Craig Bellamy and the Importance of Football to Kids in Need
Craig Bellamy was always an explosive, passionate footballer on and off the pitch.
Playing for Wales and a succession of EPL clubs including Manchester City, Liverpool (twice), Newcastle, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham and his beloved Cardiff City, he was coveted as a speedy striker with a shot like a bullet. He became the first player in premier league history to score for seven different teams.
Along the way, he also earned a reputation for being “difficult.”
He liked things to be done right and wasn’t afraid to speak out when he thought that wasn’t the case. The Welshman was famously called “the gobbiest footballer I’ve ever met,” by Sir Bobby Robson. He once threw a chair at John Carver, now caretaker manager at Newcastle, in a row over airport car parking and threatened John Arne Riise with a golf club.
These were not his finest moments. In Bellamy’s defense, he cared too much, if such a thing is possible.
But as it turns out, there is much more to Craig Bellamy than the millionaire footballer with the armful of tattoos, the furrowed brow and an extremely low tolerance level for BS.
He grew up in one of Cardiff’s tougher neighborhoods, a background that undoubtedly colored his attitudes on life, but nothing prepared him for what he saw when he visited a friend in the conflict-ravaged West African nation of Sierra Leone in 2007. This is the country with the world’s highest youth mortality rate where child soldiers were forced to become combatants in a murderous civil war.
As much as he was touched by the warmth of the people he met, he was also shocked by the abject poverty and the dearth of hope in a country that has seen so much upheaval.
He also saw a love for football, a sport he considered his own redemption.
Bellamy’s not a great believer in empty gestures. He built a career out of meticulous preparation; hard training and giving 110% at an absolute minimum and woe betide any teammates who didn’t share that philosophy.
With a car full of footballs he travelled through Sierra Leone, stopping wherever he saw kids playing the game they love, to give them a ball and encourage them to join in.
There are no grass pitches save the national stadium. Most children play on gravel and dirt.
That was seven years ago when Bellamy was still playing for Liverpool (who, incidentally, warned him he shouldn’t risk going to Freetown). Since then he has put $2 million of his own money into a football academy in Sierra Leone.
This year more than 2,000 boys and girls play or train on a regular basis in a league supported by Bellamy’s foundation. And that’s by no means all. The player, now 35, didn’t bother much with school himself; he was so focused on being a professional footballer he didn’t think it necessary at the time, but now he knows better, so much so that he insists that all his foundation players attend school, respect principles of fair-play, and deliver health messages and development projects that benefit other children and communities.
The alternative is simple: they don’t play.
The foundation has also founded Sierra Leone’s only football academy, offering five scholarships a year to children aged between 11 and 13.
“I set up the Academy firstly as a school for the boys. That the boys know the value of education is so important to me and my hope is that we will see doctors, lawyers and teachers coming from my Academy and not just footballers,” Bellamy says on the foundation website (http://craigbellamyfoundation.org/).
“If we also get boys winning professional football contracts then that will be a bonus for me! I want these boys to be the future leaders of Sierra Leone."
Bellamy is far from the only person focusing on football as a way of improving and enriching the lives of those most in need.
Readers of this column will know of the Field of Broken Dreams in California, a Sunday morning time machine where I and a group of fellow football lovers like to pretend, for a few seconds at a time at least, that we are 20 again and still capable of the moves largely seized by fraying hips and ravaged knees.
Playing against one of the best of us, a striker of genuine class named Simon Young, a major highlight was a game where we kept him off the score sheet for fully 80 minutes, a first in all his time of playing FOBD. Of course, he bagged a couple in the last few minutes to keep his scoring record in tact but there was a real sense of achievement in successfully defending such an excellent player for so long.
Two years ago, Simon left along with his family to follow their calling doing God’s work in the Philippines.
But our loss was the kids of Dumaguete City in the Philippines’ gain. Like Bellamy, Simon saw football as a way of helping bring communities together.
Simon describes the soccer pitch the kids play on there as resembling “a cattle field at milking time in a monsoon downpour.”
He says the children “have very little of anything let alone decent football equipment. They borrow boots from friends or family to play and should substitutions occur in a game you have to wait from them to swap out boots as they have to share, even then they don't fit!”
Supporters of the Youngs’ mission, including some FOBD regulars, help with donations and gifts of football boots, shorts and balls but for people with so little, it’s so important to give more.
If anybody reading this wants to help you can find details at http://pastoraltraining.org/young.html.
We all follow the highs and lows of the world’s top teams as the pros chase the trophies and riches that will validate their careers. We may live and die by our teams’ results but the players will be just fine with their fancy sports cars and overblown salaries.
It is in places like Freetown, Sierra Leone and Dumaguete City, Phillipines, that the real heart of football beats the hardest to change the lives of children given the opportunity to train and to play a simple game that can raise them above their humble circumstances.
When the whistle blows it really doesn’t matter whether you’re running out at Old Trafford, at the Field of Broken Dreams or on a windswept patch of dirt on the other side of the world, the joy is in playing the game.