When Nobel Prize laureate and former goalkeeper Albert Camus scribbled one of his most famous phrases - “all that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football” – he meant it in his existential, very personal way. The French author probably couldn’t then imagine how much the game he loved would grow to become such a powerful tool to nurture and instruct young kids; to the point now that when the pioneering project of an under-15 league gets underway in Malawi in 2015, it openly doesn’t focus solely on discovering new elite talent, but also on educating a generation.
“I know it sounds harsh to say this here, in this specific occasion, but we’ve got to be realistic,” started Benjamin Kumwenda, as he watched the opening round of the maiden season of the league in Blantyre. “Out of a group of 400 players, if two or three make it to the senior national team, it is a great result from the sporting point of view. Hands down. But, as a society, what do you make of the other 398?”
“Most people don’t make it as professionals. Not in Malawi, not anywhere in the world. The difference in a country like this is that you must really have gone to school properly to make the ends meet,” explained the 45-year-old, who is the secretary general of the football coaches association of Malawi and the man in charge of the Ntchisi district team in the newly-launched youth league.
He is one of the 36 coaches who went through a course led by FIFA instructor Dominique Niyonzima in early October, one month prior to the league’s kick-off. The idea of a two-coach tandem for each of the 18 teams was designed to place education as a priority: either the head coach or the assistant coach had to be a schoolteacher, from primary or secondary level.
One step back, two steps forward
“I took the phone and I called a number of CAF-licensed coaches in the country, including people who have been working with senior teams for a long time,” recalls the Football Association of Malawi (FAM) technical director John Kaputa, who is responsible for the youth football league project. “I told them: ‘You will have to take a step that may look like one step back for you, but it’ll actually help Malawian football take an enormous step forward. We need your expertise.’ They were all up for it, so we chose schoolteachers to work alongside them – who have now become FAM-licensed football coaches themselves.”
The outcome of the teacher-coach tag team is palpable at first glance. When the current head coach of Malawi’s national team Ernest Mtawali – arguably the best player in the country’s history - visited the Chiwembe technical centre to watch the league’s opening round (and look for a future playmaker for “The Flames”, as he assures), it only took him a few seconds to understand it.
“Look at that!” Mtawali, 51, shouted as he excitedly pointed at a huddle of kids from the Dedza team, sitting in a circle and paying careful attention to their coaches’ pre-game instructions. At every concept they grasped, the 20 youngsters nodded, synchronised and respectful.
“At that age I’d never even have thought of trying to understand the game. If I had, I’d probably have had a better career. I’m sure this has to do with the presence of teachers in the staff. They know how to deal with the kids and they command that respect. Take that, plus the commitment to attend school that is required from these children, and you’re talking about raising better human beings. This is the bottom line of all this,” said a shiny-eyed Mtawali, admiring the team preparations as he echoed Albert Camus’ words. “And we owe it all to football."