ACADEMY VIEW: MONROVIA FOOTBALL ACADEMY Follow on Twitter
Last month, we flew from Monrovia, Liberia to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire for Monrovia Football Academy's first international youth football tournament. Football clubs and academies traveled from across West Africa to showcase their Under-15 and Under-18 players’ talent to scouts from Manchester United, Bordeaux and Nice, among others.
The week’s most consistent message – from European scouts, football agents, and staff members of visiting academies – was that football could ‘give a poor young African a new life’ by buying him a ticket to Europe.
That mentality is deeply problematic. It reinforces structural inequality on a global scale. It suggests that success – no matter what form – is unattainable at home. Europe is the land of promise. Africa, the land of lost hope.
The irony is that – with very few exceptions – these scouts, agents, and staff members know little about the African continent’s wider political and economic contexts. When we told one scout about our friend Mahmud Johnson’s homegrown Liberian business, J-Palm, he genuinely could not believe that such innovation and inspiration could come from Liberia.
As leaders of a youth football academy in Liberia, we are somewhat unorthodox. Only one of us played professional football. 16 of our 17 staff members are Liberian. We prioritize female participation as one of the first academies in the world founded on the principle of 50:50 gender equity. And at our academy, education comes first, football second.
It showed during the tournament. We were the only academy with girls on our team, and we were the only group to hold academic classes throughout the week.
We do not see football as a ‘way out’ for young African student-athletes. Instead, we see football as a tool whose power lies in its ability to attract and engage youth. Our student-athletes’ commitment to the beautiful game is relentless, so we use it as an incentive to improve academic performance, break down gender barriers, and prepare our students to lead positive change in Liberia.
Perhaps most importantly, we emphasize that professional football is just one opportunity among a wide menu of other possibilities.
In Liberia, there is a tangible entrepreneurial spirit. There are major corporations that consistently hire skilled and sophisticated staff members. There are gaps in infrastructure, health, and education that require the attention of the country’s brightest minds. We encourage our student-athletes to dream of building businesses, contributing to major corporations, and tackling Liberia’s biggest problems.
If we prioritize playing football in Europe as a measure of success, then we are doing Africa’s brightest and most talented children a disservice, not to mention reinforcing colonial-era mindsets.
Football is a powerful tool that can be used to promote unity, innovation, gender equality, academic excellence, and so much more. Over time, we hope to lead by example and develop a generation of educated, disciplined, and creative African leaders – both on and off the pitch.