Ayer was named in the provisional squad for South Africa’s Under-20 side when they went to the World Youth Championship in Poland in mid-2019 but never got close. He has not spoken to anyone at the South African Football Association nor been in any camp. But he remains hopeful that his profile will increase.
“My ambition is to get a call-up, to play some games and show them that I deserve a place in the national team.”
At club level, Ayer’s focus is fixed not further than the next move. “My ambition is to go to a team where I can develop more as a player. So, this year I want to get a lot of playing time again and make my name in the big league. Teams might come for me. I like teams that play a lot. Spain has been my dream country to play.”
But his footballing success has already provided heartfelt returns, like when he goes back to Randburg and stays for a few days at the Growing Champions safehouse, where the kids now see him as a role model.
“They really see me as someone big. I’m really not someone big, but it’s a nice feeling to mean something to them.”