Categories: Featured, Football, General, Sports Development
Written By: Segun Odegbami
I watched some truly terrific football matches this past week in the various European club championships. That I have chosen to write on another subject matter entirely surprises me also. But the finals of Nigeria’s biggest grassroots football championship, the All Nigeria Secondary Schools Football Championship for the NNPC/Shell Cup takes place this weekend in Lagos, Nigeria, so all eyes shall be riveted there in search of the next generation of players for Nigeria’s junior national teams.
I look to the schools system always for grassroots sports development following the American model of sports development. Nigerians know my passion for the combination of football and formal education, particularly for Africans. Our uncommon passion and love for football has made football more than just a game. It has become a game of survival for the young African boy. Thats why the followership of European football in the continent is out of this world. Thats why Arsenal FC has more fans of the club in Nigeria than in any other country in the world outside England. If the figures for the fan base of clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona and Chelsea are also computed as has been done for Arsenal they may not be too different. Nigerians are just crazy about this beautiful game called football.
Unfortunately, this ‘craziness’ for the game influences youth development in a very damaging way. Side by side this unbridled passion for football is a gripping economic hardship amongst the youths the result of poor or no education, rising unemployment, unskilled, restive and idle youths, and so on. Football provides an outlet for the youths. The game has become such a huge global phenomenon that many Nigerians see it as an opportunity to escape through it from poverty into the world of fame and fortune. They convert their love and passion for the game into fresh possibilities exploiting what the game offers those that can succeed in it. All over the country, in little mushroom unorganised academies, young talented players are groomed and sold abroad, unfortunately, many into football slavery. The greatest tragedy is that the urge to travel abroad has become so much that youngsters give up the most important, critical and productive 3 to 4 years of their lives chasing it. Unfortunately also, figures reveal that for every one player that succeeds and becomes a Beni MCarthy, or a Kanu Nwankwo, there are several thousands that drop by the way side. Whereas the Western world has social provisions for their own youngsters that may also try and not succeed in joining the very small elite club of successful professional players, the Africa has no such social cushions for its unsuccessful youngsters. So, the continent is littered with the stories of football players that spend their lives beyond their football careers in abject penury and neglect.
African youths continue to copy the European model of grassroots football development through academies and junior clubs, and many often end up as slaves in the game. They abandon their education, the most critical factor in their quest for economic emancipation, and chase after the uncertainties of professional football. A good formal education for the African child is an absolute need. It is the most certain ‘key’ to lock the prison of poverty and to open the door to prosperity in the world. That key is found in the 3 to 4 years period that the African child presently spends and wastes searching fruitlessly to travel abroad to play professional football. Whereas he could have spent the same period getting an education. It is as simple as that. Education is the key that can change his world by providing the social and economic cushions that he requires to escape from the enslavement of a life of poverty after football.
Thats why I have become an evangelist of the gospel of football and education. Thats why I was appointed Nigeria’s Ambassador of the ’1-Goal Education for All’ World Cup 2010 campaign. Thats why for 14 years I have been supervising the organisation of Nigeria’s biggest youth football competition involving some 3000 schools annually. Thats why I have established a senior secondary school that effectively combines football with a first-class education and encourages the students to spend the three years after secondary school to empower themselves with a degree, a higher diploma, or any formal professional entepreneurial training before venturing out to join the train heading for the uncertainties of professional football abroad. Those three years, for most youngsters that choose not to go to school and play the game, have become locust years, wasted years, oasis of cheating, age-falsification, fake documentation, warped values, massive corruption and immorality for which they spend the rest of their lives paying dire consequences.
The football experiment at The International Sports Academy, Wasimi, Nigeria
There is a mad rush for young African footballers by European Clubs. They search for the best of them in the national under-17 teams. African players, therefore, do everything to get into the national under-17 teams and competitions. Most players hibernating in the limbo of the locust years after secondary school become ready and willing tools for ambitious coaches and conniving administrators whose vision is short and whose goal is not in long-term development for overall good. They take the short cuts, win by cheating and are unmindful of the future consequences. So, players grow ‘younger’, secure new identities in order to fall into the Under-17 age bracket. Thats why genuine under-17s never come from the schools where they are. They are found amongst those that have left secondary schools and are playing for major clubs in the national leagues. Thats how many African countries parade men masquerading as boys. They are issued official passports with false documents by administrators that know the truth and choose to turn a blind eye.
Thats why at under-17 competitions you find African players out-pacing, over-powering, out-smarting their counterparts from other climes where falsification of documents is unnecessary as they see the competitions as discovery and development platforms only, a means to a better, bigger end.
It was John Mastoroudes that once pointed it out to me, and we have since confirmed it in the experiments going on in the laboratory of football in Wasimi, that an average caucasian youth at 17 is bigger, stronger and more mentally mature than his average African counterpart. The reason for this is simple – diet, environment and lifestyle. When you compare them at that age the African is physically dis-advantaged. Thats why a Nigerian coach would never present genuine under-17s. He will tell you they are not strong enough, mentally and physically, to compete against bigger, stronger players of the same age from other climes. So, he cheats!
There is an experiment that has been going on in the International Sports Academy in Wasimi in the past 4 years. The school assumes that all its students will have trouble with their academics because of their sport. So, it adopts a British teaching methodology that is aimed at children with learning difficulty.
Talented youngsters are assembled at between 13 and 14 years of age. They are given the best kind of schooling using the unique teaching methodology mentioned earlier. 3 sets of graduates have passed through the programme. The result is a set of youngsters once eager to travel abroad but now more desirous of getting better educated before pursuing professional football careers abroad. They have the time – the three years ‘locust’ years that it usually takes the young over-anxious Nigerian school-drop-out footballer to falsify their way back to under-17 level.
It is amazing. The students are guided and supported to secure admission into sports-friendly tertiary institutions. That way they can achieve their dual aims of more education and football in 3 or 4 years. At age 20 or 21 not only would they have a degree to their name, they are ripe enough for professional football abroad without cheating. Meanwhile, for the three years they are in the academy they are fed on very rich and balanced diets. The results have been phenomenal. The boys from the academy, all aged below 17, have become as big, strong and mentally capable as any other youngsters of similar age from the Western World. You only need to visit, see and be convinced.
Africa does not need to impoverish its children by prematurely selling them into the slavery of football and the culture of cheating, immoral practises and falsification of documents in order to excel in football. We can build a new generation of footballers that will be equipped with a good education and be well honed in their football. It is that generation of footballers, fed on the combination of football and education, that can win the World Cup for Africa very soon and guarantee a good life beyond their football careers.