Moving from a club like Ipswich to a “big” Premier League side is one thing, but how do you prepare a young player for a move that could take him across continents? Town fan Nick Ames visits West Africa, and finds that Premier League stars’ involvement in youth development is raising as many questions as answers.
You don’t get too many casual football supporters in Saly. Its resorts – eerily quiet as the rainy season closes in – are best known for beaches and ‘bumsters’, and the few curious local folk corralled into the stand behind me are matched in number by furrowed brows from the Iberian peninsula and Scandinavia, all of whom have their eyes on a footballing bargain rather than a good time.
I sit on the end of the Diambars bench, two places along from coach Boubacar Gadiaga, as their players slalom around the 3G surface and pass, pass, pass their way through a lumpen Port Autonome de Dakar – proceeding safely to the top of Senegal’s Ligue 2 for the first time. “Vivacity, rhythm, mobility and speed – we constantly preach them,” smiles Gadiaga after precisely those virtues have put Port to the sword twice. The visitors’ average age, he estimates, is about 28 – gnarled semi-pros who’ve been round an attritional dogfight of a domestic game longer than anyone can care to remember. Diambars’ lads – shorter, sharper, struttier – are typically nine years their junior.
Two years pass, and a steady rise has become a force of nature. Gadiaga is now assistant manager of the national team alongside Alain Giresse; the goalkeeper who kept Port at bay, Ousmane Mane, has faced Team GB at Wembley. Most astonishingly of all, Diambars, having narrowly been pipped to the Ligue 1 title – and a place in the African Champions League – in their maiden top-flight season, now sit two points clear with a single game remaining of their second tilt at the big time. An academy whose senior, professional side was created in order to provide a rough-and-tumble finishing school for its most promising late-teens could very well be on the cusp of outgrowing its own domestic league.
Diambars is best known in England for Patrick Vieira’s considerable involvement. Invited on board by inceptors Jimmy Adjovi-Boco and Saer Seck in 2003, the ex-Arsenal midfielder lends kudos, gravitas and no small amount of hands-on assistance to an academy setup that operates sides from Under-13 to ‘professional’ (generally Under-20, in their case) level. Trials are held around Senegal to select each year’s new brood – 20 of around 2,000 hopefuls typically joining – with the lucky few packing their bags before moving into accommodation blocks flanking Diambars’ smart, cream coloured headquarters.
Facilities are as impressive as the grass-verged, tree-lined approach to the main building would suggest. The academy’s stated aim is to promote education through football, and students want for little. Classes rarely number more than ten; multimedia aids are plentiful; students typically study for six hours, finishing at 2pm, before concentrating on their football later in the afternoon. Once a month, they return home to their families.
“School is obligatory here, and bad discipline or poor motivation will not give you a future at Diambars even if you’re our best, most top-class player,” Seck tells me over what turns out to be a lavish dinner with his extended family.
“That’s the situation and we won’t move from it. Each boy’s personal development, his own project, comes before any focus on professional football. If a boy will not make it as a footballer, we’ll give him all the tools we can to help him in business, or whatever career he wishes, after he leaves.”
Diambars tend to keep to Seck’s word. They have sent boys to higher education courses in Europe and elsewhere in Africa. They have sent promising footballers to top-flight clubs in Spain, France, Norway, Poland and several other European countries. Some have succeeded – Kara Mbodj, now at Belgian side Genk via Tromso – and others, some of whom I meet during my visit, return empty-handed to be looked after once again, hopeful of catching watching scouts’ eyes a second time. Some re-establish themselves in Diambars’ professional side – Mignane Diouf, unsuccessful in Norway and Canada, is now 24 and by some way their oldest player, but has picked up full international caps for his work in this year’s title charge. Mane, 22, hasn’t needed to leave at all in order to appear at the Olympics. While Seck is quick to stress that there’s no ambition to be a top African professional side, there’s little doubting that Diambars boast a cadre whose technical quality leaves domestic rivals in the shade.
It leaves them in a slightly ambiguous position. The apex of the academy’s footballing achievements is reached when a product thrives in Europe, but when Seck says that “If Arsenal, for example wanted to sign our star player and we were playing the African Champions League Final the next day, we’d let him go”, his countenancing the very possibility of the latter tells a tale. It leaves them ripe to be shot at on a national level. The lack of a fanbase, of emotional connection to a local area, has drawn plenty of criticism from rivals who are, themselves, clinging onto some kind of meaning amid the often hard-to-watch (literally, as Senegal’s top flight averages little over 1.4 goals a game) decline of the domestic game. The
academy’s name, meaning ‘Warriors’, is little more than an abstract concept – so are they anaesthetising good, honest local competition? Few expected them to be topping Ligue 1 so soon after their ascension – Seck recently told local media that they were five years ahead of schedule – and their current rate of knots breeds the thought that they may, before long, outgrow the competition that was intended as a mere finishing school.
It begs the question, one that will be left open in this short article, of what academies in developing countries are actually ‘for’ in footballing terms. Johnny McKinstry – at 28, the most impressive young coach I have ever met – is currently in charge of the Sierra Leone national side on a short-term contract, assisted by the similarly dynamic Tom Legg. Both men work for the Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF), whose facilities an hour outside Freetown rival Diambars’ in heart if not yet in scale. In their short time concurrently heading up the national setup, they have sought to implement the high-tech performance analysis with which their young charges benefit on the Monday morning after every match. Sierra Leone’s fully-capped professionals – ex-Norwich forward Kei Kamara among them – can now benefit from a level of attention to detail and rigour matched by few, if any, top-level sides on the continent. The stencil adopted at CBF – one that assists its 16 year-olds in beating youngsters three years their senior week in, week out – is already being replicated at a far higher level, seemingly years ahead of schedule.
Neocolonialism? Carts being set off before horses? CBF and the largely French-funded Diambars have been accused of both, usually by conservative factions with existing regimes to protect. But, with domestic football structures in the region in danger of falling apart (Sierra Leone’s national league started three months late this season) and the scourge of age cheating ruining many an outfit’s credibility, academies can hardly be faulted for coming at the issue at hand – developing outstanding players for the country’s eventual benefit – from a different angle. The rises to primacy of Diambars and CBF in their respective countries are simply a reflection of the failing structures that they have effectively hurdled. The young west African footballer is better set than ever for a fast track to the top – but it will be in their academies’ appetites to help reshape what lies in the middle that the long-term future of this region’s game is defined.
Nick Ames is a journalist and Ipswich fan with an interest in African football development, who’s worked and travelled extensively in Africa. In August 2013, shortly after this article was completed, Diambars won the Senegalese Championship.