Monday, September 05, 2011


EPL Academies In Asia

With Liverpool getting flack for their insensitive handling of their new academy in India, called the Steve MacMahon Football Academy, the time may be right to reproduce, or regurgitate, an article I penned a few years back for ESPN. It is with Paul Shipwright, the guy at Arsenal who oversees their soccer schools around the world.

With Bayern Munchen already penciling in dates in Indonesia, China and India, Manchester City and Juventus interested in their own tropical tour football fans throughout the region will be crossing their fingers they will get the opportunity to see their heroes in the flesh this summer.

The last few years has seen Manchester United, Liverpool, even smaller fry like Fulham and Portsmouth running through the region, being filmed arriving at airports, being interviewed at plush hotels and kicking a ball around in the sultry heat. Most English teams have been in the area this century in fact. Except Arsenal.

Paul Shipwright is responsible for developing Arsenal Soccer Schools throughout the region. With local partners he oversees the setting up and curriculum at a chain of schools that aims to impart the Arsenal way at a grass roots level. All fine and hunky dory but I wondered whether Arsenal’s lower profile in the region could leave them trailing behind others who go for the sexy, high impact tours with accompanying media frenzy.

‘I think that fear is real because fans want to see their team play.’ Certainly the last few years has seen Arsenal go on low key pre season trips to the Austrian Alps. But that is not to say Arsenal are ignoring a large market.

‘We try to build our presence in a different way, in a grass roots way through our Soccer Schools and our tie ups with local clubs,’ Paul explains. ‘It may not have the impact of bringing the first team and never will but we are trying to reach our supporters on a different level.’

By setting up soccer schools and working with clubs in Vietnam and Thailand the Arsenal approach is to look long term. ‘Clubs may come to China one year for example,’ Paul went on, ‘the following year they may go to Dubai, Australia, the US. We, on the other hand, maybe low profile but we are here week in, week out working with kids, we send out young coaches as part of a gap year scheme and we believe we are touching the lives of young people in places like Bangkok, Jakarta, where they come training, wearing the Arsenal shirt, three, four times a week and they grow up with an affinity for the club.’

Arsenal now have a presence in some 18 countries outside of the UK and Paul believes strongly that the policy of building strong bonds through community work and coaching kids is a more positive way of building ties than irregular visits which just take money away from the domestic game.

I was interested in what he said about the community. The school in Jakarta is in an expensive area, the fees, by local standards, are high. What community does he see Arsenal working in?

‘In every single agreement we have we insist on a community programme.’ This involves coaches from the school visiting schools in the area and holding workshops for both players and coaches. In this way the school hopes to find young players in less well off areas and through scholarships give them the opportunity to fine tune their skills.

‘10% of all students in the school here are here on a scholarship basis. That means they are getting all the specialized coaching from our qualified coaches and it costs the kid and his family nothing.’

430 boys and girls are currently undergoing weekly, year round coaching at the Arsenal soccer school in Singapore. Some 300 in Jakarta with plans to open more schools around the country. A soccer school is never going to substitute the real thing of seeing your heroes in the flesh thousands of miles away. But by working closely with their partners in country and with their Supporters’ Clubs the club at least try to let as many fans as possible experience the Arsenal way.

This article appeared later in an Indonesian magazine and looks at a tour some of the kids made to London and the impact it had on them.

Indonesian football doesn’t have the best of reputations here. A steady stream of headlines highlighting poor administration, inadequate facilities and fan violence combined with poor performances on the international stage means that much of the country turns its back on the local game while proudly wearing the shirts of teams from Manchester, Madrid or Milan.

But one group of youngsters recently did the nation proud. Kids from Soccer School Indonesia, the local franchise for Arsenal Soccer Schools, recently went to London for a tournament featuring similar schools from round the world and boy did they impress. They won their group, scored the most goals in their group, conceded the least goals in their group, won their semi final and put up a brave fight in the final.

Along the way they provided the player of the whole tournament, attracted English club scouts and proved to the world Indonesia doesn’t lack for quality, gifted young footballers.

SSI is a fee paying school but under the terms of its franchise from Arsenal it has to offer scholarships to talented youngsters who may not other wise have the means to receive the professional training they offer. And among the 18 lad squad that took London by storm were half a dozen on scholarships.

Players like Nur Ilham. He was the lad named the Player of the Tournament. No mean achievement where you had 12 age groups and hundreds of kids. Football is a team game and his award is nothing but a reflection of everyone’s efforts, not just his. And while he got the trophy everyone felt proud that their mate had been recognized and, by extension, themselves.

And Regie. The captain. He appreciates that the quality of training he now receives is vastly superior to what he had before. ‘Before at my Sekolah Sepak Bola the emphasis was on the physical side of the game but here we learn more about technique.’

Before their trip to London most had never been on a plane before. Just Ghozian who had played in Singapore, he was a veteran of checking in and airport delays. Kids from the kampungs of Jakarta, their ability and talent gives them an opportunity to make a career out of football. But for these kids they also get the benefit of coaching from people who have been there and done that in football.

People like Max Belli who played with Parma and Inter Milan. Dale Mulholland who played in the US, Russia and Hong Kong before settling in Indonesia.

Any team that scores 16 goals in three games will attract attention and SSI were no exception with talent scouts from Championship side Reading taking notice. Indeed so impressed were they by Nur Ilham they asked him to stay behind for trials.

They lost in the final 3-1 to an English side. Much bigger and much stronger but were they down heartened?

‘At first when we took the pitch against these bigger players we were nervous.’ Perhaps they wondered just what they were doing there full stop. The finely manicured pitches, the facilities off the pitch, the food.

ut on the pitch they showed why they were there. Losing in the final hurt. They’d learnt so much said Regie, about teamwork, discipline, they feared no one. Next time, they said confidently, they’d beat them, no hesitation. Anyway, shortly after losing they were taken to see Real Madrid at the Emirates. Not a bad consolation though rumour has it, and unconfirmed, had they lost in the semi final they would have been taken to see Tottenham!

I looked at their coaches Max and Dale. Wizened old pros they have done quite a bit on the pitch but they were positively beaming at the performances their young wards had put in. ‘Amazing,’ Max kept repeating, ‘amazing.’

On the football pitch Indonesia has such immense potential, occasionally known as the Brazil of South East Asia, it’s kind of scary how strong they could become. During a recent under 16 tournament in Jakarta the Singapore coach, Tay Peng Kee, told me that technically the Indonesians were so far ahead of anyone else in the region.

For now Regie, Nur Ilham, Bambang, Hargianto, Ikram, Ghozian and Rowi still have a long road ahead of them if they are to make the grade. But they have started promisingly and are receiving good tuition. If all goes well they could be names you will be hearing quite a lot of in the future.

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