The Chigoli Academy: Changing The Game In Malawi

Lughano means ‘love’ in Tumbuka, one of the two main languages in Malawi. Lughano is also perhaps the most talented female footballer of her age group in Malawi, and this is the story of how she was found. It is also the story of unfulfilled potential in a struggling country that promises so much, and a small group of football coaches who are trying to unlock that potential in the face of years of under-investment, corruption, and disorganisation in Malawian football.

 

Chigoli Academy takes its name from the Chichewa word for ‘goal’. Chichewa is the main language in Malawi, a country of some seventeen-and-a-half million inhabitants that cuts a thin slice through south-eastern Africa, sandwiched between Tanzania in the north, Zambia to the west, and Mozambique to the east and south. It’s one of the poorest countries on earth, with half of children suffering malnourishment, an HIV infection rate conservatively estimated to be around 10%, and poor levels of general health, literacy, and average life expectancy. Only 12% of children finish secondary school and around one in six suffer sexual abuse before reaching adulthood. It’s a densely packed, but largely agrarian society, with as many people as neighbouring Zambia but in a country one fifth of the size. In short, it’s an incredibly tough place to do anything, let alone run a youth football academy.

 

Chigoli was founded by George Maguire and Alex Scott, both of whom were part of Premier League academy sides into their teens. George moved to Malawi in 2008 to manage a football and netball competition that was nationwide among all the primary schools in the country. It involved around 5,000 schools, spread over 30 districts. The tournament was at Under-14 level, the age primary school stops if children don’t repeat years, which is a regular occurrence. George was struck by the ability of some of the children he saw: “Seeing the teams and players at the latter stages of the tournament, seeing the raw talent, and it was really raw, just smacked me in the face. Some of those kids could really play, and the thinking naturally went towards what is there for them next, and I looked at the standard of Super League, which is pretty low, and the facilities in place for youth development, and started to realise why players in Malawi hit a glass ceiling. The idea of nurturing that talent was born.”

 

George set about planning to create an academy, but then the global credit crunch hit, bankrupting his father’s businesses, cutting the funding for the tournament, and leaving George back in England without a job but with plenty of ideas. He kept up his contacts in Malawi, and Malawian football, by running football tours to the country and then, after 18 months in the U.K. training to be a teacher, he moved back out.

 

He met a Swiss businessman who was interested in setting up an academy, Play Football Malawi, which George built from scratch for him. When the funding didn’t come easily, the Swiss essentially left the football as a very grassroots element of a more traditional NGO portfolio approach, killing off the academy plan and leaving George despondent: “I stepped away and started to question whether it would ever be possible. At that time, I was speaking to Alex Scott a lot: we played social football together and had a similar background in terms of the football we played in the UK as kids [George was at Bristol City and then Southampton; Alex was at Newcastle]. Over a few beers watching Premier League games we agreed something needed to be done. That was late 2014.” A pilot phase followed, with four community tournaments at Under-12 level in the densely-populated parts of Lilongwe, with a view to finding enough players to create a squad and then take it from there.

 

And so, two and a half years later, I join George, Alex, two Malawian coaches Thom and Saint, and Caitlin, who played professionally for Hutchinson Vale in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, in a cramped Japanese van heading north to Mzuzu.

 

Despite being the tallest in the van, I seem to have been given the seat with the least leg room, a source of some amusement to the others. Mzuzu is the main city in the northern region of Malawi, known for its coffee growing. The trip is being sponsored by Ironclad, a coffee roasters based in Richmond, Virginia, who also supported Paul Watson’s Pohnpei team. Ironclad have been involved in the Malawian coffee industry since 2016 and see Chigoli’s educational focus, as much as their football interest, as being key to developing educational standards in the country which might ultimately benefit the specialty coffee industry.

 

We drive north for hours on a narrow strip of tarmac that is the country’s main motorway, passing swathes of beautiful, undisturbed countryside interspersed every so often with ramshackle agglomerations of brick buildings or huts with corrugated rooves. People are everywhere in these more built-up areas, crouched on the roadside, meandering on bikes among trucks and buses that steam along the road at terrifying speeds, stood around the stalls that proliferate outside houses or at busy intersections. As we start to climb towards Mzuzu, we see a pine forest planted years ago by some Norwegians, cannibalising the local trees (of which only some 50 square kilometres are left) and marked with the deep slashes of logging. And finally, the town itself, which is to be the base of operations for four days of scouting, during which we will end up seeing 980 players across coaching clinics, open trials, and a tournament, and selecting 43 players for a final assessment.


***

“I watched Ronaldo and Messi and I wanted to be like them.”

Chigoli’s intention is to provide an environment for the development of talented young players in Malawi, both boys and girls. Players who are offered scholarships to the academy are also enrolled in secondary education, which is always fee-paying in Malawi, and even if they are cut from the footballing program this education continues. It’s not an NGO, but rather a not-for-profit business, which aims to develop players to a sufficiently high standard to be able to sell, with the profits going back into the academy.

 

George and Alex sometimes have accusations levelled at them that the selective nature of the academy only benefits a few; how can you not want to help everyone in a country as poor as Malawi? But, as George points out, there is a significant NGO and aid presence in Malawi already. Most of the brick buildings in rural areas are schools or churches, built by NGOs or mission groups, especially from the U.S. But aid can create dependency, and Chigoli are empowering children, not teaching them to queue for handouts or wait for the sporadic largesse of a corrupt government. Football is a way out for those lucky to be good enough and the education provided by Chigoli affords them a safety net if the game doesn’t provide. George readily admits that it’s hard to deny some children the chance, very hard, but by using the not-for-profit model the academy doesn’t stretch itself so thinly that it can’t help the best for the sake of trying (and certainly failing) to help everyone.

 

Ravanelli, also known as Vava, has been at Chigoli for a year. He’s 14, and lives Dzaleka, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Lilongwe, having been displaced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) two years ago. For Vava, a quiet, withdrawn young man, football is an escape from the horrors he escaped from and the difficulties of his life now. “I think about football all the time,” he told me. “I forget everything else.” It’s not hard to see why. Vava lives with his mother; the whereabouts of his father are unknown. Dzaleka is dangerous, despite being overseen during the day by aid agencies. “It’s not a good place. There are a lot of thieves, a lot of places for drinking, a lot of ways to waste your life.” At this point, he wells up and I change the subject. “My favourite player is Ronaldo,” he says. “I like playing with people who are good at football, who want to learn to be better, and I can earn a lot of money with football.”

 

Two of Chigoli’s nascent girls’ squad are Irene and Mercy, both 14. Irene is stern, a bit serious, until she and Mercy get the giggles because they cannot remember how long they’ve been with Chigoli. We establish, with the help of Thom, that it’s around a year to a year and a half for the pair of them, when the girls’ squad started out. How did they get into football, when netball is the dominant women’s’ sport in Malawi? “I saw other girls playing and thought, ‘I can have a go’,” says Mercy. “I love dribbling. I want to be a professional player.” I ask Irene what her favourite thing to do in football is. “Creating space,” she says, with a once-again serious face. “I watched Ronaldo and Messi play and I wanted to be like them.”

 

Mischek, who is 13 and from Area 23 in Lilongwe, has been with Chigoli for three years and his circumstances are better than Vava’s. A right-footed left-winger, he is also something of an academic prodigy. When Chigoli found him, Mischek’s primary school class had 227 pupils, and he was the top student. As he explained to me, “It was difficult, very difficult. There were a lot of people. I asked to sit at the front of the class so I could concentrate.”

 

Mischek was moved into a private secondary school by Chigoli and he is still the top student in a much smaller, more advanced group. But his sights are set on football: “I want to continue playing until I become a professional. I want to put Malawi on the map and help my family with what I earn.” Nonetheless, he recognises that balance is key, commenting astutely that “football without education is useless.” Mischek’s father rides a kabanza, a bike taxi, ferrying people around the vast urban sprawl of Lilongwe, while his mother sells fruit and vegetables at the front of the family home. He’s the fourth oldest of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters, all of whom must take care of themselves; Mischek regularly prepares his own breakfast before heading to school.

 

Young women players in Malawi have a benefit their male peers do not: a professional female player they can aspire to emulate. Tabitha Chawinga, who plays for Kvarnsvedens IK in the Swedish top division, has scored 72 goals in 57 appearances for the Borlänge-based side. Hailing from Area 25 in Lilongwe, she can claim without reservation to be Malawi’s most successful footballing export, a role model for girls like Irene and Mercy, who told me that they had seen her play once in the capital. Mercy has five siblings, Irene four. Irene’s father passed away several years ago and her mother sells tomatoes at the roadside. Mercy’s background is more affluent: her mother works for the Water Board in Lilongwe and her father is a bricklayer.

 

Women’s football has always been part of Chigoli’s plan, although their move to a full girls squad is probably a year or two ahead of when they thought it would happen. As George says, “The NGO world’s focus on female empowerment through sport has put it in our heads more and some of the connections we’ve made, especially Right to Dream [a Ghanaian-based academy and a model for and supporter of Chigoli], who have some of the most technically gifted female players I have ever seen, were game-changers for me.” He continues, “I’ve seen that squad of girls grow and take shape and find their own identity, which has been hugely satisfying, and having Caitlin and Priscilla [a female Malawian coach] has added a lot of value.” In a country with very traditional gender roles, many women give up sport altogether when they get married, or at least switch to netball (which is hugely popular in Malawi and at which the country genuinely excels). Having a girl’s squad at Chigoli demonstrates to the boys that girls can and should play football, and is helping to change attitudes.


***

The pitch is like red brick dust and one end seems to have been hewn out of the cliff-face. On all sides, cloud-wreathed hills poke upwards, stepped with ledges that mark coffee farms or maize crops. Some thirty or so local children, only two wearing football boots, stand sheepishly waiting for the coaching clinic to begin. They have brought three footballs with them, plastic bags scrunched together and held in shape with twine. One is wearing a Paris Saint-Germain shirt with Cavani on the back. The goals have been made by welding drain-pipes together. One lad has bright blue football socks and one boot. His socks are pulled right up, impeccably, below long, baggy shorts. His lower half looks like a 1930s footballer. He is 10 years old. We are in Kanthete, a rural spot several miles along dirt tracks out of Mzuzu, and a centre for growing coffee.

 

The coaching class begins with a series of drills. There is work on the weaker foot, on close control, one touch movement, headers. Agility exercises take a long time to explain, with Thom patiently mimicking the movements he wants. These children have never been coached before. A small crowd gathers to watch. The children’s parents are farmers, builders, teachers. They grow coffee, maize, beans, soya, and work in the local schools. Women stand with babies on their backs, wearing iridescent shawls; the men sport tracksuit tops and shorts. Other children, scattered around the edge of the pitch, not taking part in the clinic, watch or play their own games of kick and chase. The air is crisp and clear here. While the adults and children speak Timbuku, on the pitch you hear shouts of “Player, player!” when a kid’s name is unknown to his teammates, or “Yes!” as encouragement. Malawian children also give their positions by English numbers, saying “two” rather than right-back; “four” is the deeper-lying of two centre-backs, as Malawian football still tends to play a 4-4-2 with a sort of sweeper. It’s often the only English they know. As the session finishes, three children are taken to one side and invited to the final trial day on Thursday. No one was expecting to find players who might make the grade here, but it bodes well for the rest of the trip and is a reminder of just how much untapped, unrealised potential there is here.


***

Football in Malawi suffers from the same problems as it does the world over: corruption, mismanagement, officials who look to benefit themselves and not the game. But against a backdrop of Malawi’s other issues, it seems magnified. Lack of organisation means that Chigoli are heading into the 2017/18 season not knowing which age groups will have any sort of organised league system. Cheating is rife, too. Referees are sometimes biased or coerced. Age screening, which on scouting trips is essentially Thom and Saint casting their eye over a line of players and pulling out the ones who appear to be too old, is a necessity. While some children lie about their age to appear younger, and thus stand out in a lower age group, many younger children also try to pass themselves off as older, believing, wrongly, that they won’t be selected if they’re too young. Coaches also encourage players to lie, because it means their teams will be more successful. At one of the sessions in Mzuzu, we find two players of interest, but age is an issue. Dedson, a goalkeeper, has no idea when he was born. He thinks he’s 11; his school year suggests he might be 12, except school years are vague and not a great guide either. Yona, a striker, is apparently two school years ahead of his age group. When he’s asked why, he says, “Because I’m brilliant.” That’s not implausible, either, and in the absence, often, of documents to prove anything, the opportunities to lie are legion.

 

I ask George whether he thinks that Chigoli’s most positive legacy might, in fact, not be producing great players but rather encouraging a different way of approaching football coaching and organisation? He is candid in his response. “I’m not sure we can tackle the bad stuff. We want to be a beacon of good practice, to show a better way, but can we fix Malawian football? I doubt it. But it’s not our job to save Malawian football. It’s not our place. It’s the job of the top end of the administration of football here, of FAM [the sport’s governing body], to define how they want it to be. The challenge is for us to create a channel for youth development without everything else beating us. Whether we can do that remains to be seen.”

 

Money is, of course, an issue as well. The incentives to cheat and lie are massive when money is at stake in a country that is so poor. But for George and Chigoli, money cannot be the end goal: “If you think success is one player making it in Sweden or Belgium, walking into the ground with a big pair of Beats headphones on, acting like a prima donna, that we sold for $250,000, well that’s one measure. Or do you see the value that a player has as a role model, coaching and inspiring younger generations, teaching an ethos that we’ve hopefully instilled? Whether they then play in the Super League, or in the U.S., for me that’s the better value.”

 

Character development, which is a specific element of the coaching program, is there to address this. As George recognises, “It’s hard for me not to project onto our kids what I was like as a young player, but for me, it wasn’t just about money. Playing for Bristol City or Southampton, pulling on the shirt, was the best thing in the world. You feel it. I want to create that with us. We’ve had players kiss our badge when celebrating, which I never thought would happen. I’d like to think there is pride in playing that goes beyond money. But money is a key driver anywhere, and when you’re coming from a background of poverty and your family is still in it, it’s going to be the main one.”  


***

“There’s so little competitive football for these kids - winning a tournament like this matters so much for their community.”

We attend several more local pitches in Mzuzu over the next few days. The crowds these events attract are remarkable, people crammed around the goals, perched precariously on the walls that surround one pitch or lolling under trees at another, shading themselves from the intense heat. One afternoon session, held on a patch of land next to Mzuzu Stadium, produces fewer players of interest as one of the local fixers appears to have stacked the selection with kids from a team he coaches, which has probably limited the pool of talent. In the players’ defence, though, the pitch is terrible even by Malawian standards: a dusty flat pitch is better than one with clumps of grass rising several inches from the ground and a dirt track running through it, from which on several occasions an errant cyclist must be shooed away. The surrounding area is also not as built-up as that day’s morning session, which was edgier, more aggressive (and resulted in the theft of a pair of boots from the van through a jimmied-open window), but busier and better. Was it the pitch, the coach, the area? It’s hard to know.

 

The Wednesday tournament sees us returning to Mzuzu Stadium, but today we are inside. There 10 boys’ teams, Under-12 level, and eight girls’ teams, who are Under-14. The aim is to find girls. Many of the boys we’ll see have already been trialled elsewhere in the area. As we pull in, Caitlin spots Reuben, a small, creative midfielder from yesterday morning’s tougher trial, and Levson, a striker who impressed; many others appear too. The stadium, which hosts Super League games, has five rows of shallow terracing, a grass outer ring between the terracing and a high brick wall, and a dusty running track surrounding a scrubby, patchy pitch. By Malawian standards, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. The noise is amazing. Some of the players disappear under the spotlight. “They’re not used to the pressure, the noise and the competition,” says Alex. “There’s so little competitive football for these kids and winning a tournament like this matters so much for their community.”

 

Just before the girl’s tournament final penalty shoot-out, everyone drops to the ground. Thom shouts at me to sit down, which I do, casually, assuming that he’s trying to create a sense of order around the finale. In fact, a swarm of killer bees has passed over the pitch at midriff height. Fiddling with the video camera and trying to frame the goal for the shoot-out, I had not even noticed; had I been attacked by the bees, I could have been hospitalized. The children find my ignorance hilarious and, after a while, so do I. The penalty shoot-out finally sees a winner after Dorothy, a young goalkeeper who changes back into her dress between the semi-final and final, pulls off four saves. She is thrown into the air as boys and girls alike cheer and scream. It’s riotously exuberant, impossible not to be caught up in the enthusiasm.

 

The children who are selected for tomorrow’s final trials are taken to one side and given the good news. Reuben doesn’t make it. He is 13, as verified by paperwork, and tiny. Years of malnourishment have taken their toll and there is simply no way he will ever be big enough to hold his own in competitive football in his age group. He is quietly disconsolate. We give him a shirt in recognition that he played well, but it’s not enough. He is dignified but clearly upset. I am, too. It’s a brutal reminder of what this chance means to the children and what they are up against. There’s a reflective mood in the van as we pull out of the stadium and head back to our lodge.


***

Chigoli is in its third phase of development, instituting a residential program and, ultimately, looking to create its own base somewhere outside Lilongwe. George is now a full-time employee and as he says, “it’s sink or swim on that, we need to bring in more funding and partnership support for that”. Alex is looking to expand the scouting network, working with reliable people in different areas, ultimately not just in Malawi. As he explains, “There will be an incentive for them to find players who make it into the academy, with a fee based on that rather than a basic wage. We’re looking at eight areas and eventually we want to expand across the whole region. It’ll increase our knowledge and connections, as well as our spread. We’ll bring the scouts to the academy for a weekend so they can see the level of player we are aiming for and it’ll also be a pathway for them into doing coaching badges.”

 

Even while Chigoli are not actively trying to change the football landscape in Malawi, it’s hard to escape the sense they might just do that anyway. It’s a tough ask, though, and George is candid about the challenges. “We’re in one of the hardest parts of the world to make this happen. There are so many talented children and youngsters from this area and yet no one ever makes it. We’re up against a lot. But on the coalface of that, we’re breaking new ground and you have to keep moving forwards. We have where we want to end up, which is producing footballers who can go and represent Malawi on the global stage, or represent Malawi as role models for educational access, and that hopefully increases in likelihood as we improve as an organisation and can offer them more.” The daily grind of issues, of disorganisation and corruption, are troubling but, as George says, you cannot afford to get bogged down in that: “I have learned to be more philosophical about things, to try to step back and not get too wound up and see the bigger picture. But once it starts, you can’t turn it off. You can’t walk away from all our players; that’s not an option. You have to believe in the players and remember that you’re doing it for them.”


***

The final day of selection sees us back in the stadium, and I help fill in with goalkeeping coaching. Ten children are selected for national trials, which means a trip by bus down to Lilongwe. One of those children is Lughano, a girl of 12 who miraculously even has a birth certificate to prove her age. We had heard about Lughano at the Wednesday tournament, but for whatever reason she hadn’t turned up. Apparently, if she had been there, her team would have walked it. We had given up on seeing her until she appears that afternoon, at an open trial on a dusty pitch bounded by a road on two sides and an open drainage ditch on another. She immediately stands out: poised, calm, seeming to have more time on the ball than anyone else, the mark of genuine quality. She thinks she’s a striker, but Chigoli see her already as more of an attacking midfielder. George and Alex put her into a boy’s match, Under-14 level, and she easily holds her own. Sitting cross-legged in the dirt, watching her glide around the pitch, I understand the excitement of discovery, of seeing a player who just has whatever indefinable quality it is that means they have “it”, when so many don’t. And without Chigoli, Lughano would probably continue to boss it in youth level games until she was forced to stop, or drifted away from the game, a wasted talent.

 

That, more than anything, is what makes it all worthwhile for George, Alex, Caitlin, and the others. As George says, “Lughano just rocked up at an open trial, a trial we thought probably wouldn’t produce anybody. And it produced the best girl. It’s no understatement to say she could be the best female player of her generation from this country. We’ve seen what happened with Tabitha in Europe, and she didn’t have that development window. If we can have three or four years with Lughano, that’s exciting.” Against a backdrop of so many issues, that’s why they do it. “There’s a lot of ability in these kids. There are big highs and lows, and the lows are low. In a place where there are so many problems, it’s natural to have doubts, but the highs are there too.”

 

We leave Mzuzu late on Thursday afternoon, and I lever myself into the van for the last time. As the sun sets over a beautiful, but troubled country, and Saint and Caitlin sleep in the back, we chat football. Who might play where? Will there be an Under-14s tournament this coming season? And, now they have Lughano, will the girls’ team sweep all before them? Of that last answer, I am quietly confident.


By Alex Stewart.


With thanks to Chigoli, especially George and his wife Blessings, and Ironclad Coffee.