It took a journey from the Bronx to Barcelona for 14-year-old soccer prodigy Yacouba Bamba to realize that he had the right stuff.
Overseas with his team from Success Academy to compete in the 2019 Mediterranean International Cup, a tournament that attracts an international array of the most gifted players, he did not know how he would stack up.
“The best in the world were there,” Bamba, who is soon to complete his freshman year of high school, told The Post. “I played at their level. That was when it got into my head that I could turn pro.”
Now he’s been recruited to play for the elite Red Bulls Academy team, which serves as a pipeline to the footy big league. The development program is housed in the same state-of-the-art training facility as the MLS team, which plays at Red Bull arena in Harrison, NJ.
Bamba has come a long way in a short time. The son of a junkyard-owning father and beautician mother, he hadn’t kicked a soccer ball until he began attending Success Academy as a kindergartener. The network of 47 charter schools, spread across four boroughs, had just launched its ambitious soccer program — designed to compete with America’s premier soccer academies, which attract affluent kids whose parents pay $2,500 to $7,000 for top-notch coaching and facilities. The goal? To level the playing field.
“We wanted to eliminate the financial component that is a barrier of entry for soccer at the highest level,” Bradley Williams, manager of soccer for Success Academy, told The Post. “We have US Soccer Federation certified coaches and the training is rigorous. Soccer here is part of the curriculum. We’re developing players who can compete with the very best.”
In Bamba’s case, Williams added, “He’s a kid who is extremely dedicated to his craft. He’s fast, strong and has a phenomenal physical skill set.”
The naturally athletic teen, plucked for the program in first grade, first got into the sport because “It sounded like fun to just kick a ball around,” he said. But he quickly became serious. “I was grabbed by how much focus you have to put in if you want to get good. I just kept practicing, even on my own. Every day, I practiced inside the house.”
Told that sounds like a risky proposition, Bamba laughed and acknowledged, “I broke a lot of things. Once while juggling the ball with my feet, I knocked over a lamp. My mom was mad at first, but she understood. Now she knows I won’t do it again. I’ve gotten better.”
His skills were on full display this past February during a tournament in Atlantic City, NJ, where Success Academy was squaring off against soccer clubs from around the US. Though Success got eliminated in the quarterfinals, Bamba’s hands-off skills made an impression with Red Bull soccer scouts who were in the stands, looking for talent.
They recognized Bamba — who characterizes his top soccer accomplishment as “the time I got passed the ball in midfield and kicked a goal from 35 yards out” — as a superior player. He got invited to try out for the Red Bulls’ U15 squad, made the cut after just three days of scrimmaging and is now one of the team’s starting 11, playing the defensive position of center back.
“It’s very unusual for that to happen so quickly,” Williams said. “Usually they want to watch you for a number of months. Yacouba has set an example for so many kids in our soccer program. They look at this young man and want to be like him.”
When it comes to his own role model, Bamba turns to Manchester United superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. “I like his work ethic and his mentality and how much he can impact a game,” Bamba said. “Plus, he hates losing. I’m the same way.”
Off the pitch, inspiration comes from his father, who drives Bamba to practices in NJ and offers strong advice: “My dad tells me that I won’t get far if I don’t give everything to the sport … My dad makes sacrifices for me. Plus my friends from the neighborhood have expectations for me. I need to deliver.”
Turning 15 this season, he will come on as one of Red Bulls’ younger players. Recognizing that things become increasingly competitive as he moves up in the ranks and gets closer to the professional level, Bamba loves the idea of others wanting to be where he is.
“I think it’s funny that people think they will be able to take my spot,” he said. “No way will that happen.
“I have a bright future, but I am not yet where I want to be. A pro contract is what I am waiting for. That will get me excited, but it will just be the start.”