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Evergrande Academy, the biggest football school in the world!




This past week the world’s attention has been drawn to a humongous project in the foothills of the southern province of Guangdong in China, where, on 300 acres of pristine land, the world’s largest international football school has been flourishing for the past four years.

It is an audacious project founded and funded by Xu Jiaying, a Chinese billionaire businessman with the triple ambition of making the academy an economic cash cow for China, helping China to host the World Cup, and training some of the products of the school to be good enough to play for the Chinese national team that will win the World Cup one day, probably in the next 10, 20 or even 30 years time.

China is a country that takes whatever it embarks on with all seriousness. It has taken maximum advantage of its massive population and shepherded millions of its youths into over 2000 science and technology–driven state-run athletic schools set up for that purpose.

With massive investment in establishing over 2000 science and technology-driven state-run athletics-focused schools, the Chinese seem to be conquering everything in sports except the world’s single, most popular and most financially lucrative of them – football!

That’s how China conquered the world of athletics by topping the Gold Medals table in athletics at the Olympic Games held in Beijing, China, in 2008.

Unfortunately, football has not produced the same success story.

Despite pumping huge funds into developing a professional league attracting fading football superstars from all over the world, China still remains way down at the lower rungs of the ladder of FIFA’s global ranking of national teams.

Only once in its history has China also qualified for the World Cup.

If money could buy achievement at this level of football, China would have won the World Cup many times over.

Football, unlike athletics, is art!  It is the depth and array of the individual artistic expressions of the players that mark the thin line between the good players, of which China is full, and the truly exceptional ones, who are in short supply within the country’s football landscape, for now.

That must have informed the new development that has been in the news all over the world this past week.

Throughout the week CNN carried the story of the world’s biggest football project located in the southern province of Guangdong in China.

This monumental football infrastructure called the Evergrande International Football School is truly unique to say the least. It is sited on a 300-acre sprawling landscape.

It has over 50 football pitches, some 2, 400 student-footballers (the number will rise to 10,000 when the school attains full capacity in the next few years) and a fully residential university-styled campus where all the students live and go to school on full scholarships.

The school combines a rigorous academic programme (eight hours of learning every day) with a fully integrated football development programme supervised by a technical director, a former international Spanish player, as well as other youth coaches drafted from the Real Madrid football academy in Spain in a collaborative partnership.

The academy, constructed in 10 months, from start to finish, is valued at over $200 million US.

The International Sports Academy – the largest in Nigeria!
Just as the International Academy was reverberating all over the world, I received a telephone call from Justice Soremi, a retired justice of the Appeals Court of Nigeria.

He called to ask me about the state of a similar project I had started some years ago with virtually similar goals here in Nigeria, the country with the largest black population on earth, and an environment naturally brimming with young raw football talents.

I founded The International Sports Academy on a similar foundation – to develop the best young talent in Nigeria in an school environment that will make them not only good enough to be a part of the national team that would one day win the World Cup for the first time, but also well grounded in academics to live useful lives beyond football should they not make it as professional footballers!

The academy was originally sited on 125 acres of land that has now been shrunk to 50. The school has a university campus style residential facility for all its 120 students (when the school runs at full capacity in another year or two), and combines eight hours of daily academics with an intensive football (and a few other sports) regimen of training and matches that takes up the rest of their day. The academy may be worth a little fraction of its China counterpart!

Unfortunately, the original concept to have all the students funded by the governments of their state of origin met with rather cold receptions. It is only the Borno State government that has sponsored five students selected by the state to attend the academy for a period of three years.

Otherwise, it is only a few individuals that have supported some students to attend the school. They include the current president of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, whose Football Foundation has been sponsoring two students from Delta State, where he comes from, to the academy for the past five years, and my friend, foremost respected columnist and social commentator, Tunde Fagbenle, who co-sponsored the training of a female student-athlete for two years in the school.

Otherwise, parents pay for their children’s training in the school.

In November this year, it will be 10 years since the academy started and has produced seven sets of graduates.

Its scorecard is a mixed bag of slow but steady progress. 14 of the close to 80 alumni of the school have proceeded to American colleges and universities (all on full scholar-athlete scholarships of the schools). More than 50 per cent of the academy graduates have moved on to acquire university degrees, and several have completed their National Youth Corp Service already.
But none has graduated into any of the Nigerian junior or senior national football teams yet.

This summer the academy shall become even more ambitious with its programmes, escalating its programmes to make the school a laboratory of learning, as well as sports development. It will run a fast track teacher development programme and a new teaching methodology that will make learning easier, more pleasurable and plenty of fun for the student-footballers so that they do not give up academics for football when they graduate from the academy or when they receive offers from professional clubs.

Beyond celebrating 10 years of its existence, the academy intends to allow the young footballers more freedom to enjoy their football by downplaying technicalities and allowing them to freely develop, enjoy and express their skills level.

That may mean introducing more stringency in selecting those that will come into the academy, ensuring that they represent the best and most gifted football youngsters in the country to be assembled under one roof from between 10 and 11 years of age until they complete their programmes at 16 or 17.

Like the Evergrande Academy, the Segun Odegbami International College and Football Academy will sustain its original vision of producing football players grounded in academics, but exceptional in their football such that they can be the catalysts to turn football into big business in Nigeria, and be a part of those that will host the World Cup one day in various administrative and technical capacities, or even those that will play and win the World Cup in the next 10 to 20 years time.

Lofty dreams are not limited only to China. Even in the little hamlet of Wasimi Orile they do exist.

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