The tri­als of be­com­ing a Nige­ria foot­ball star

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

LA­GOS:

Some­where out there is a new Nwankwo Kanu or a Jay-Jay Okocha, but it is not easy for the thou­sands of pre­tenders to be­come Nige­ria’s new­est foot­ball hero to get a foot on the lad­der. There are hun­dreds of foot­ball acad­e­mies across the coun­try of 180 mil­lion peo­ple but few put their starstruck trainees on the road to a con­tract in Europe.

Each week, more than 400 as­pir­ing he­roes aged be­tween six and 18 at­tend the Barcelona foot­ball academy in La­gos, which opened in Novem­ber. Foot­ball is king in Nige­ria, even though the coun­try has again failed to reach the Africa Cup of Na­tions fi­nals which will be held in Gabon in Jan­uary. More than 1,500 young­sters took skills tests in Septem­ber to get into the Barcelona academy. But the 1,000 euros ($1,000) an­nual cost was an even big­ger hur­dle for many.

The par­ents of John­son Gbenga, 12, had to bor­row money from their fam­ily and neigh­bors in the dis­tant La­gos sub­urb of Bada­gry to get a place. “They un­der­stood that there is noth­ing more im­por­tant than foot­ball,” said the shy young­ster who spends three hours on a bus to get to each train­ing ses­sion at FCB Es­cola.

“One day for sure, I will play for Barca,” said 12-year-old Yacub Farouk as he kicked a ball in his tat­tered shorts and worn shoes. “It makes me happy be­cause other foot­ballers will be able to see that Nige­ri­ans have ta­lent and that we can be the best.” Af­ter Dubai, Is­tan­bul and Sao Paulo, Barcelona is now spread­ing word of the team in La­gos, busi­ness cap­i­tal of Africa’s most pop­u­lated coun­try.

Barca ‘vi­sion’ in La­gos

Ten coaches watched over the young play­ers at the Tes­lim Ba­lo­gun sta­dium in a teem­ing district of the city of 20 mil­lion. Blau­grana Sports In­ter­na­tional Lim­ited di­rec­tor Les­lie Oghomienor, who helped set up the academy, said it was a “rev­o­lu­tion” for Nige­rian foot­ball. Most of the Nige­ri­ans who be­came stars in Europe-like Kanu at Ajax Am­s­ter­dam and Arse­nal and Okocha-who made his name at Bolton Wan­der­ers and Paris Saint Ger­main­learned their foot­ball in the streets.

Like many of the fa­cil­i­ties in Nige­ria, the Tes­lim Ba­lo­gun sta­dium is not state-of-the-art. The worn turf has covered with syn­thetic grass. The paint on the walls is peel­ing. Oghomienor in­sisted that Nige­ria will see the ben­e­fit of the school even if there is a chance in a mil­lion of get­ting to one of the top Euro­pean teams. “We have trained coaches who will later en­ter the mar­ket. And we also have all the young peo­ple who will get to play here in and West Africa.”

Ber­nat Villa Gor­riz, the academy’s tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, laughed when asked whether the coaches had al­ready spot­ted the new Lionel Messi. “We want to in­tro­duce our vi­sion and our way of train­ing,” he said. For Barcelona, the school is a way of look­ing for ta­lent but also get­ting its name known in the glob­alised world of foot­ball where it faces in­tense com­pe­ti­tion with English Premier League gi­ants like Manch­ester United, Chelsea and Arse­nal.

All are set­ting up sim­i­lar acad­e­mies in Africa, Asia and North Amer­ica. Barcelona is not alone in look­ing at Nige­ria. Paris Saint-Ger­main has signed com­mer­cial ac­cords with two Nige­rian com­pa­nies and will choose 100 chil­dren to take part in a three day coach­ing ses­sion this year. “While the Premier League may be more pop­u­lar than the Span­ish league, the trainee foot­ballers are more than happy to wel­come the Cat­alo­nian club,” said Gor­riz. Fans of other clubs largely agree. “I sup­port Arse­nal but ev­ery­one’s got to start some­where-you can’t choose your club at my age. You have to take what you’re of­fered,” said Okiki one of the Barcelona pupils. — AFP

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