Liverpool and Wales forward Craig Bellamy is well known for his passionate and committed performances on the pitch, having appeared for a variety of clubs in England and Scotland as well as his beloved national team during a career which began in 1996.
Less established in the mainstream is Bellamy’s charity work away from the field, which now includes the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone, set up by the player himself in 2008. The foundation runs a non-profit football academy and a national youth football league. With a focus on education, equality and community on top of football development, the foundation has been a growing success. More than 2,000 children from the African country are involved in the foundation’s youth league and in March 2012 a girls’ league was formed. In an exclusive chat with FIFA.com, Bellamy explains why he felt compelled to help Sierra Leone, the progress the foundation has achieved in four years in operation, and its impact throughout the country.
FIFA.com: Craig, can you explain the feelings and emotions that pushed you to help Sierra Leone?
Craig Bellamy: In June 2007 I had a few weeks off so decided to visit a friend who had been working in Sierra Leone. I just went to see what it was like as, in football, you are shipped in and out of the top hotels and don’t usually get to experience different cultures. It left a very big impression on me and I have had feelings for the country ever since. I had always wanted to get involved in charity work in the UK but looking around the country made me realise just how lucky we are. Watching kids with nothing playing with footballs made out of rolled-up socks or oranges really inspired me. It made me think that I’d like to do something.
How daunting and difficult was it to start the foundation and overcome the various hurdles that occurred?
It’s been a lot of hard work. Originally I hired people who had experience setting up an academy in another West African country. It took me a while to realise that they were trying to run it from outside Sierra Leone but when I did it was clear to me that it just wasn’t possible to run it properly like that. My footballing commitments meant I couldn’t personally check on the progress, there were a few setbacks, but the hardest thing was not knowing what was going on. So in early 2011 I appointed someone to run it, someone that lives on-site and can manage everything on a day-to-day basis. I now get regular updates on everything from how the boys are doing in class to the condition of the pitch. We are now back on track.
How pleased are you with the progress the foundation has made since 2008?
The progress has been great. The 19 boys at the academy are all doing really well in the classroom and on the football pitch. We are building new classrooms and a new dormitory as we have a second generation of boys joining in September. But where the foundation has probably had the biggest impact so far has been the nationwide youth football league that now encourages over 2,000 children – boys and girls – to go to school and help their communities.
Do you think the achievements the foundation has accomplished can be replicated in other countries?
Football can be used to help tackle all sorts of problems. Our league was never just about football - it’s much more than that. It’s about education, fair play and improving local communities. Using football to get kids to go to school is definitely something that could work in other countries. UNICEF were amazed by the results we got in the first two seasons, when they were involved, and I can't see why it wouldn't work as well elsewhere.
Is the league for girls in many ways more important than the league for boys, given the gender inequality in the country?
It’s obviously very important and I’m really happy that we now offer girls and boys equal opportunities to play in our league. Gender inequality is a real issue in Sierra Leone and I’m happy that we are doing something to tackle it. After the success of the boy’s league, we decided to run a four-team pilot project in Makeni in the north of the country. This was a huge success, so this year on International Women’s Day, we launched an expanded girls’ league involving over 200 girls in the regions of Makeni and Kenema. We now have six teams in each region and if we can secure a league sponsor the plan is to go nationwide next year.
How have you found the level of football in the country during your visits to Sierra Leone?
Every time I visit Sierra Leone I am impressed by the passion for football. Everywhere you go there are people playing football and there is obviously a lot of potential. My academy runs a nationwide scouting drive each year for 11-13 year olds and the standard we see each time is improving. As is the quality of football and fair play on display in the league we run, and there are many teams waiting to get the chance to join.
What are the chances of any of the foundation’s children becoming professional footballers?
I’m always impressed by how the academy boys are developing. They all train very hard, as I saw for myself last summer when three of them spent six weeks living with me and my family while they trained with Cardiff City. I really believe that we will see some of the CBF graduates represent the national team over the next decade, and their first chance for selection will be the U-17 qualifying match against Senegal in the autumn. But football is just a bonus – education comes first for me and if the boys are behind with their studies, they don’t get the football opportunities. To be honest, I would be happier if the boys went on to become doctors, lawyers or businessmen and could use their education to help improve the country. Two of the boys have scholarships to study in America and I expect them to come back well educated and able to make a big impact in their communities.
How has your involvement been received in the world of football? Are people surprised at the time and effort you have put in?
The reaction has been very positive. I was really touched by some of the messages of support and offers of help after ITV showed a documentary about the foundation earlier this year. It was the first time I had really spoken about my work in Sierra Leone and it took a while to convince me to do the documentary as I’m a private man. I didn’t set up the foundation for people to have a different opinion of me.
Have you been offered any support, from individuals or organisations?
Everything you see at the academy – from the pitch, to the classrooms and dormitories – has come from my own pocket. With the second generation of players joining in September we’ve just started building a new dormitory and classrooms. But the foundation has got to be self-sufficient at some point soon because I won’t be playing football forever. Partnerships with corporate sponsors are key and so far we have a logistics company in Sierra Leone called SSGI (Security Support Group International) who have been incredibly generous in sponsoring the academy. UNICEF were amazing in getting our unique league up and running, generously supporting the first two seasons. Now, in the third season we are getting individuals and organisations in Sierra Leone and around the world to sponsor teams in the league. For instance, Mohammed Kallon and the British Army based in Sierra Leone each sponsor teams. In terms of the public, I was amazed by all the messages and offers of support from around the world after the documentary
Would you encourage other footballers to make a similar commitment?
Whatever happens on the football pitch, I will always be able to go back to Sierra Leone to see the foundation. It is a massive commitment and people had doubts when I told them what I wanted to do. But it has been my biggest achievement and I would definitely encourage others to do the same. I’m very fortunate to be able to do this but I’m no different from anyone else – anyone in my shoes would have done the same and many players are already involved in charity work, especially in their local communities.
How long do you intend to remain involved with the Foundation and the country?
I’m in this for the long run - it’s my project and I’m responsible for it. I know it is important to have continuity, the people running it are on long-term contracts and my focus is now on securing partnerships to help fund the future of the foundation. Every time I visit the country I get thanks but, if I’m honest, I should be thanking them too for what they’ve done for me as a person.