Sometimes perceptions can be wide off the mark, in which case we should be reappraising Craig Bellamy.
The Wales and West Ham United forward is announcing plans today to bring a football structure, an education structure and millions of pounds of investment into Sierra Leone, the war-ravaged West African nation.
The project has been received so positively by the President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, that he has gifted a 25-acre site on which to start building and has instructed his ministers to jump to Bellamy’s command.
The Craig Bellamy Foundation will soon start the construction of a football academy in Freetown, the capital, that Bellamy insists will match standards in the Barclays Premier League. However, his vision for the country extends way beyond this nascent, elite residential football school.
At the end of last season, he had the whole of June free and decided he wanted to see Sierra Leone. Because of the dangers in a country only starting to recover from more than a decade of civil war, Liverpool, his club at the time, advised him against going and refused to insure him; nevertheless, he went.
What he found was a country with no football structure whatsoever. The result is not only this five-star academy, but The Craig Bellamy Foundation League, which will be up and running in November and will incorporate 14 new leagues and 68 new boys’ teams, thus giving employment to 141 managers and coaches.
There is no financial return for him, either. “I’m not looking to find and sell players,” he said. “I’m not an agent. I want to make it clear that if any player does make it, any fee goes straight back into the academy.”
Sierra Leone is ranked by Unicef as having the worst child mortality figures in the world and by the United Nations as having the worst record according to the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living. Tom Vernon, Manchester United’s chief scout in Africa and a key partner in the project, says that Bellamy quickly grasped the enormous difficulties in taking boys to live at the academy.
“This will be such a culture shock for these kids,” he said. “There will be kids who have never left their village, who have lost family members in the war and may well have had an older brother who was a child soldier. We’ll literally be starting by teaching them social behaviour you teach a three-year-old.”
But Bellamy’s plans do not simply involve the gift of organised football. The new coaches in his league will be put through adapted versions of the FA’s coaching courses so that in three years, Sierra Leone will have more qualified coaches than any other West African nation. Likewise, every year, the team managers, who will have a responsibility for the boys’ pastoral care, will go on week-long residential courses to improve their education.