by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (January 3rd 2009)
“Our interest is for African football to develop, because we have to be altruistic,” said William Gaillard, UEFA’s Director of Communications and Special Advisor to the organisation’s President Michel Platini. Rotterdam’s top team Feyenoord, anticipated Gaillard’s call by almost a decade and developed a social project that shows football with a human face. But others weighed in with their plans for the development of football, not just in Ghana, but in Africa as a whole. Former Black Stars coach Claude le Roy believes that it is essential to keep the African Cup of Nations played every two years.
“It is very important, because in Ghana there were no good stadiums before”, says le Roy. “At the end of the competition there will be four beautiful stadiums, a lot of good training pitches and that will change a lot of things for the improvement of young football players in Ghana. That’s why it is important to keep the place of one African Cup of Nations every two years, because we need to build stadiums and training pitches in all the countries in Africa. It is so simple to develop Africa if you want to create professional leagues in Africa.”
This is important, but what about developing young players and ensuring that poverty is no barrier to success?
The Birth of an Idea
In 1997 the Feyenoord President Jorien van den Herik travelled to la Côte d’Ivoire to sign Bonaventure Kalou, a player who went on to captain his country and currently still graces the Eredivisie for Heerenveen. Van den Herik was so impressed with the education that Kalou’s club ASEC Mimosas provided for their youngsters that it convinced him that he wanted to do more for Africa.
Van den Herik believed that it would be possible to start an academy in an African country that would both develop talented players, but also give a chance to underprivileged boys. Some expressed surprise that it didn’t happen in la Côte d’Ivoire, but despite impressing van den Herik with the set-up at ASEC, the country was politically unstable since the death of long-term dictator/President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993.
For three decades Ivorians had known no other ruler and did not know how to survive him. Democratisation would take time and the country would have to endure both a coup d’état and civil war of rare brutality. Had van den Herik invested in that country the lack of stability would have cost Feijenoord everything, so they looked for a country that was politically stable to base their academy in. They chose Ghana and two years later van den Herik realised his dream.
The Social Commitment
The Gomoa Fetteh Academy was opened in 1999 by Nana Agyeman Rawlings, wife of then outgoing President Jerry Rawlings – one of the most controversial figures in recent Ghanaian history. She called for the staff of the academy not to be afraid to instil discipline into the boys – it started with just 14. Feyenoord is a comparatively small club. It invests approximately €1m per year in the Gomoa Fetteh Academy in Ghana.
“Those boys will have a future”, says the club’s press officer Gido Vader. “They will not leave without an education.”
The boys are given a future and in Ghana at least Feyenoord is appreciated, but from the very beginning their motives were questioned. The aim is to produce top quality footballers and Feyenoord will have first rights to those players, but most of those boys will never kick a ball in Europe. What about them? Will they simply be thrown out and left to fend for themselves? Not according to Vader. They will all leave with diplomas and if it is recognised that they will not make it in Europe an alternative is sought for them.