Lessons from Football Forum
For the first time in many years, Gambia’s football stakeholders looked into the future not with a sense of trepidation, but with fortitude. It must be acknowledged, though, that they went inside the conference hall of the Friendship Hostel on Saturday 9 August with anxiety, yet left that evening, perhaps having discovered the determination and willingness of each other, inspired by the contributions in every detail, with the audacity to believe.
The conclusions are, that at long last our fallible football is about to turn a corner. There was optimism everywhere among the hundreds that filled the gigantic hall, and this was evident as several stayed behind to witness the daylong proceedings.
When the Ministry at the end of June announced a five-year holistic development strategy that seeks to ensure the national team’s participation at the 2016 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, the news was received with jubilation. But before the stakeholders digested it, FIFA, just ten days later, announced the dissolution of the Federation’s Exco, and sanctioned for the appointment of a Normalisation Committee. Largely due to lessons learned from the previous process, there was a feeling of apprehension.
However, from the representation of the government to the remarks made by the Sports minister; the arguments by the consultant; the various presentations delivered in all facets of football development; as well as the contributions in the question and answer session; there is high sense of commitment and determination of everyone to ensure that football is no more seen as something frivolous.
The forum began with the ministry giving out a total of nine hundred thousand Dalasis (D900, 000) for the refurbishment of stadium facilities within the Kanifing Municipality and the West Coast Region. Bakau was given three hundred thousand Dalasis (D300, 000) to refurbish the dilapidated community mini-stadium, while half a million Dalasis (five hundred thousand Dalasis), earmarked for upgrading the New Yundum and Bullock sporting facilities, was presented to the chairman of the region’s Area Council.
A cheque for one hundred thousand Dalasis (D100, 000) for the deaf scorpions’ participation at the 2014 Africa Deaf Football Cup in Ghana, in October was also received by the Association’s president. Half a million Dalasis was earlier in the year given to each of North Bank, Lower, Upper and Central River regions. That was another testament of government’s commitment to ensure the long craved excellence in sports through mass participation.
As the Sports minister remarked, the Jammeh administration has placed high premium on football development and sports in general. In that regard, he noted, the government continues to desire for unity of purpose, unity in direction and vision, and for a broad agreement on set of objectives in moving forward. An enabling environment has been created by government and fully supported by financial resources, in order to fulfill its mandate of youth and sports development.
Minister Jammeh also underlined that some of the elements needed for robust football development include: putting in place and revamping sports infrastructure; reviving school sports; nurturing talent at the grassroots; restructuring the national league; formulating a win-win funding mechanism for the sports; establishing clarity in our various functions; and instituting a broad representation in our management and administration of the sport. It couldn’t be better said, a positive sign that we have now realised our priorities; which include going back to the grassroots, as Spanish-based English author, Graham Hunter wrote in his book, ‘FC Barcelona: The Making of a Great Team’.
That has already begun with the appointment of a consultant in former Finance minister, Dominic Mendy, to lead the process, who has already expressed optimism that the industry has the potential to challenge the contribution of tourism to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Of course that is a bold statement of intent, and it goes without saying that tourism contributes significantly to the GDP of the country, at the rate of about 16 % per annum, and for football to catch up on this, it takes more than talking. But given the huge economic potential of the sport to attract investments through merchandising; the acquisition of television rites; the direct sale of football gear, and the employment opportunities it created, all give it potential to significantly contribute to the GDP of the country.
Mendy, who equally expressed optimism that the sport can be played at the highest level in The Gambia, urged for a collaborative partnership from all the stakeholders in order to come up with a clear strategy. If this is done, he further pointed out, the sport can become one of those industries that will lead into higher consumption in other industries and create employment of significance. He reiterated that the true foot of foreign exchange in football that passes through Gambia could contribute significantly in stabilising the Dalasi.
The Gambia Football Federation, through its technical director, Ebrima Manneh, made the first presentation of the day. He suggested that by 2016, the country could adopt a new format by promoting ten first division clubs to be the premier league, while the rest of the competition structures shall be determined by the outcome of the consultative process.
It must be emphasized that the Ministry’s aim is to transform the domestic league from its current amateurish state to professional standard by 2016. For this to become a reality, clubs have to change the way they operate by putting in proper structures that will attract investment; thus address the issues of funding, something that was extremely belabored on at the forum.
Perhaps the most explicit model of a professional football club in The Gambia could be found in Real de Banjul Football Club. It is a registered company that has an executive committee comprising a president, two vice presidents, secretary and assistant secretary general, amongst others who are investors of the club. The club also has a functional academy and youth team, and as well provides opportunities for both students and non-students of all ages to play football at all levels.
The club has also implemented a development programme that provides the highest quality of coaching at all levels so that players will be empowered to advance through the sport, as well as to administer along professional business lines so as to maximise profits, which may then be fed back into further development and infrastructural projects.
This is indeed a good characteristic of a professional club, and other Gambian clubs could copy the model. Better still, the league structure could take the form of community-based clubs like Brikama United and Banjul. The latter just four years after their formation are now domestic cup champions.
Some tough decisions have to be made, just like Real Murcia of Spain recently discovered for the second time in its history, having failed to regularize its financial status. Such kind of measures should be taken and as a matter of policy, each league season, clubs must declare all their activities before an independent body can make a decision on the issuance of a license.
This is why the National Sports Tribunal, as provided for in the National Sports Council Act of 2000, has to be revitalised. It can serve as the dispute resolution body for all national sports associations, with the members consisting of independent judges. This way we can amicably settle our differences rather than risk the wrath of international sports federations. We can also use the opportunity to implement the National Sports Institute that will be used to train our sports administrators.
In my presentation on the Role of the Media in the Development of Football, I pointed to the need to expand the media department of the Federation to a Communications Unit, which will seek to improve relationships between the Federation and the mass media. The department should be proactive in providing information as well as provide a data base of Gambia’s football statistics.
But we have to discourage the idea of preferential treatment and employ specialised persons to handle media relations. The occupant of that position among other things should be well versed in the field of football; he/she should also create a strategy and operation plans of the department; be the voice of the Federation; brief the media regularly; prepare press releases and conduct interviews.
He should also have close relations with top journalists and editors as well as have access to players, coaching staff, officials and should be able to put across the message in relevant media. The Federation should also provide a work area for the media at stadiums, information on the teams, players, stats, etc.
Football administrators should also discourage the culture of prejudice among journalists and see them as partners. Admittedly, there are capacity gaps within the sports journalism industry but that would soon be a thing of the past, with the establishment of a local School of Journalism. But in the meantime, we should partner to promote our own, and in doing so, we have to make consultations especially for those of the younger generation.
If this is done, it is my opinion that by the 2016 football league season, we will usher in a new direction for our football.
However, as we digest the deliberations from the national forum and with the consultant beginning another process of engagement on a one-to-one basis, the fortitude of the stakeholders has ushered in a fresh air of optimism. After all, there is the hope of turning a corner and it will have been inconceivable by 2016 that we have failed to move on.