Leslie Oghomienor, Chairman of Blaugrana Sports International, the official licensee of SUD Bescola Soccer School, Lagos, a school modelled on Barcelona’s youth system, speaks about the academy in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
Recently, you took 60 Nigerian kids to Barcelona. What was the reason for the trip?
It’s part of our objectives in SUD Bescola, to develop young children; it’s about our youth development programme and grassroots empowerment. We’ve picked children from different less-privilege areas; we went on a road show and trials to places like Okokomaiko, Ajegunle. We did a selection process and we picked some of these children and we brought them to the school. Part of the development besides them (kids) playing friendly matches and trainings in the school is to attend games abroad so that it can help them develop more as professional footballers in the nearest future.
How did you come about this initiative?
There are two things: one is a give-back process where you want to empower your community; you want to do something for people around you. Besides that, in terms of love for football, we know Nigeria is number one football country in the world regardless of what you say. We have the largest population of football lovers because in Europe you don’t have such population per country and in America, which is a bigger country, they don’t have as many football lovers as we have. So, if you put our football lovers in Nigeria together we have the largest population of football lovers and that is very useful to us.
Why did you opt for FC Barcelona in setting up the school?
Barcelona is a club with values; it’s not only the way they play on the pitch. The Barcelona motto says Més que un club, which means ‘more than a club.’ Barcelona sells its values over and above its football. The club’s values of humility, effort, respect, ambition and team work are the values we want to transmit to some of our kids so that they can be more level-headed. You can see that from the style of play of Barcelona and the way their players conduct themselves on the pitch. Barcelona is also in partnership with UNICEF. They were giving UNICEF $ 1m yearly to put on their shirts, which is commendable, and that’s what I look at in growing this Barcelona brand, in helping to spread these values, in helping to uplift children and empower them and develop them. I think there is no better synergy.
Having been to places like Ajegunle and Okokomaiko to hunt for talents for Bescola, has the response surpassed your expectations?
Yes. I don’t think there is a greater blessing in the world than for you to take a child from the streets, develop and groom him, change his environment, personality and character. The children are so happy. This is a kind of initiative that makes you feel fulfilled any time when you think about it.
How did the kids feel when they had the opportunity to travel outside Nigeria for the first time?
It’s quite moving, indescribable. These are children that didn’t know what a Nigerian passport looked like before then. They said they never believed they could board a plane and travel to another country; it’s been an experience for them. We try to manage them properly so that they will understand that this is just the beginning of a development, there are so many things to be done.
Against their counterparts in Spain, how did the Bescola boys perform?
They performed very well. Our U-8 came third out of about 40 schools, they were beating teams 6-0, 7-0, 8-0. The only team that beat them was the Barcelona team that went on to become the champions. These Barcelona kids started playing at the academy from age four and five and they have like two to three years’ experience. I can tell you that very soon in the near future, we will have a lot of kids that will be able to represent Nigeria on the global stage with this kind of tutoring.
Has it been easy for the kids combining education and football together?
Our school is an after-school-day-school, meaning we don’t have the academic part but within a year’s time we will put together the academic side at a site that we have already identified. But what the children do is that they go to school and from school they come to our own school and play football from 4pm to 7pm.
Do you have a structure which would help identify talents from around the country apart from Lagos?
Yes, we have talent scouts that we signed, that move around, as well as ex-footballers that are naturally close to football circles. We also have some proposals on the table from some state governments that are looking at doing this kind of try-out system.
Any plans for girls to be part of this initiative?
There are girls in the school already. Right now, we haven’t formed their teams because they are in different levels, so the girls are playing together with the boys.
Has it been easy financing this huge project, which has over 400 kids?
It’s the passion and I believe sports is something we have to promote. If you have passion for something, you put in your best. We’ve been doing our best to make sure there’s nothing lacking in the school. We also make sure we contribute a lot in the fee-paying part and putting the kids together.
Are there any other challenges you are facing?
Our major challenge right now is our facility. We are trying to make sure we put it together very soon, so that we can have a place where the children will have unhindered access to their training facilities and can play their games anytime without any kind of trouble.
If these kids progress from the school, are they going to be owned by Barcelona or they can move to other clubs?
Barcelona as a club has a right of first refusal because before any other club or agent or manager can get involved with every player that comes out of here, the child will need to go to Barcelona and do a trial first. After the trials, it depends on whether Barcelona will take that child or not. But having Barcelona on their CV and having a certificate from Barcelona is a great thing for the players. That’s the uniqueness of the school because Barcelona are going to absorb them. If not, they have chances of getting to so many clubs around the world because they are ex-Barcelona players.
Can your players fit into the Barcelona style?
First of all, our players have something that is unique as Africans. We have the physique, we are athletic. Barcelona’s players are not so athletic. If you look at Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Andre Iniesta, they are not very strong. Barcelona believe that if they combine our athleticism and their style of play, then they are turbo-charged. The reason why they play their style is because most of the children they have from there are not as physically strong, so they adopted a play. It gives them more options when they have African players that can play a different style like the 4-4-2 or a counter attack. Barcelona don’t play counter attack, they still play much of the ball at the back. And if you look at other clubs like Real Madrid, they have stronger players that can run very fast. Barcelona don’t do that. Besides the Brazilian Barcelona school, our school is what they are watching closely. They have schools in China, India but you can’t compare the physique of those players to the African player. They know that these players are going to develop into super players, so there is a lot of monitoring going on in what we are doing. Nigeria is a unique footballing nation; there is practically no team that can stand us when we really want to play. What we lack is the structure and development but if we introduce them, then we will be able to produce the best kind of players in the world and that’s our goal.
Is the Nigeria Football Federation aware of the Bescola project?
Yes, they have approached us to invite our boys for trials for the U-13, U-15, U-17, and U-21. They might be lucky to have some of our players in the next age group World Cup. The NFF president, Technical Director and coaches have come and they’ve seen the level of football and they know that sooner than later this is the next generation of Super Eagles building up. And because we have children from age five to 18, it means we have a conveyor belt of talents that will be rolling out on a yearly basis.
From what you’ve seen, do you think Bescola has got talents in the shape of Messi, Luiz Suarez, Iniesta and the big names who play for Barcelona?
I haven’t seen the Messi yet but I believe we have seen the Suarezs, the Neymars. But that Messi is somewhere here, we just need to find him. These players have a structured academic system in their countries. In Brazil, they’ve had it for years, they have it in Spain, Uruguay. All these teams have junior teams from U-5 to U-18; they have feeder teams that move from one level to another. That’s why when you watch a Premier League game you will realise that they went to school to do what they are doing. They’ve been doing those drills from age five till when they are 18. So, it becomes a spectacle when you watch them play compared to when you watch the league of a country where the football isn’t structured. Everybody is still trying to understand what they are doing but there you will see tactics in play. A coach there doesn’t replace likes with likes; he might replace a midfielder with a defender and the structure will change. They also have different tactics: when they attack, they play 4-3-3; when they defend they play 4-4-2, those transitions are important factors that a player needs to understand. In African leagues, you hardly see the coach with a notebook showing the players what to play. Most times the change is like-for-like. They bring out a defender and put in another defender, which means they are still playing the same tactics, most likely. But in this case, we have tutored them because in our academy, we have three classes. We have our film crew, who video and analyse the games. Barcelona also have a structured day-by-day learning lectures note that the coaches use. Yesterday’s lecture notes are different from that of today. So, the coach already knows what he’s going to tell them, Barcelona also know what you are teaching them because it’s the lecture notes that have been prepared for years that they use. Everything is clear for the player; he understands positional discipline, where to be at all times. That’s why Messi can pass a ball without looking whether somebody is there and nine times out of 10, he will get his man. This is what we are doing at the academy and by next year, when we go for more competitions, we will get better. In Europe and the US, parents make sure that if their kids want to play football, they start from young. The Williams sisters started from young; they went to the IMG Academy and from there ended up being the best in the world. Messi started from age five; he joined Barcelona at 13 and he is 30 now. It means he has 17 years of experience.
Where do you see Bescola academy in five years’ time?
I expect that we would have achieved many of our objectives: having our own facility, watching our players playing for Barcelona, top clubs or second-rated clubs in Europe and also in our local league. The ripple effect will also be there because some of our players who couldn’t make it to Europe would be here. Our coaches too would have jobs training local clubs here and changing their brand of football. We also believe that a lot of our players should come out as a different kind of example of how professional players should conduct themselves because we train them on how their attitude should be as professionals.
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