David Doherty, the CEO of TeamNigeriaUK International, based in the United Kingdom is a man on a mission brimming with bold ideas about how to restructure and revolutionize Nigeria’s talent-producing lines using the school system as a platform to curb age cheating which he claims is inimical to true development, the little pockets of successes recorded notwithstanding.
Together with Tara Aladegbamigbe, a member of the management team of TeamNigeriaUK International, they sat down with Completesportsnigeria.com about the plans of action and the programmes which they claim has gone beyond planning to the implementation stage.
Enjoy excerpts of the interview with the duo….
What gave rise to the vision of what you are trying to do?
It was borne out of the passion for grassroot development as a means of improving the life of the average Nigerian and raising him from the pedestrian to a higher pedestal. It’s something that we have always wanted to do because we believe you need education in whatever you aim to do in life. As an ex-footballer and coach, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of athletes who failed to combine education with their God-given talent.
Also, having grown up in Nigeria, I want to see football develop from where it seemed to have stagnated since the 1980s. So you can say we have merged our passion for sports with a vision for where Nigeria ought to be so we fashioned out a template which could be a win-win for everyone involved. It’s a teamwork so we are looking at what we can do on our own part to give back to the society.
What exactly is SportEduPlus?
In the past we had YSFON which had Academicals because the designers of that programme knew that the school is the best place to get players with the real age to play underage football and progress reasonably.
That’s what we are trying to replicate, so to speak. We have done our research. We have been to Nigeria several times and hosted tournaments here to have a firsthand experience of the kind of players in the so-called Academies around here. What we saw were very mature players masquerading as teenagers. We had a tournament last July in Lagos and we were shocked at the players who claimed to be U-16. We saw players as old as 25 or more coming out to play. I think only two teams paraded players who were close to the age we wanted so we focused on the players from those two teams.
So the whole idea of SportEdu is to get everyone involved using the school system as a base. We don’t believe in leaving anyone behind but we are starting off with the private schools because they already have top facilities and are also quicker to make decisions about keying into our visions. Of course, as time goes on, we would be bringing in public schools too.
We want to get young people thinking outside the box by knowing that they can actually achieve more if they combine education plus sports and that the fact that you didn’t succeed in one does not automatically make you a failure. And we are going along with both boys and girls, nobody will be left behind..
How does it work and what do you hope to achieve with it?
SportEduplus is a three-year programme. The first year is about coaching where the students will learn the technical aspects of the game like they do schoolwork and learn to develop their own skills relevant to the sport they’re interested in This they will combine with their school work. In the second year they will be introduced to the coaching courses so that they are not only conversant with the practical aspects of their sports, they can also handle the theoretical side of it. And the courses they would be taking are FA standard coaching courses. In the third year, they will go on apprenticeship to companies for two to three months to also learn life skills which would help them outside school and sports. We are going to be setting up partnerships with companies for internships and, let me quickly say, it doesn’t have to be sports-related firms. We just need environments where these children can have practical real-life work experience. The children must learn early in life that not everybody can play football up to professional level. You can have a team of 11 players and maybe only one will succeed at the game so, you ask yourself, what happens to the remaining 10? That’s what SportsEdu is all about.
We will be recruiting coaches and other staff, train them and attach them to these schools so we are also creating jobs and reducing the number of the unemployed in the country. We already interviewed for some coaching roles and the response and enthusiasm has been wonderful. The ones we shortlist will now be retrained and indoctrinated in the SportEduPlus’ way of doing things before they are assigned.
We have chosen Lagos State for the pilot scheme but we already have interests from other states and we have made presentations to their representatives. We have also been contacted by other countries like Zimbabwe and Uganda and they are willing to roll out. They are just waiting for us kick-off in Lagos and we are ready to do just that.
So what is The Fustar Youth League?
It works this way. Every school running the SportEduPlus programme will set up a team to participate in the Youth League on a home and away basis. Fortunately most of these schools have very good pitches so it would be easy to organize. And we are already speaking to clubs in England and Europe to take advantage of the Youth League to scout players who are truly within the age brackets they desire because one of their arguments had always been that African players falsify their ages.
So when they know that there’s an independent league run by people of unimpeachable credentials, they will know it is a worthwhile investment and can come in to partner with us.
The Youth League will be run by a body known as the Fustar League Organizing Committee (FLOC) and we are looking at people with the relevant experience to set up a league that will be competitive with integrity.
At the end of the league, there would be a Team of the Season comprising the very best of the players who would be taken on a trip to Europe and the purpose is for teams to scout them. These kids would also form a reservoir of players for the U-17 team.
It’s a developmental process so it doesn’t matter if they get beaten at the beginning as long as they pick valuable lessons and get better. That’s what England does. It takes time to build a decent team that can outlast just one competition cycle which is what we do in Nigeria. Once a competition is over, the players are discarded and another set groomed so there’s no continuity in their development. England did not just come out of nowhere to win the U-20 World Cup. They’d been at it for years and it’s time we copied something that will endure.
How long have you been doing this?
Four to five years. We have focused on players of Nigerian descent in the Diaspora. We have been trying to give them a platform, a connection to their fatherland. But then we realized we also have to do something for the young ones growing up here so that they can face their future with hope and confidence.
Is your outfit a charity or for-profit organization?
TeamNigeriaUK International is a Not-For-Profit organization registered both in the United Kingdom and also in Nigeria as a limited company. It’s a social enterprise so whatever comes in as revenues goes back into the programme.
Have you been able to secure sponsors and collaborators for what you are doing?
We have a few Nigerian-owned businesses in the UK who have being supportive of what we do from day one. Tasty African Foods is one of them and the CEO is one of our patrons who has played a pivotal role in how far we have come thus far. We have AfriPay who just came on board and they have also shown belief in our vision. We also have the Alli Foundation, owned by Tottenham star Dele Alli’s dad. He’s also part of our patrons and support pillars. We have got quite a few from the UK but so far from the Nigerian end we are still looking out for people who feel challenged by what we do that they also want to support us. Now that we are going to be more on ground here, we look forward to working with a lot of people who share our vision.
Any institutional support or endorsement?
It’s important to talk about the support we have gotten from the Nigerian High Commission in the UK who have, over the years, endorsed and supported all of our activities. They help to put a stamp of legitimacy on what we do because we understand the trust issues that may arise from people coming from the Diaspora to say they want to start something of this magnitude.
The English FA have also been of immense support for us from day one. We’ve had several meetings with them and they have given us sound ideas about how to go about realizing our objectives. Their support and belief in us have actually propelled us to want to carry on.
We have also gotten a lot of support from individuals who have volunteered their services, their time and even resources. All of us on this team are volunteers because we have our day jobs but we do this out of the passion that we have for what we do.
If the English FA has thrown its weight behind you, then one must suppose that the NFF is also backing you?
Then that supposition will be very wrong. We reached out to them when we first started. We put up a partnership with them and actually brought 22 players of Nigerian descent from England to come to Nigeria and play against the Golden Eaglets in Abuja in 2015. We wanted to sustain it by making it an annual affair but we don’t know what happened because the following year when we planned to bring the players again they (NFF) said they didn’t have the funds to bring the players from Abuja to Lagos whereas we were coming from UK!
Since then they have given us the same excuse each time we reach out to them. Maybe somebody is scared that someone from abroad is coming to take his job but we have always maintained that we see ourselves more like partners to help grow Nigerian football and not rivals.
It was shocking because we didn’t ask them for money. All we wanted was to build a relationship between the players of Nigerian descent and their compatriots at home. Some of these players are already in Academies in England and are willing to come and play for Nigeria. We had built trust not only with the players but also with their parents some of whom were scared about the security reports they were getting about Nigeria. So for parents to trust us and allow us to take 22 young people to Nigeria meant that they believed in what we are doing.
When we saw that we were not making any headway here, we fell on our Plan B which we already have a template for anyway.
Since you started almost five years ago, how many players have passed through you that you would consider as your success stories?
We have quite a lot who have passed through us. What we do basically is to nurture and advise them. We actually do more work outside the pitch mentoring these players because it’s not easy being a black player in England. Even for those at the top in the Premier League they pass through a lot of discrimination and bias that they need somebody to hold their hands through the formative years so that they don’t stumble.
Out of the 22 boys we brought to Abuja in 2015, we have Michael Obafemi who was just 14 years old when we brought him to Nigeria and he now plays for Southampton. He already made his debut against Tottenham in the Premier League. We have Victor Adeboyejo in Barnsley, Tobi Coker in Barnet and so on. One plays in Norwich now and just got called up by Ireland recently. They are all doing well now and we are happy to be a part of their success stories. We still working with other talented players and we are happy with their progress. We are happy to collaborate with their parents who have reposed so much confidence in us. This is the partnership we sought with the NFF but obviously they didn’t understand or misunderstood our motive.
The journey so far?
We have managed to secure some schools so the programme will start in January. We are in talks with several other schools and by the time we are ready to kick off in January there would be enough schools on the platform.
We are recruiting coaches and other administrative staff too so we expect to kick off with a minimum of 10 schools.
The coaches will be seconded to the schools and they would be the ones to execute our programmes in the schools to which they are attached.
You talked about the programme being in Uganda and Zimbabwe. How did that come about?
When we started TeamNigeria and some of our African brothers saw what we have been able to achieve with it, they approached us and said they would be interested in taking this programme back home to their governments so that their own people could also benefit from it. We gave them the prototype and asked them to start in their own communities in the United Kingdom and they’ve seen some amazing outcomes. They approached their FA and the government is receptive to their ideas so we went over to sort of consult for them on how best to implement it. They don’t have the kind of red tape that we have here in Nigeria as well as the number of people who won’t raise a finger unless they’re sure of what’s in it for them so it was easier for them to act quickly on the programme.
What are the quick wins that you can point at even as we wait for the three-year cycle of the programme?
For starters, the number of staff we are hoping to recruit and take off the labour market is a win for us. We are looking to match coaches with the number of schools that register on our programme so we could be looking at a very high number. If you add these to the administrative staff that we are also recruiting, then you know that’s massive.
Also, to measure impact, we are looking at producing periodical reports to parents about how their kids are doing on the programme and how they can help them do better. It will also be a feedback mechanism for us because we would also be measuring the impact of our coaches and their commitments to the children under their care.
We have noted down a number of key performance indicators which we would be adjusting to fit realities so that we can be able to tick off quick wins on our lists as soon as we achieve them.