On November 22, 1992, what cynics and sceptics termed a pipe dream was given life by a former Technical Director of the Nigeria Football Federation, Kashimawo Laloko, who founded a football academy at the Agege Stadium in Lagos Two years later, soft drinks giants, Pepsi, bought into his vision, causing the name change to the Pepsi Football Academy.
The coming on board of Pepsi, seemed to be the plug that would spark the academy to a whole new level, as it started drawing extremely talented kids into its fold, cementing its place as the foremost football breeding ground in the country.
The academy has undoubtedly had a positive hand in shaping the development of Nigerian football, having bred high-profile footballers like Super Eagles captain and former Chelsea midfielder, John Obi Mikel, 2013 AFCON hero and former Rangers midfielder, Sunday Mba, present Eagles fullback, Elderson Echiejile, Dominic Onato, Echiabhi Okodugha, Joseph Akpala, Conquest Osaroigwe, Soga Sambo, Ejike Ozoenyi and Yinka Adedeji.
Mikel may seem like the stand-out name in this stellar cast that the Pepsi Football Academy has nurtured to stardom, but the fruits of Laloko’s dream some 25 years ago, are scattered in various parts of the world even as new seeds are being nurtured through the expansive network, cutting across 16 training centres in the country.
Designed for students between the age of six to 18 years and operating all year long and armed with no fewer than 50 crack coaches, Laloko said the academy has become the melting pot for the development of the complete age-grade footballer.
Laloko, who is the Director-General of the PFA, while reminiscing on the journey so far, told Sports Vanguard that he has been amazed with the feats achieved by the institution/ ”We were 25 years on Wednesday, November 22 and I must admit that I have been amazed with the achievements that we have recorded in the course of performing our roles with these young kids and teenagers that we have come across and nurtured to stardom.
“The successes we have achieved are many and we are thankful to Mr Iain Nelson, who believed in us and has contributed immensely to the success story that the academy has become in Africa”, added Laloko, who said plans were on to take the academy closer to the masses.
”We recently secured the use of the Sabon Gari stadium in Kano and the Ranchers Bees stadium in Kaduna, so that these youngsters can maximize their potentials. In Jos, we are at the Lampang stadium, in Abuja, we are at the Astro-turf pitch of the State Sports Council. In Enugu, we are trying to secure the Nnamdi Azikwe stadium and in Aba, we are awaiting the government to give us a suitable ground to use.
”I am proud with what we have achieved. We are playing in the Copa Lagos Beach Soccer competition holding next month. Last year we played against Arsenal and this year, we are due to play them again. We lost to them in 2016 but we are working hard to defeat them when we meet in December.”, added Laloko, a former technical director of the Nigeria Football Federation. He said the academy has faced peculiar and general challenges in the last 25 years.
”Even though we have achieved, we have had many ups and downs. We used to supply players to the national teams but now, football officials, who run academies, are taking over because they are in position of authority. They are not genuine stakeholders but are doing it to make money, unlike us, who do it for the development of the game. We are aware of this and that is why we are re-establishing ourselves for the challenges ahead”.
Laloko said the NFF has shown that it lacks a clear focus on football development, noting that a national age-grade tournament for U-20 and U-17 should be holding by now if the country was serious about developing the game.
”By now, we should be playing a national age-grade competition. That is what they are doing in Europe and accounted for the success of England in the last FIFA U-20 World Championship. We need to be focussed so that we can succeed at all levels”, said Laloko, who berated the NFF for going abroad to shop for ready-made players, instead of encouraging the cultivation of talents in the Nigeria.
”The idea of going overseas to beg players to come and play for Nigeria is a lazy approach to achieving success. Our academy is a great one and all our coaches are CAF Licensed instructors. Our standards are high but the problem is with the NFF, who keep appointing coaches without licenses to handle our national teams.
”The fact that one played the game to the highest level does not make the person a competent coach. We need to follow standard procedures. The case of those who handled the last Under-17 team is an example to learn from”, Laloko added. Despite being in the business of grooming talents, Laloko insists that the academy has not been making money, unlike other academies, who he claims sell players to agents, who in turn sell them to clubs overseas or in Nigeria.
”All we are doing is develop players. We are not making money. We don;t charge fees to admit kids into our academies, unlike others, who charge as more as N200, 000 for players to join them. How can we charge money when we know that kids who play football are from poor homes? That is most unfair and wicked.. Those who run academies do so to make money but we don’t. Others have agents who take their players to abroad but we don’t. These is no club in Nigeria that does not have our player in the club because we don’t do players transfer” Having played a part in nurturing Mikel to limelight, Laloko feels that the Eagles captain has let the academy down in many ways.
”Mikel was brought to limelight through our Jos centre around 1995 to 2002. We gave him the breakthrough that made Nigerians to know him. He was unpolished when he came but we refined him. If not for us, maybe, he would not be where he is today but since he became a star, I have not heard that he visited the Jos centre to donate a pair of jersey to the players there. That is most unfair.
”Some former players give us money for the running of the centres but Mikel has not done such. Osaze is an example of a player who paid us because he recognised what we did for him. There was a time we wanted to use Mikel in a advertising campaign for the academy but he shunned us. His agent was asking us to pay a huge sum of money but Mr. Nelson could not believe it and that was how the deal fell through. I don’t think Mikel has done well for Nigerian youths”, added Laloko.