Craig Bellamy Football Academy in Sierra Leone suddenly closes…why? What went wrong?
Craig Bellamy’s foundation was supposed to be a route to a better life but the future is bleak for boys now shunned by their families and living in poverty
Two hours’ drive from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, a dusty road ends in the small fishing village of Tombo, where the grinding poverty of the population contrasts with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Tombo was the home of the academy of The Craig Bellamy Foundation, set up by the former Wales striker in September 2010, most of it funded by his own money. When a reporter from The Times visited just before the opening, he was struck by the “gleaming new buildings and newly laid pitch dug into the hillside”.
Now the academy, once the pride of both the village and the country, is barred shut and pictures show the once-lush pitch has become a dry, pock-marked reminder of happier times.
For some of the teenage boys, the academy has paved the way to overseas scholarships, but for others who once proudly wore the foundation’s shirts and had made Tombo their home, their dreams of a better life through football have been shattered. Former staff say some of the boys are now living in slum conditions, shunned by their families and with little hope for the future.
Bellamy, who played for Manchester City and Liverpool, decided to launch his foundation after visiting a friend in Freetown in 2007. He said at the time that he wanted it to be his legacy and told the parents of those in the first intake: “I want them to succeed in life as much as my own children.”
The Sierra Leone government provided 15 acres to build dormitories, staff accommodation, classrooms and training facilities. Bellamy, according to previous reports, put £1.4 million of his own money into the project and, at the start, support was provided by local companies including the Security Support Group International (SSGI) in Sierra Leone, which pledged to contribute $300,000 (around £200,000 in 2010) over three years in a package including cash, engineering, technical assistance and security.
Around 35 promising boys, most younger than 14, were selected from across the country, while a youth league was also established with the initial backing of Unicef for 2,400 children, which proved a huge success and had the added benefit that the parents could reclaim the £10 annual cost of their schooling.
Expatriate and local staff and volunteers were taken on but, when the chief executive of the Sierra Leone arm of the foundation resigned over a difference of opinion with the trustees in May 2013, he was not replaced. Some former staff members say they started to express concerns that the administration structure of the foundation was not adequate to satisfy the due diligence demanded by the large companies who would be vital if sponsorship was to be secured to guarantee the academy’s longer-term future.
Staff members have told The Times that they were frustrated about the lack of annual reports and accounts, and that a plea to appoint an independent and experienced trustee went unheeded. The first set of annual accounts was not registered with the Charity Commission until March 2014, three and a half years after the academy had been established. These show that, in the year to May 31, 2013, Bellamy contributed £297,848 — 85 per cent of the donated income that year. The next year he contributed £92,372. The accounts highlight that income from sources other than Bellamy was not enough to sustain the academy, and its fragile position came under pressure from the ebola outbreak in 2014, when nearly all the expatriate staff left the country.
A skeleton staff kept the academy going, with the 35 boys protected from the disease that ravaged Sierra Leone, and once ebola had been conquered, efforts were made to get it back on track.
Money, though, was increasingly tight. Tom Vernon, who runs the Right to Dream academy in Ghana and who had helped to set up the Bellamy academy, said that the ebola outbreak would have made it incredibly difficult to attract any funding from local companies: “Sustaining these academies is a really hard slog, an uphill struggle anyway and, after ebola, the local companies would have just been trying to survive themselves and not have any spare money.”
At the same time as the ebola outbreak, Bellamy retired from football and his earnings from playing ceased abruptly. Hopes that he would be chosen to take over from Gary Neville as Sky Sports’ main pundit also failed to materialise.
Despite this, the annual report submitted in March 2015 for the year ending May 31, 2014, was hopeful, saying that the aim was to increase the number of students and to “develop a fundraising strategy that ensures the long-term survival of the foundation”.
Signed by Bellamy and Phil Baker, his fellow trustee and former business adviser, the report states: “The trustees are hopeful that a fundraising event will be held in the year to 31 May, 2016, which should put the Foundation in a better position.”
The financial position of the foundation is not known beyond May 2014, however. The Charity Commission’s website says that the next accounts are 343 days overdue and that the foundation will have received a default notice.
Hopes that there was a positive future after the appointment of a new expatriate manager at the academy last year failed to last and the remaining staff and boys were told last September that it would not be re-opening after the holidays.
For some of the boys, there was a lifeline from Kelsey Sullivan, an American who had originally worked at the Right to Dream academy and who has managed to secure scholarships for 14 of them in the United States.
Sullivan, 28, still accommodates ten of those boys at her family home in California while the others are at college or boarding school, but she she feels for those that were left behind: “We received a little bit of money each year from the Craig Bellamy Foundation but I have not heard from them for a year and most of the money has come from local fundraising in the US or out of our own pockets. It costs us about $100,000 a year.
“I know the kids that didn’t get to leave the academy on a scholarship are in a tough spot. Because it ended in a way that no one expected — and quicker than expected — there was not a great deal of long-term vision for those that did not manage to leave Sierra Leone on a long-term scholarship.
“I would just hope that they may be better off overall than if they had not gone to the academy.
“I think Craig had all the good intentions and the visions and then he has retired and circumstances in his personal life may have changed which made it a lot harder to sustain, because it is expensive and he paid for it out if his own pocket.
“Ebola didn’t help — it was challenging and I just tried to help as many of them as I could.”
For those boys not fortunate enough to gain a scholarship, the future is bleak. One former academy staff member, who still lives in Sierra Leone, told The Times that the boys were regarded as failures in their communities.
He said: “The boys were each given some money but they are not in a good situation now. You must remember we took some of these boys from the streets or their parents were very poor, and they do not have money to look after them any more.
“I have two of the boys living with me but others are not in a good position. Four of them aged between 14 and 18 are living together in one room in a place on the Fourah Bay road in Freetown.
“They also feel ashamed to go back to their communities, who look at them as though they are failures because they see others who have gone overseas on scholarships. They were given some money but the academy has not provided for their futures.”
There is still some hope for them, however. After learning of their plight, former staff members have been trying to raise funds and organise opportunities for those boys left behind.
The Times has made a donation to EducAid, an education network in Sierra Leone. If you would like to support the education of other children in Sierra Leone, visit http://www.educaid.org.uk/support-us/donate/.