When Pele said that an African country would win the World Cup by the year 2000, it was a bold prediction yet one that wasn’t met with the ridicule that it would have elicited just a few years earlier. More and more African players were arriving into European football and establishing themselves among the best. Given the continent’s size, its love for the game and the seemingly endless talent supply it seemed only a matter of time before African nations were challenging the world’s elite.
Six World Cups have later, however, African teams have yet to threaten the status quo. Indeed, no African country has ever progressed past the quarter finals (although fate hasn’t always been kind on them). Although they’re no longer the whipping boys they once were and there is an abundance of talent no country has really made its mark.
There are a lot of theories as to why progress has stalled but perhaps one of the most solid is that put forward by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their book Soccernomics. One of the four factors that they identified as vital for international success is the financial situation of a country, specifically their GDP per capita (the other factors are home advantage, historical soccer experience and population).
In a chapter titled “The Curse of Poverty: Why Poor Countries Are Poor at Sports” they explain that in countries facing a difficult economic situation there are knock-on effects on population such as malnutrition and inadequate administration.
Given the chaos that surrounded Ghana’s participation in that last World Cup – where $3M had to be flown in to pay players’ bonuses and avert a threatened strike – it is hard to refute this latter fact. Indeed, there are numerous examples of deficient administrations across the whole continent. And if the national associations – who benefit from FIFA’s financing – struggle so much it is difficult to imagine that matters can be much better at grassroots level.
“Developing countries have been all but shut out of the lucrative business of football, despite a passionate culture of the game, peaceful and emerging economies and a growing population of determined youth.” That is blunt and hard-hitting opinion of Adrian Bunbury who has been working in Uganda for the past ten years.
“Some of the best youth are making it to Europe and the Middle East, but are forced to
leave home to pursue these opportunities due to a lack of quality local training, competition and club sophistication. Foreign, well-funded, academies are poaching youth players, reaping the economic benefits and not reinvesting locally.”
“This is a brawn, brain and economic drain that must change. The current structure, at most, educates and enriches only a few individuals.”
“It is a problem that can only be solved with local partnerships, investment, training and education.”
This is where the organisation that Adrian works for – Football for Good – steps in.
“The goal is to step beyond charity. Charity is finite. We're aiming to build something that's sustainable. The question we continue to ask is that if the power and value of football comes from the grassroots, why does so little value return there?"
“What we want to do is lead and seed football academies that unlock the competitive advantages of war-recovering and developing regions. We want to develop talent to build sustainable local clubs and academies through participation in the multi-billion dollar global business of player transfers.”
“This is “Fair Trade Football” that educates, trains and mentors disadvantaged youth, leads social change and provides financial returns to the communities it serves.”
“Gulu United Football Club, based in war-recovering northern Uganda, is the first partner academy for Football for Good and the only full-time youth football academy and scholarship program in the entire country.”
“We are starting in northern Uganda, already have a partner in Zimbabwe and aim to grow across sub-Saharan Africa building academies and communities the right way.”
That the choice to kick off this project in Uganda, where there has been so much war and strife in the past, isn’t coincidental.
“Founded in 1990, the club folded after suffering through over two decades of civil war and unspeakable violence. However, northern Uganda is no longer a dark and dangerous place. There is an entrenched football culture and the youth of this isolated region of over six million compete with a disciplined desperation that clearly communicates this opportunity.”
“This is a generation who know nothing but war. They are starting over here in the north, but there is incredible progress, energy and 'community'. It is not a question of if we will be successful, but when.”
Football can play an important role in that process.
“There are numerous organizations here focused on a myriad of health and social issues. At the same time, there is incredible ingenuity in the areas of health, mobile, etc. and we see football in this region in the same way. This is not charity in the traditional sense. There is a community building and entrepreneurial opportunity here through football.”
And Adrian has staked more than his personal effort in making this a successful project.
“In January of 2015, I moved my family to Uganda to launch the Gulu United youth academy.”
“Most people see this region and the current landscape, as an ongoing and unending catastrophe. Football for Good however, sees an opportunity, a clear competitive advantage and a grassroots social business innovation.”
Whilst most people might balk at the ‘business’ element of the venture, the focus is very
much on the social. “All of our youth players are full-time students on academic scholarship,” Adrian explains. “Sure, every youth player will be training (and aiming) to become a world- class professional, but only our very best will make it. However, all youth who participate, or even come in contact with the program, will benefit.”
“Football for Good will deliver local scholarships and international education opportunities, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, leadership and community building skills that go well beyond the game of football. Our success will mean a sustainable football club and academy, in turn creating an ongoing investment in youth, local entrepreneurs, ingenuity and community development.”
Inevitably, given the lofty ambitions, selection of players was a thorough process.
“The program opened with 50 full-time youth (who are also on academic scholarships). This group was selected after a 6-month identification phase where close to 1,000 of the region’s top young footballers were evaluated.”
And that is just the start. “Going forward, we will travelling throughout northern Uganda to identify the best U14 and younger players to join us and grow our group in 2016.”
Apart from the educational opportunities that getting selected offers to the children of the Gulu United academy, there is the additional benefit of top level football coaching that they receive.
“We have eight full-time local coaches, who are led by our UEFA A licensed technical director Victor Satei.”
“We have our own philosophy of 'positive possession & brain-based' football with a real focus on free flowing attacking football. There is an evolving training program that continues to improve (but not without it's bumps along the way). I'm here full-time and also coach, while Victor has been here for two 6-week stints in 2015 to work with the players and continue to train and develop our staff.”
“Our focus, however, is on the player. We are aiming to develop fast – physically strong and quick – slow –smart and opportunistic – head turning footballers.”
All of this sounds very European in its philosophy and execution. The main difference, however, lies in the facilities which for most European academies might seem quite Spartan.
“We have two full-sized "grass" pitches – in truth they are very much dirt pitches- and all of the balls, cones and bibs we need.”
“Boots continue to be a problem, with the fields here doing plenty of damage to our footwear. I'm also a big believer in hanging 'just enough' when it comes to facilities. We are not here to pamper our kids, we here to help them grow in a demanding environment with an opportunity go abroad.”
Whilst few have attempted academies of this kind, Europeans coming to Africa to set up academies with the aim of selling as many young players to European clubs as possible is not exactly unheard of. It is for this reason that it is important to reinforce the care that Gulu United take of their players.
For one thing, they will not be sold to any club that comes along. “This is a work in progress but we will be providing the initial links and guidance for the players. We need the right environment for our boys and be certain that the support is there for them to have success.”
This ideology doesn’t apply to those players who do get to move abroad. “Once a Football For Good or Gulu United player, always one of our players,” he emphasizes. “We won’t just follow them, we’ll be with them every step of the way. This is our family and these are our kids.”
Inevitably, there has been interest from European clubs in this project. But whilst Adrian says that at the moment they’re thinking over the process, he has words of praise for Brentford. “They have been a great friend of Gulu United and Football For Good.”
“The club has hosted us, sent coaches to Uganda and helped guide our academy development program. We hope to deepen that relationship in the months and years to come. This is a club that may seem like a minnow to outsiders, who has real ambitions and understands ‘value’ and youth development.”
Ambition is certainly an adjective that applies to Football For Good, and Adrian himself. “Along with an established academy program here in Gulu, we also aim to have Football For Good be a global leader in sub-Saharan Africa in providing academy development, targeted consultancy, player identification and the nurturing of world-class youth soccer talent that leads to new market and transfer opportunities, economic sustainability and community building,” he says.
Nor does he lack confidence. “In five years I will hit 50 in the month of April. My birthday is going to be spent sitting in the stands somewhere in Europe watching a Gulu United youth academy product play first team football.”
“And from there, anything is possible.”
Special thanks to Victor Satei for bringing this excellent project to Blueprint for Football.
To learn more, people can visit:
Football for Good: www.football-for-good.org
Gulu United FC: guluunited.com
Four Four Gulu: fourfourgulu.wordpress.com