Steve Zakuani's life has taken him from the Congo, to London, to Akron and Seattle. Through that time he focused on soccer as his future. An accident had that dream stopped at one point and his focus shifted to life learning. His dream of a pro career in England stopped. But, as he returned to health, he discovered this strange thing called an athletic scholarship to a university in America. On his website he calls those two years at the University of Akron "One of the best periods in Steve Zakuani’s life. "
Zakuani is starting with a small foundation, running camps, having a scholarship, but his vision is large for Kingdom-Hope. While it will begin in Seattle, in the end he hopes to connect three continents and not just improve some people's chances at soccer, but with life education and academic work.
Below is our conversation about education, opportunity and soccer. He talks about how a program can start small and grow in ways like a player's development. It is a conversation about having dreams both on the pitch and beyond the touchline.
Dave Clark: What was so different about the college experience playing soccer and your time in London?
Steve Zakuani: Being from Europe, I grew up in a kind of environment where there was a focus on professional football from a young age. By the time you get to 16 you have to sign a pro contract. If you don't you aren't going to be a pro. But you are still young, you are still developing. So by coming to the States I got that time. We had a good team, and over those two years I got a good level of training, good playing. And I achieved my dream at 21 years old.
Had I stayed in England, that wouldn't have been the case. One could get a good education, or play at a good level. One or the other. Here I got both. I like eduction. I like to read. But I also got to play at a good level and then go pro. It was a unique opportunity. At the same time I have friends back home, some who were more talented than I am, who never got a chance. But they didn't sign a contract, they gave up and went and worked 9 to 5. For me it's tragic, for if they had the chance at a scholarship they would have taken it. They would have learned.
For me that's why the scholarship fund is important. So that if you want to go to college, but don't have the financial means to do so, you can. I can help them out, because I know for me those two years were great for my development as a person and also as a player.
DC: Talk a little bit about that educational journey. I know in other interviews you talk about studying a lot of social issues; those that affect America as well as global social issues. How did you become involved in studying social issues?
Zakuani: I had a bad injury ... on the moped, I had that crash. I couldn't train or walk for 18 months. During that time I was getting down, my dream was gone. I wanted my dream so much, but it kind of went that I was never going to play. I was even just struggling to walk. But during that time, I call him my mentor today, but he was my teacher then, he kind of opened my eyes that there were more important things. That's when I started to expand my life I guess.
But there was like a two-year gap where I hadn't studied anything in school. I was kind of hungry to learn, to fill that gap. So college was good. I took good classes. I took sports management, leadership, history, American history, black history, government all that kind of stuff. It opened my eyes, and I read a lot; things like philosophy. From there, I just like to be around people and get knowledge and just have a life away from soccer.
College was perfect because in the morning I could train, but then I could do my studies. I could be around real people and real situations.
DC: Do you think the two systems of academy and college soccer can and should coexist in one country?
Zakuani: I don't think they could coexist in one country. If every team had an academy going from 9 years old to 16,17, 18, I think that would kind of kill the college game. College was good for me, but for others, the English system could be right. I have a lot of friends playing in England right now. For me, though, I like the American system.
It gives you more time to develop and the focus isn't just on soccer like it is in Europe. The focus is on results so much there that they don't take time to develop. I think if teams got more academies going and it became successful, in the long run the college game would suffer. Players wouldn't go to college, they'd just play for the academy team. Teams wouldn't go to the Draft to get players, but get them at 16 or 17.
I'm not for or against either one, as they are just so different. For me though, I'm glad I got to go to college for those two years.
DC: Certainly the injury was some influence, but do you think that the college game helps that kind of "late-bloomer?"
Zakuani: I think it is ideal for that actually. It really is ideal. For someone like myself. Yeah, I was coming off that injury, but I was not anywhere near ready to play pro. In England it would have been, "That's it. You're done." But coming here even for just those two years, or for four years, you are playing at a good level. You are getting that confidence. You are also playing for results, but you can still go pro. But you aren't a pro yet. You can make your mistakes. You can find yourself as a player. Then, eventually, you can make that jump.
When I came to Seattle I knew pressure. I already knew because I had played in college where I could make mistakes. I could miss shots, or do dribbles that didn't work. I couldn't do that under a national spotlight. If at 16 and you are playing in front of 35,000, that can kill you if you aren't successful right away. It can stop your development as a player. It can kill your confidence. It definitely gave me time to grow and develop.
DC: Learning and development is a continuous process, how will this year compare to last year?
Zakauni: Last year was good in two ways. It was certainly nice there were no expectations, that no one really knew we would be good as an expansion team. The second part that was good, is that we were good. We won the Open Cup, made the playoffs.
This year will be different. The league knows us. They know us as players. They know our strengths and our weaknesses. Because we did good last year, the expectation is higher. That isn't a bad thing, though. There is just less margin for error. Less room for mistakes. We have to get results
I think that it will help because we are playing with mainly the same guys. Last year we had only 10-12 games with the starters, but this year we have a full pre-season and a full year getting to know each other.
DC: I'm going to return to Kingdom Hope because I think it is a really inspiring dream and vision that you have. You have your foot in three nationalities at once, and your vision includes them all - Seattle, London and Congo - talk about that vision. We once talked about Danny Mwanga also being from Congo and back-to-back No. 1 picks. How do you hope that Kingdom Hope can have an influence there?
Zakuani: Well, right now it's just camps [and scholarship] so it's not exactly right now, but I've got really good people working with me to help with the camps and getting the scholarship off the ground. But we will open an academy in London in a few years' time, it will be like a soccer college. Where kids live and learn. They will do training every day, scholastic education but also life education. Things like financial management, time management, relationships that kind of stuff.
That's what the academy is going to be. It is going to be soccer, a good education and life education.
London obviously that's where I'm from, but for the States it was between Ohio and Seattle. Seattle is more of a soccer market and so that's why I chose it. The Congo, that's where we want to be as well. Like you said, we got the last two No. 1 picks. There's lots of good players from Congo, but they don't play for Congo.
There's a bunch of guys they play for France and Belgium, but I think that if people get involved and we get a program like Kingdom Hope for two years and they can come from Congo to the States and get scholarships, or professional tryouts with professional teams that's going to do good for them. Then the kids in the next generation, they are going to have players to look up to.
Right now, I didn't have any Congolese when I was coming up. I want to give them opportunities, so maybe in 20, or 30 years' time they can think, "He made it and so can I." No more playing for France, playing for England, playing for the States, but playing for the country you are from. That's where that came in.
This project that Steve Zakuani has launched is born out of his experiences growing up with feet in both the English academies and American colleges. It starts with things like soccer camps and a scholarship, but his ideal and his dream are these hybrid academies with one part education, one part life lessons and one part soccer on three different continents.
Kingdom-Hope starts small, but like a rookie, isn't going to look at what can be done in their first year, but how that first year can get them to their ultimate goals.