Visionary soccer academy for SA

11 July 2007

World football is coming to South Africa in 2010 and French star Patrick Vieira, 31, is hoping to add to his 100-plus international caps at Africa’s first World Cup. He’s also hoping to see another of his dreams come to fruition by 2010: the building of a Diambars Football Academy in South Africa.

Vieira is one of the founders of the Diambars Institute, a pioneering football academy that provides African boys with a real education and a genuine chance of making it in professional football – without being exploited along the way.

Launched in Saly, Senegal four years ago, Diambars has proved a huge success and Vieira, along with his friends, wants to take that success forward in the host country of the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

In a statement issued last month, Vieira announced the institute’s intention to open the second Diambars academy in South Africa. “Our goal has always been to expand the Diambars Football Academy across the globe, and we decided South Africa would be our next step,” Vieira said.

“We want to build on the momentum behind the World Cup to promote the idea that football can be a great instrument to advance education and promote social and human development”.

Giving back to football, and to Africa
Diambars – meaning “champions” in Senegal’s Woloof language – was the brainchild of Bernard Lama and Jimmy Adjovi-Boco, long-time teammates at French clubs Lille and RC Lens, who dreamed of giving back to soccer what the game had given to them.

After Adjovi-Boco’s retirement, he roped in former French junior international Saer Seck, who was heavily involved in the game in Senegal, and Patrick Vieira, who had left Senegal with his mother at the age of eight to seek a better life in France.

It took just five minutes of explanation from Seck to gain Vieira’s backing. Vieira had been wondering how he could give something back to the country of his birth. Diambars would be about more than just giving money, it would be about becoming actively involved. He liked the idea.

The plan was to use Senegal’s passion for soccer to promote education. Senegalese President Abdulaye Wade gave the project his backing by donating a 38-acre piece of land on which the first Diambars Institute would be built.

In France, the Nord-Pas de Calais region financed a feasibility study before becoming the association’s first partner, soon to be joined by France’s ministry of cooperation.

On 24 May 2003, Bernard Lama, Jimmy Adjovi Boco, Patrick Vieira and Saer Seck laid the foundation stone of the Diambars Institute for boys between the ages of 13 and 18. By November of the same year, the institute began its first classes, and in mid-2004 Diambars undertook its first European tour. By September 2005, the school was able to house boarders.

Education first
Diambars focuses first and foremost on the education of its pupils: about 70% of their time is dedicated to schooling.

Graduates from the school are sold to clubs, but not before they turn 18, and their “transfer fees” are reinvested in the school, and in funding the roll-out of academies across Africa.

Ensuring the scholars receive a good education also helps prevent the exploitation of the boys.

Europe looks to Africa to find new talent at affordable costs. A mere £2 000 is often enough to attract players with potential to European clubs and academies; in some places in Africa that is a lot of money. For those that don’t make it, the consequences can be terrible.

Jean-Claude Mbouvin of the charity “Culture Foot Solidaire” says he knows of 800 African boys who have been effectively lost in Europe. Other people put the figure as high as 5 000 children.

Not every young player is going to make it, not even every scholar of Diambars. The institute, though, offers them protection against unscrupulous agents. Should a player’s goal of playing professional football not work out, they have a good, solid education to fall back upon.

Even if boys are fortunate enough to secure a contract with a club, Diambars keeps close tabs on their progress, with the staff of the academy, including the professional players that support it, continuing to provide guidance and protection.

‘Keep the ball moving’
Today, Diambars has some heavyweight partners, including Fifa and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). Corporate sponsors include Adidas, Cadbury, and Air France.

Current and former players – apart from the founding quartet – who have lent their support to the cause include Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Robert Pires, Alliou Cisse, Claude Makelele, Ferdinand Coly, William Gallas and Mickael Sylvestre.

Besides the football academy in South Africa, Diambars recently announced another new project: “Keep the Ball Moving”, an online competition-cum-education programme aimed at schoolchildren. The aim is to establish a multimedia classroom that combines soccer with education.

The institute is hoping that Fifa will help fund “Keep the Ball Moving”, which will be launched in Senegal and France to start with, followed by South Africa and Scotland.

Diambars is ambitious, it’s exciting, and it’s working.

Now it’s South Africa’s turn to benefit from the hands-on contribution of some of the world’s biggest soccer stars, who know what it takes to be successful, who know the pitfalls, and who know how to make things a little bit easier for those with dreams of becoming professional players.

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