“ASenegal Bassouaré Diaby, the head coach of Génération Foot, a soccer academy a few hours from the capital Dakar, said with a smile. It’s easy to see why. Three verdant training fields adjoin a small stadium with company boxes, a video analysis room and a press conference briefing room. Players as young as 12 live on the site, which also houses a gym, a secondary school to ensure aspiring footballers finish their studies and a hairdresser’s shop. Players should all be “well dressed and well dressed,” says Talla Fall, as she takes your soccer-crazed reporter around for a tour. “It’s part of the discipline,” he said, adding: “We’ve done everything to give the boys the best chance to perform.”
This is work. More than 15 active players joined the academy after extensive scouting and trials, representing Senegal in the youth teams. This year, Senegalese national team Telanga Lions won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time thanks to a penalty shoot-out by Senegalese international star Sadio Mane, who was trained at Génération Foot. This sparked a joyous national street party that included climbing lampposts and throwing flames.
Three players trained at Génération Foot have been named to Senegal’s World Cup squad, including Mr Mane, who was recently voted the second-best player in the world. Alas, Mr Mane’s dismay on the eve of the World Cup has sent Senegal into a period of anxious prayer. On 21 November, the national team lost their first game against the Netherlands, who are 10 places ahead of Senegal in the rankings. FIFAthe governing body of world football.
African football is changing. For the first time in the World Cup, the coaches of African teams are all Africans. Women’s football is on the rise following this year’s largest-ever women’s Africa Cup of Nations. And African academies like Génération Foot and Diambars have produced a lot of players in Teranga Lions, better than many academies that came before them.
Previously, many academies were little more than “a little house next to a pitch”, Mr Farr said. Others are like failed aid projects. In 2010, former Wales and Liverpool striker Craig Bellamy established an academy in Sierra Leone. But it was marred by poor bookkeeping and affected by the Ebola virus. As Mr Bellamy’s income as a footballer dried up, so did the academy’s funding. It closed its doors in 2016.
In contrast, Génération Foot has been successful since 2000.One of the reasons for its power is that it is compatible with FC Metz, a club in the French second division, partially finances the academy and prioritizes its talent. Normally two players are required to play in France each year. This is the way of Mr. Manet. If those players are then sold to bigger clubs, as Mr Mane has done, Génération Foot will share in the profits. Other successful African academies are often linked to European clubs or backed by big business. One of these is the Brasseries football school in Cameroon, which is backed by the French drinks company Castel.
Even at Génération Foot, however, Mr Diaby sees room for improvement and is preparing to fly to Qatar to help find a Telanga Lions opponent. The gap with the best European academies has narrowed but not disappeared: nine of Senegal’s 26-man squad for the World Cup are Senegalese, but they were born and trained mainly in France.
Another problem is that there are not enough high-quality facilities to turn the country’s vast talent pool into world-class players. Just outside the compound at Génération Foot, local youth play on a sloping sandy pitch with rickety goalposts. “Senegal is a football country,” Mr Diaby said. “Everyone starts playing at a young age.” More than 1,000 local teams compete in the Nawetaan each year, a national championship popular with community teams. However, there are only two top academies. “If Senegal had six or seven academies,” Mr. Diaby mused, “the results would be much better.” ■