Recently I spent some time coaching with Chigoli academy in Malawi. The work of this organisation is brilliant by scouting talented kids who are among some of the poorest children in the world. Chigoli pay for private schooling which the children could otherwise not afford, deliver character development sessions, pay for transport, provide kit to wear during sessions and nutritious food after, which is not normally readily available to these children. In this article I will highlight a number of things I witnessed during my time in Malawi.
Age cheating is rampant across Africa as many players don’t have birth certificates which makes age screening a big challenge. The players we took on trial would present identification and you could clearly see some numbers had been tampered with to make the players appear younger. A lot of the time it was the parents or guardians of the children who had changed it to increase the chance of their kid being brought in by Chigoli. Many parents believe putting their child into younger age groups will make them appear better which will increase their chances of escaping poverty as a professional footballer.
The role coaches play in this was highlighted during a coach education seminar when I asked a group of coaches to write down what motivates them to coach. Unfortunately, one coach liked the prestige being a coach brings. This desire leads coaches to put players down an age group or two as this makes their team more successful and makes them look like a more illustrious coach. This clearly hampers the development of the players as playing in younger age groups will give them more success but will not challenge them sufficiently to allow them to develop to their full potential. The point I stressed to the coaches was winning the U12 league should not be your goal but rather striving to create players who will one day play for the Malawi national team and go abroad to become a professional player. Thankfully not every coach takes this approach as the lady in the picture below was explaining to me how she wanted to inspire more girls to play football, which is admirable.
Lack of equipment
Footballs are sparse in Malawi which is such a shame. Walking through a rural neighbourhood, I found a group of children playing barefoot football with a blown-up condom (see picture below). Kids here would love to play football all of the time but obviously with the majority having no ball this limits their practice time which will hinder their development. I’d love to create a scheme to deliver footballs across the region of Malawi but I was told this idea would encounter a number of problems. The ground is unforgiving and new balls don’t last very long due to wear and tear. Another issue is when items get distributed to Africa they don’t always end up where they should. FIFA donated kits to Malawi but the kits went missing and were sold rather than being given to the kids. Corruption is a big issue in Africa which has big implications for football development by limiting finances, equipment, and opportunities for young people.
One of the kids we had on trial spoke about how he always gets cuts on his feet as he has no shoes to play in and has to endure the rough ground. Another said his feet felt very heavy when he came on trial as we gave him boots to play in when he was used to playing barefoot. It was also the first time the players had left the place they lived and would never previously have played on grass before. These kind of issues had never crossed my mind and gives a great insight into the lives of these children. The trialists also said they felt too full when they were playing as they’re not used to having food to eat before playing. This raises another issue in itself as a lot of the players are very small as 50% of the children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. Last year around 2.8 million people in Malawi were fighting hunger due to a drought which drove food prices up due to less produce being available. Despite all of this it is remarkable how these young people approach their everyday lives with a smile across their face.
Love the game
One big positive for Malawi is that everyone loves football, meaning a high percentage of the 16.36 million population will play and love the beautiful game. The attitude of the coaches and players to work hard and listen made them a pleasure to work with. The passion was also clear when I went to watch a match a local game, overlooking lake Malawi (see picture below), with a few hundred people in attendance to watch a low level game. The atmosphere was incredible with singing, dancing, and pitch invasions after goals. There wasn’t a blade of grass on the pitch and the touchline was created by the crowd standing watching, with the pitch getting progressively smaller as the game progressed due to the encroachment of the excitable crowd. Adding to the atmosphere was a tall man with long red trousers, and no top on, who would randomly run onto the pitch, do a flip, run off again, and then any time a player went down injured he’d sprint on and lie beside them pretending to help. Throughout the game everyone was singing, shouting and having a good time which would never occur during a local match in the United Kingdom. There were mothers with babies in slings on their back who would be high fiving their friends and running around.
This kind of fun loving expression was also evident at our academy as our U16 team would sing and dance while watching the u12 team play. Not only was this brilliant to watch but it also added to the intensity of the younger team who were keen to impress. The people and children of Malawi are brilliant, it’s just such a shame there are a lack of top level professional players to act as role models for the young stars to aspire to follow, as there are in other countries such as Ghana and Cameroon. I witnessed first-hand the impact Yao Ming has on the love for basketball in China and how this role model gives children belief that it is possible for them to follow in their heroes footsteps.
A lack of knowledge and qualified coaches is a big issue in Malawi, as it is in many countries. I had to pitch my coach education content at a very basic level and had to be creative with ways to make it interactive as it’s not always easy to generate discussion with lower level coaches, due to less knowledge and confidence to express their views. I also had to adjust practicals as coaches in Malawi will usually only have one ball, or two if they are a Chigoli satellite coach. One player of a local team told me how his coach would have the team practicing keepy ups with only one ball meaning the whole squad had to wait while one player practiced. During assessments coaches were given two balls and when leading shooting exercises would have a long line of players waiting while one player had a shot against an adult keeper in a 7 aside goal. This was partly my fault as I had only shown ways to get everyone moving and involved during passing and dribbling exercises, using two balls, but shows the level of coaching in the country.
A short term coach education programme can make a big impact as I went to observe a coach during a Chigoli satellite session and he tried to put all the principles that we had been working on into practice, with only one or two minor issues which were discussed at the end. This was massively positive as I was told during previous sessions, he would turn up late and the session content would be poor. I would love someone to provide funding for a coach educator to go in and deliver in small countries such as Malawi as it would make a massive difference in developing talent and giving children good experiences playing sport.
The need for more coaching expertise is clear as I had a founder of a club who had heard I was in the country send me a facebook message to look over the clubs strategic plan, and I would have been asked to coach the top flight teams if it hadn’t been the off season. Even the coaches who are qualified are not of a great level as the top level CAF licences are cheap and much easier to pass than their European equivalent.
Youth leagues are only a recent thing in the past two years in Malawi with Chigoli setting up a number of leagues and FIFA running a regional league which started in 2015, but is already on its last warning due to resources being misused. More youth leagues still need to be created as there are big gaps between the age brackets, particularly at the lower and upper ends of the age spectrum. The lack of regular games clearly affects player development and leaves big holes in the pathway to top level football.
It can be difficult for teams to take part in any league or to play matches due to travel costs being unmanageable for lots of clubs, who also struggle to afford basic equipment such as footballs. The teams I watched in the local match were wearing Real Madrid and Bayern Munich kits which had been funded by a local business man but the majority of teams are not fortunate enough to receive this financial backing.
The majority of issues discussed in this article stem from a lack of finance. In 2015 the World Bank declared Malawi the poorest country in the world per capita. I was told it is one of the only countries in the top 10 which has never had a natural disaster or internal conflict. This highlights the role corruption plays with Malawi having experienced some high profile episodes which have led reports to claim that 35% of government funds have been stolen during the past 10 years. The Cash Gate scandal around four years ago was the most high profile with it being estimated to have cost Malawi £150 million through fraudulent payments. This scandal obviously affects the relationship with other countries and impacts upon the money Malawi can generate, which is a major issue considering up to 40% of the annual budget is donor funded.
The government school system is highly flawed with over 100 kids in each class, many of them sitting on the floor as you can see in the picture below. How can anyone learn in this setting? One of the teachers asked me to take a PE lesson with around 300 children which just isn’t feasible. A lack of education reduces the opportunity for these kids to get jobs in Malawi, and to obtain a visa to study and play sport abroad. A former colleague of mine in China recently lost two African players due to being unable to get a visa granted as they were originally on a student visa.
Only 12% of the nation graduate high school which is a shocking statistic. Other issues facing Malawians include 9-10% of the population living with HIV, one in five face sexual abuse by the age of 18, and the majority live below the poverty line. One man told me his father earns 45,000 MWK a month (£49.73) which is a good wage considering the minimum wage is 790 MWK (£0.87) a day. These issues impact upon education, health, quality of life, and life longevity.
Unfortunately, child exploitation is a massive issue in Africa. Every parent dreams of their child becoming a famous football player to alleviate the financial pressure on the family and give them a comfortable life. They will do whatever it takes to achieve this. False agents can come in and say they will take them to Europe for trials if they pay a fee and cover flights. When it comes to it they’ll board the flights and then get abandoned at the far side as the supposed agent escapes with their money. This is shocking and makes you sad to think someone could do something like this to another human being.
Coaching in Africa was a brilliant experience which I’d recommend to any coach if they have a few weeks/months free. Despite all of the issues and hardships discussed above, the friendliness and fun loving attitude of the people was remarkable and puts into perspective any issues we believe we may have. The problems Malawi experience in developing talent was a real insight and unique from anywhere I had coached before. There clearly is talent in the country but it will be a massive task to improve the provision and structures in place if Malawi are to improve their FIFA ranking of 102nd and develop more players to play in the top leagues abroad.
Brilliant organisations such as Chigoli are exactly what is needed to improve education and sporting provision for kids but these organisations need financial backing if they want to make an impact on an even larger scale. Right to Dream have shown this is possible by producing professional players and enabling a large number of kids from Ghana to study in USA (see video below). If you would like to know more about Chigoli, enquire about coaching opportunities or make a difference in a child’s life by sponsoring a player click on the link below:
Short video about Chigoli:
This video showcases Chigoli Academy, our work, mission and future plans. Shot and produced by Luke de Borde.
An introduction to Right to Dream – Africa’s leading youth football and education academy, based in Ghana
Originally posted: 9th February 2017.