Thursday, September 24, 2020

Football Academy – Who is Right?

Of recent there has been issues about the much-talked about BFA academy that is said to be in the pipeline and to be bankrolled by some overseas investor, with some football personalities and enthusiasts finding fault in the BFA owning an academy ahead of clubs. While the BFA seems unbothered by these dissenting views, opinion out there has it that academies are a clubs’ affair.

But are they?

If indeed they are, my simplistic view would be that indeed clubs have to develop their own academies, to which I know pundits out there would want to know where I think clubs would get funding from for such a project. To this, I would ask; where does the BFA get funding for their academy from, and why clubs could not go to like sources for their own projects? Perhaps, again, this is another simplistic view. I am not quite privy to how much funding is the BFA poised to access for their academy, but I’m sure if it was sufficient for all its affiliated clubs, they would have duly assisted the clubs for each to develop its academy – although there would be questions of criteria on where to start – at the top or at the bottom in terms of the national football structures.      

That said, what is wrong with the BFA at a national level having its own academy to harness and hone talent from their membership? I suggest there is nothing wrong with it, especially if the resources available cannot be elastic enough to go beyond one such facility.

Just a juxtaposition, during my days with the BNSC, we introduced the Re Ba Bona Ha programme, piloting it through football in Gaborone in four identified centres. When we finally launched the programme, we handed it over to the BFA and introduced more centres throughout the country that our resources could afford. We also launched it to other sporting codes. At pilot stage, we were heavily criticised for usurping the mandate of the BFA and, once we had handed it over, some clubs felt that it was not the BFA’s mandate to develop footballers, but theirs. Sound argument it was, but the facts of the matter was that in the absence of adequate resources to reach out to every club, centralised facilities had to be put in place to optimise the value of the limited resources. I suppose, even way back after independence, it was not every household that had running water. Water had to be drawn from a central place until resources were available to keep on bringing water closer and closer to some households until it was possible to have running water in almost every household. In the same way, the Re Ba Bona Ha programme was centralised with more programmes born out of every centre to reduce the traveling distance for aspiring footballers and other athletes, as resources permitted.  

In the same way, I argue that the one centre would be good for a start and as more resources become available, other satellite academies should also be mounted. In the meantime, clubs that can afford academies should not wait for the BFA before they could mount their own. If anything, the BFA should be challenged to draw out basic requirements for an academy to be recognised by them.

A football academy is a concept based on professional football clubs’ operations from around the world, where clubs or national football federations keep a collection of players within an age group as opposed to placing them on individual teams. Academies exist for various reasons, to a great extent centred on performance improvement. Among other things, they help in developing athletes to reach their potential by providing specialist services such as sports science and medicine, nutrition and injury prevention, strength and conditioning, high level coaching, uniforms and equipment and subsidized travel and accommodation for competition and training camps.

An academy can be non-profiting making, for example those funded by the state, run by a national federation or operated by a non-profiting making organisation. On the other hand there are sport academies that are operated for profit making, where athletes have to pay a lot of money for their training. Some of the academies only concentrate on one particular sport, whole others cater for more than one sport. Across the world, most sport and football academies also cater for academic development of the children.

Effective and productive football academies are becoming more of a necessity and clubs are having to pay even more attention to the correct development of youth in their books. In the past years, several structures have emerged in some parts of the country, all referring to themselves as football academies and I suppose all meaning good. Some of them are in it to contribute to national football development, some to give back to Botswana football, some for money, some for self-aggrandisement, others to prove a point, others to keep busy and others for a combination of any or more of the foregoing reasons. At least they all realise the importance of putting young footballers together in an environment where they receive more training than playing matches and hopefully where emphasis is on development rather than winning. Many of them open doors to young players and all children who want to play. Players stay in pools and can be moved back and forth according to their progress and development throughout the year. Players lacking in the desired potential are not normally overtly released, they are systematically elbowed out through lack of fulfilling engagement, especially in cases where there are no monies involved.

Whatever their reason for mounting these development projects, the big question is, are their well-intended projects really football academies though? Another question would be whether they have the right facilities, equipment and personnel for their projects. To the best of my knowledge, there is no fully-fledged football or sports academy in the country. Notwithstanding, a national football federation has to have a definition of what they recognise as a football academy. Of course the next question would be, in the case of those that are not recognised, should they be stopped from operating or not? I suggest not, except in cases where they are involved in some unethical activities that can compromise the good name of football and its growth. They are supposedly all in it to improve performance by upcoming footballers at whatever level and to whatever level. This is born out of need to invest in promising talent such that it may in the future blossom into something that may bring glory and national pride to the country. If anything, academies not recognised may be denied certain privileges due to those who do, but with careful and empathetic considerations of why they are in it in the first place.

Academies come in different forms. In Botswana, the most basic are those where owners (or rights holders of sorts) open doors to boys and girls for coaching into future footballers with no entry requirements other than loose age restrictions. Any kid is welcome, whether talented or not. The objectives are not normally defined, other than producing future players. Youngsters without the desired talent are normally worked out of the project by not being selected into performing groups. This approach is also common at clubs who attempt to mount academies or in national setups where a national association seeks to identify talent for their age-based structures. This approach cannot be discarded, at least in the Botswana situation, for some of its products would normally filter into the main football system, although they would not have been developed to any such levels to catapult national football to higher levels.

Some are commercial, where rights owners charge a fee for parents to send their children to the academy. No talent restriction. Usually in those cases, no kid fails trials for their parents pay for them. If anything, kids would normally lose interest on their own as they see others progressing when they are not. Such academies are, in the most, more profit driven. Such approach cannot be discarded either, for its potential to uncover a rare talent that may filter into the national football system.

A good academy is normally talent focused and driven. Players are recruited on the basis of potential. Numbers in such cases are restricted. This system is by and large found at professional clubs where players would normally be identified from mass participation programmes such as Re Ba Bona Ha (in the case of Botswana) and at national federation level where players would normally be recruited from club academies.

At advanced levels, football academies are a full developmental project seeking to effect holistic development of a child, both in the field of football and academically. In professional set ups, football talent is recruited into a club academy for nurturing into a future professional, at the same time developing the youngster in academic and other life skills. Here talent is a factor. In the EPL and lower down the divisions for instance, professional clubs are primarily responsible for talent development via their youth academies, where they recruit 8 year olds players for coaching and modified competitive games and ultimately offer them scholarships as they develop into juniors on the eve of their absorption into reserve and ultimately senior teams. In some cases some of them are sold out to other clubs throughout Europe and the rest of the world to defray the costs of developing such talent and even raising more funds for ploughing back into the academy and consequently into the club.

In loose but similar arrangements, parents pay fees to enter their children to such academies for academic development with the hope that they can also transform into football stars. This setup is normally found in academies that are more for profit than for football development.

In all these examples, national football is poised to benefit albeit at varying levels.

In some cases across the world, sports academies are housed in schools and institutions with facilities and expertise to support the training of these athletes. Something closer to it in Botswana are what is referred to centres of excellence – in the case of football; Mogoditshane senior secondary school, Artesia junior and one or two others. But in more effective setups, the school would be entirely for footballers, with requisite facilities, equipment and personnel and such considerations as diet and other sports science needs.

Sports academies therefore are in the most run by governments or principal sport oversight bodies as part of a school. Football (or any other sport) academies can be run by individuals, clubs and national federations. As such, the BFA is not on the wrong by planning to run an academy. The story would of course be different if resources are elastic enough to gradually cover a part of their structures. As more resources become available, more satellite structures could be developed for the regions and then for localities where clubs in those localities have not developed enough to have their own academies. Adios.

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