Monday, January 28, 2013

Highlanders Academy? What is an academy?

Highlanders Football Club of Zimbabwe held an Annual General Meeting in which it was claimed the Chairman, Peter Dube refuted the claims that there is an institution called the Highlanders Academy. Whether it was a response to a raised issue or putting the record straight, it is interesting that the issue has nine lives.

In South Africa, any youth clubs and structures are referred to as development sides, while the northern neighbours call it juniors. Around the world, it is plain youth development. Whatever the case, many develop these structures under the main clubs as feeder operations to the senior teams that play in different levels of the local leagues.

Before the tenure of Dube, Themba Ndlela sourced the expertise of youth development program from overseas. The First Sports Mobile Academy of Canada partnered with Highlanders junior development in a venture that was named the Highlanders Academy. It turned out it was not registered as such, but the project was in progress.

For political mileage, this has been used to throw eggs at the face of others instead of working for the good of the club. For starters, many sought the definition of the ‘academy’. Others shot the idea down as a fraud. In many ways, the arguments for and against the academy bordered around misinformation and ignorance.

The unrealistic expectations were that the institution to be labeled an academy, a few things needed to be in place. Zimbabwe has their standards which are guided by Fifa. Fifa leaves much leeway for the national association to register and monitor these. All the details rest with, in their case, Zimbabwe Football Association.

Without questioning the integrity of that association, as an example, their rules may be massaged to favour a certain structure or institution. In 2012, I tried to shed light of what an academy is, according to Fifa.

Fifa expects an academy to recruit junior players, house them in dormitories, feed and school them. It means that there should be enough buildings, training grounds and qualified teachers. In the event that the minors come from very far or another political territory, the academy must transport and house the parents as well.

Without losing track of the Chairman’s statement that there is no Highlanders Academy but Highlanders Juniors, it all depends on the context and the actual reason why he had to bring that up.

Junior development is a general youth and talent nurturing. Many want to ponder on the differences between the two. An academy is a professional way of developing talent as compared to anyone or institution trying to do the same. The equipment and manpower is one aspect that separates the two.

Given the professionalism involved, the academy then assumes a certain shape and direction in terms of planning and approach. A thorough analysis of the views, objectives and vision get outlines as a philosophy.

The culture of the institution is meant to has to be maintained from the under 8 age-group going up. The common problem is that the senior teams usually get experienced coaches who have philosophies that differ from the academy, but life goes on in that case. The academies and clubs do not change their culture and philosophy to suit the coaches as they are usually passers-by.

Training methods match the traditions of the club with the common aim to be best. Achieving that is variable. As an example, some traditions and philosophies may include the fact that the ball must be moved around with pace and on the ground. The other may be that the ball must move from one end of the pitch to the other with minimum time and touch – the long ball.     

I think many of these things are available at Highlanders but the Chairman and a few people want to call them something else. When it comes to infrastructure and registration with Zifa, it becomes another issue.

Actually, the registration is just $1500.00. An issue alluded to the Chairman is that the set-up was not in the interest of the club. That is despite rumours that the paperwork is spot-on and players are contracted. Just in case that is not true, that paperwork will need the same legal team that worked with them. The Highlanders lawyers remain the same over the tenure of all chairmen.

Zifa will or may make other demands that Bosso may fail to meet to be registered as an academy. One thing for sure, all the issues highlighted in terms of Fifa are but decoratory. For starters, it is only Real Madrid, Ajax and maybe Barcelona meeting the criteria of Fifa. Manchester City are the only club in England in the process of building an institution that will accommodate 120 players. There is no one else.

Just as an example of how other academies work, let us look at Aston Villa, and this is typical. Players come from the local vicinity. The attend school and then go to play football in the afternoon. Depending, many attend school three times a week and the other days, they play football and Aston Villa arranges tutors for the missed classes.

This means that Villa has to liaise with schools and give the students the material they must be studying. It can be twice and once a week. There may be times that the players miss other lessons, in which case Villa makes arrangements. Again, if Villa find a new recruit further away for convenient commuting, they must find a accommodation for the player and his parents close by, as well as the school. The academy pays for their upkeep and fees.

The English regulation requires a certain distance from the academy to the point of residence of the player. In cases where it is not so convenient to transport and house the player, say from around Manchester, Villa can try to see if there is a similar situation that clubs in that country have. If the players match each other’s capability in a way that a compromise can be reached, they swap the players in some sort of deal.

As one can see, the deal can involve just training without transfer, but the problem here is that the philosophies may not match. Usually it would be a permanent arrangement, maybe for some time with some clauses.

One of the most important things to note here is the age of the players in question. At 8 to 12, many things can be overlooked because the players are too young. Many teams do not commit much in such cases because at or after puberty, the player personality change and the players may even decide they do not want to pursue football as a career. Much care is taken in investing in these players.

The Highlanders set-up has the capacity to do most of that, if registered through Zifa and there are no vultures to seek political mileage in shooting down an idea because it was seeded by the Ndlela administration. That cheap politicking seems to be rearing its ugly head far too often and it may cost individuals some elections.

Care must be taken to understand that many clubs already to take care and manage the players’ football, academic and social activities. The stakeholders have to be parents and school and again, something Bosso has done before and can still do. This was regardless whether the structure was labeled an academy or not.

The sudden excitement to refute that label and the haste to dissociate with the possibility of such is interesting. The ignorant trying to enlighten the blind catalyse the decay process threatening to divide the club into fanatical factionalism, a farce synonymous with Dynamos of Harare.

Whatever induced the subject, one would like to believe the prudence and integrity of the chairman is not dragged into the mud. He may have a great plan and vision, but trying to fight the definition of the development program is a minor part of his mandate. With or without his explanation, the value of his role and function is not dented. He has the support of many people for a sterling job done last season.

Many had wanted to believe that his administration did not savour inheriting the coach signed by his predecessors, and that he also wants to shed the ‘academy tag’ away. Mr. Dube is not so small.

He may not need to know that the youth development as an academy means a thorough approach in nurturing the juniors and a professional attitude in dealing with the parents, Zifa and the players, but that is what Bosso has always been done. As chairman, he can always choose the name that sounds sweet to his ears, or to the rest of those who raise the issue at the fall of the hat.

Whether there is a plan in place to make things better or not, it is not clear. Any further plan that the club can have on junior development easily qualifies as an academy as long there is funds to meet the criterion set by the national association. The rest of the issues are just academic and the executive committee may waste their time and energy trying to rename the project as, say Centre of Excellence, in which case, the electorate does not have to waste time and energy voting for a crew that will lose time and focus disputing that naming and its definitions.

If the arguments are to meet the Fifa standards, something Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea cannot match, then it is an issue that will hinge on the expenses until maybe Aspire of Qatar can take over the club. Potential sponsors will have issues with the kindergarten bickering that wastes wind. It could be that the current regime does not want to work with FSMA because, again, they had a relationship with the previous leadership. No one would like to think that the leaders can be that childish. I believe the club will be looking for funds to do everything in their power to register an institution that is in the interest of the club and not themselves as individuals.

That Highlanders Football Club Annual General Meeting came and went without much fuss, with the acknowledgement of the supporters association as well as mapping the way forward for the club. This will be followed by the Vice-Chairman and Treasurer elections are on next week at the Club House. A lot of people handed their nomination papers for both posts.