Orville Higgins | Rethink football academies
The Captain Burrell-led Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) has been accused, every so often, of not doing enough to promote the development of youth football in Jamaica. The accusation is not without merit.
The practice of going overseas to find professionals to bolster the team hasn't paid dividends as far as World Cup qualification is concerned, and it seems that even Burrell himself is prepared to veer off in another direction. Leon Bailey's multimillion-euro signing from Genk to Bayer Leverkusen has raised the decibel level of those crying out for more to be done to help create our own stars here, as opposed to going off to England to find talent on the eve of another round of World Cup Qualifiers.
Most Jamaicans feel that the answer to this lies in a central academy where the best talent in the island can be harnessed and trained. They feel that this should be driven and operated by the JFF itself. That certainly would not hurt, but there are other issues that might arise that I am not sure enough of those hollering for an academy have thought through.
For one thing, usually it is clubs that develop academies, as opposed to a national federation. There have been exceptions. Germany, for example, went on a massive campaign after the Euros in 2000 to get the best young footballers in the country and expose them to top-quality coaching.
Germany, though, has a world-rated professional structure. The youths in that German system know that if they are good enough, they will be able to land a fairly lucrative job as a professional footballer there and, therefore, it is worth the risk to invest time and effort on a football career. In Jamaica, that is not the case.
There is no professional set-up here, and therefore asking a cadre of Jamaican youths to have a football-first school career may not be something with which too many parents would be happy with. I don't know too many Jamaican parents who would send their really bright child to a football academy vis-a-vis one of our traditional high schools. Thus, the football academy would run the risk of not having our most intelligent young minds. There is not the same guarantee in Jamaica as there was in Germany that the best talent would earn a decent livelihood from the game, and some parents would be reluctant to have their children in such a programme.
The idea of specialised training for gifted footballers in an academy-type structure must, however, be encouraged. I am not prepared to throw out the idea altogether, and what I would suggest is that we try to modify the concept a bit. I recommend to the JFF that rather than have a central, live-in academy, they should explore the possibility of parish academies. So in all 14 parishes, they would choose the best, say, 13-and-under footballers and have them come in for specialised training every weekend. They would also spend extra time there on holidays.
This programme could be associated with a school in each parish. So in St Elizabeth, STETHS could be the home base for the youngsters in that parish. Rusea's and Manchester High could also serve as home bases for others in Hanover and Manchester, respectively. The young footballers would do two training sessions every Saturday and would be exposed to the top coaches around. They would spend three seasons in this parish-type setting and the very best of them would gravitate to the national Under-17 squad.
To heighten the interest in this programme, we would then have a competition for those 14 parish academies where the winning team and coach would be given all the plaudits when it is all over. At the end of the tournament, one could well choose an all academy team and maybe make them travel to another country to take on youths in a similar age group.
This would not only give the youths some sort of reward, but would ensure that they have something to aim at and, therefore, put out their best.
Sponsorship is always key in sports, and this programme would, of course, have to be heavily funded. The JFF and the Premier League Clubs Association and entities like that should make a monthly donation to these parish programmes, but the onus would be on the parish associations to help cover these expenses.
If we have 14 parishes working with the best talent, it would mean having almost 300 young footballers being prepared for the future. Some will inevitably fall by the wayside, but in time, there would be some gems we would unearth that would serve us well down the road. Over to you, JFF!
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to columns @gleanerjm.com.