Google+ Blueprint for Football: Finding Talent in Africa One Country at a Time

Friday, January 4, 2013

Finding Talent in Africa One Country at a Time

Maher Mezahi

Gervinho, Bakari Kone, Arouna Kone, Kolo Toure, Yaya Toure, Didier Ya Konan, Lacina Traore, Ndri Romaric, Didier Zokora, Aruna Dindane, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Arthur Boka, Siaka Tiene. An explosion of Ivorian talent in a matter of years. It isn’t a coincidence. Much of the credit goes to a man by the name of Jean-Marc Guillou. Why?

Guillou and Wenger
The foundations of Arsene Wenger’s scouting acumen actually date back to 1983 in the chic city of Cannes. In the south of France, Wenger was handed his first break in management, as assistant to a man named Jean-Marc Guillou (pictured, middle row far right. Wenger is on the far left of the same row).

Guillou, never a shrewd tactician, managed to construct a positive reputation through careful formation, and efficient scouting. In 1984, Guillou made a trailblazing purchase when buying Ivorian Youssouf Fofana, from ASEC Mimosas. Fofana was a hit in France, and he unlocked ideas in Guillou’s wily brain that would mould the very future of African and world football.

Finding Funding
What Guillou saw in Fofana was potential. So in the early 90s, Guillou decided to pack his bags and head to sub-Saharan Africa. His mission? To cultivate raw potential in Africa. The same potential he once saw in Fofana.

The first person he contacted was Arsene Wenger. Wenger was now manager of AS Monaco, and was favourable to Guillou’s idea. He even managed to convince the Monegasque administration to invest in Guillou’s project as it was in dire need of funding.

Guillou was very particular in how he wanted to cultivate the talent to be found in the Ivory Coast. The Guillou philosophy is a holistic and methodical one that is absolutely unique. Here’s the Guillou manifesto:

Education: All ‘scholars’ are to receive their education on-site of their training facilities. Truancy, misbehaviour and academic failure are not options. In addition to a scholastic education, the boys are given footballing classes.
Character: You do not lie, You do not cheat, You do not steal. Basic fundamental maxims that ensure an essential foundation to social relations. Said values are extrapolated onto the pitch as the academy stresses excelling in the ‘proper manner’.The JMG academy posted a nuggest of wisdom. It reads, ‘In the 16th century, Rabelais said: “Science without conscience is but ruin of the soul”. Today, we could paraphrase this by saying: “Victory without ethics is but the ruin of Sport…”JMG academies also stress humility as their motto reads, ‘You will become big, if you understand how to remain small.‘ Emphasizing the need for patience and intelligence.
Football: On the pitch, Jean-Marc Guillou employs methods hitherto unheard of. Scholars begin their education barefoot, without shin pads, and matches are played without a goalkeeper. Sore feet are endured as collateral, for barefoot play allows for scholars to develop an intricate touch.Fielding 11 outfield players forces the team to attack and defend as a unit. Offensively it forces an obvious advantage, and  defensively it gets scholars into the habit of recouping possession further up the pitch-for any progress around the box would yield an automatic goal-scoring opportunity.

Here is a video which shows a JMG team vs. Villareal. The JMG team plays with no keeper, no shin pads and no boots (action begins at: 50 sec mark)

Unmitigated Success
Guillou’s success in the Ivory Coast was unprecedented. He managed to piece together a coherent group of humble, talented young men who were determined to play at the highest level. In Feet of the Chameleon, Ian Hawkey relates a short anecdote on how a youthful ASEC Mimosas upset the African champions ES Tunis:

I remember the goalkeeper Cherif El Ouaer looking at the kids in our line-up and laughing with their team-mates. I remember thinking how small a little guy like Bakari Kone must have looked to them. It was really men against boys.

But it would be the underdog Ivorians who triumphed with notable performances from Kolo Toure, Aruna Dindane and Zeze ‘Zezeto’ Venance. ASEC Mimosas now possessed a robust and young squad which proceeded to steamroll most of their opposition.

Bakari Kone (left) and Yaya Toure (middle) at the JMG Academy
It was clear that the time had come for a host of Abidjan’s children to progress.

Naturally, Arsene Wenger was the first to know about Guillou’s graduates. The Toure brothers immediately caught his eye and he wanted the both of them. For Kolo, it was a simple matter of a direct transfer, as he was an established member of his national side.

Yaya was a different matter, and Arsene wanted him at all costs.

Wenger was the first in for Yaya Toure.  “He played in a pre-season game at Barnet as a second striker — and he was completely average on the day.”

“(But) In England, to get the players in they need to have played 75 per cent of national games but Yaya never did [for Ivory Coast]. We decided to wait for the passport application and then, when he was close to applying, he moved to Ukraine [to Metalurh Donetsk] so we lost the whole chance of the deal.”

Toure’s impatience cost him a deal with Arsenal. But his obvious talent got him over future obstacles in his path to stardom.

Detour Through Belgium
The rest of the graduates who were in need of work permits took after Yaya. Most played in Belgium (where regulations were lax), for Beveren.

Why Beveren? It’s a truly intriguing story. Some say it was a mere stepping stone to help graduates gain a work permit and garner interest from top clubs. The juicier stories narrate that the Belgian club  was dwindling in debt and spiraling into danger of relegation. It would cost a measly 1, 000, 000 € to save the club. Whispers in Belgium say David Dein, then vice-chairman at Arsenal, bought the club (through a business front) and let Guillou bring his graduates.

Arsenal, of course, deny said allegations.

JMG Academies
Guillou left ASEC Mimosas in 2000. His last generation of graduates produced the likes of Gervinho and Lacina Traore. Yet, his success wasn’t ignored. Kolo Toure recently said:

 He’s our father. Our spiritual father. Without him and his utopian idea of coming to Africa, we would have never had a chance. He facilitated it all. It’s evidence that there is talent in Africa, but we need serious people like Jean-Marc Guillou.

Guillou heard Kolo’s plea and decided to form his own conglomerate of football academies. The JMG (Jean-Marc Guillou) Academies. There have been up to 6 African academies that employ JMG methods:

Ivory Coast (est. 1994): Guillou no longer runs this establishment. Stagnation
Madagascar (est. 2000): Declared a failure after lack of interest and resources
Egypt (est. 2007): Struggling with obvious extra-footballing circumstances
Ghana (est. 2008)
Mali (est. 2006): Under tutelage of Guillou himself. Most successful of new academies
Algeria (est. 2007): Under tutelage of brother Olivier Guillou and parent club Paradou. On it’s way to success reminiscent of ASEC Mimosas

New Academies
After leaving Abidjan at the turn of the millennium  Guillou decided to apply himself elsewhere. Today we’ll explore his eccentric-yet effective methods, and gauge the progress of one particular academy in North Africa.

Paradou Academy: Algiers, Algeria
Located in an expensive neighbourhood in metropolitan Algiers, Paradou were among the first to contact JMG Academies. In association with Paradou, JMG Academies held nationwide trials. Of 20 000 children, only 15 made the grade. These youngsters have already, perhaps unfairly, been dubbed ‘the relief’ by Algerian media.

This kind of wonderful play doesn’t go unnoticed. The academy have been invited to play against an older Villareal U19 (above). They also held FC Barcelona U17 to a 0-0 draw at La Masia. Scouts have lined the touchlines for said friendlies and it has been confirmed that a few players have already attracted interest.

No one can predict the future of these JMG graduates, but all of Africa can hope that Mr. Guillou can produce a little more magic for its sons. We’ll all be watching.

This piece originally appeared on the site dedicated for Afro-Anglo-Arab-Asian football, Sandals for Goalposts.  Maher can be found on Twitter.

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