We all love a good story. You know, someone faces a Goliath-sized obstacle or stares down the throat of a lion-breathing disadvantage—and makes it anyway. Such tales encourage us. Inspire us.
And in a way, that’s the story of Africa—more specifically, it’s the tale of Nigerian football.
Meet a man with a dream that’s as vast as the Serengeti; as far-reaching as the Congo, and as ambitious as a Mt. Kilimanjaro climb. It’s the kind of vision that you don’t want vaporizing like a Saharan mirage—especially if you love soccer—because you know what it’s like to have football fever.
Bayonle Arashi is the founder of the Midas Football Academy in Nigeria, a fledgling training school that wants to leave the confining cage of poverty, visa restrictions and lack of opportunity and soar with the Eagles. They just need a touch—a Midas touch, if you will—to take wing.
In an interview, Mr. Arashi talked about the different aspects of the academy and football in Nigeria in general.
To become the biggest football academy in Nigeria and Africa; to have branches and centers in every part of the world; to successfully produce the type of players that will qualify for national teams and [succeed in] world football.
It was during my broadcast journalism days—covering the Africa Cup of Nations between 2002 and 2008—that I saw the vast untapped talent in African football. Our nation is on the verge of something great…an expansion of our horizons—especially if someone (or many someones) are ready to take a leap of faith.
The idea of an academy was conceived in 2006, but we did not start training with our first set of players until the summer of 2008.
To produce the next generation of big stars and talent in the world of football and to give them training so superior that it will last them a lifetime.
Our coaches, former players, are the most important part of our academy. They are like parents and mentors to the players. Two of our coaches are graduates of the Nigeria Institute of Sport, but we still endeavor to give them additional training outside of Nigeria, thereby exposing them to the best practices of the game.
I never had a chance to play soccer. My parents (especially my dad) would have none of that. He was all about me reading my books and making sure I did very well in my studies. If I played during the day, I got the stick that night. But as destiny would have it, as soon as I finished studying, I got my first job in television broadcasting. Since 2009, I’ve been a soccer show presenter and producer. Most of my works are on YouTube.
The need for a training facility has been the number one challenge for us. We’ve used the Honda Manufacturing training facility in Otta, Nigeria, a military barrack (now a military dog center), and currently, a church premise. We have always managed to use what we had access to—and to just keep going. And we will keep moving until our dream facility is a reality.
Our current pitch is a mixture of grass and sand, but it keeps our players engaged. We cannot afford to rent a stadium facility for training. Our players can’t afford it.
What does our dream facility look like? It sits on approximately 12 acres of land, has two match fields and two training fields—as well as a gym, dorms, teaching rooms, and break rooms. We are hoping to partner with corporate organizations that want to invest in Nigeria’s future…something that will bring both financial and social returns. We will be taking a minimum of 120 boys off the streets every two years.
The goal is to train and educate our players in more than just football, as we believe not all of them will necessarily make a career out of playing the game. But the experience they gain will help them make a living for themselves and for their families.
We have a few people that share our vision, but it’s a strange world…no one truly believes in you unless they can see results. Once you succeed, then they will come alongside you. We do have some serious partners that want to work with us—all we can provide is the talent.
The African “Norm”
The best players often come from poor families. This is a norm in African society. I have met and interviewed hundreds of players over the last 10 years, so I can say this with confidence. We want to erase this standard. But in the meantime, we really want to take the best and most talented players out of every nook and cranny of Nigeria and showcase them to the world.
We travel across the country every year organizing free open soccer screenings that give the players the chance to exhibit their abilities. Afterward, we will invite them to Lagos to do another round of screening, and if they are successful, we will give the best among them a free one-year membership at the academy. We don’t make it easy for players just because they have the financial capacity to join the academy. They must demonstrate a willingness to learn—this is one of our most important entrance requirements.
We had our first open and free tryouts for players in January. In all, 43 players showed up for the two-day event. We selected five 14–16-year-olds on a free one-year scholarship. We have very high hopes for these youngsters. This is our own way of contributing to the development of Nigerian youth.
Off the streets
We know how important football is in Nigeria (and Africa). And every parent wants the best for their children. Football is a way off of the streets. As a father myself, I know how a parent’s mind works. Therefore, our academy is a structured environment with a plan for properly developing each player.
Also, Midas Academy does not allow any form of unruly behavior. Such deportment of attitude always results in indefinite suspension. So, if you come across any of our present or past academy players, we can assure you that they will be good ambassadors for the game.
Nigerian Football passion
Nigeria is a football country. Indeed, Nigerian football is like another religion outside of Christianity, Islam and the local traditional religion. Every area of every different state has a local club set-up to engage the players after school. Importantly, scouts are coming out to help the development of the professional Nigerian football league. We love football in Nigeria.
The African way
The African way is tough; the African way never gives up and the African way always believes. It takes courage for African players, for you really have to be outstanding to make it—you have to be the best of the best. This is what I meant by the African way.
We introduce our players to the best local tournaments and friendly games. Just two seasons ago, we started playing in the Lagos State Ikeja Divisional football league. Most importantly, each summer we make sure our academy is registered for participation in prestigious international youth tournaments (overseas). This has been challenging in that our players have been refused visas, but we don’t give up.
Midas Football Academy has participated and won many international youth tournaments: The Lions Gold Cup tournament in Hamburg, Germany (2009); the Football Festival in Denmark (2009); the South Africa Nedbank cup (2011), and the Tunisia Ramadan Cup (2013). We are also planning to go to another one this year (2018) and we look forward to many more in the coming years, as we believe it is the easiest way to get our players scouted.
Very recently, a player from Albania joined our academy, and this is exactly the reason for our existence—to be a home for anyone that has a dream, believes in their ability or is willing to learn.
I would not want to mention just one of them when I have several that I am very proud of. They know who they are and I am sure they will be reading this interview.
We cannot overemphasize the need for boots, balls and other football equipment for our players. The fact is, the poverty level is really high. We don’t let that deter us from contributing our own quota. Some of our friends traveled down to Nigeria early last year to donate some boots and soccer balls directly to the team. (I also go down twice a year to take some donations.) We appreciate any and all help in this regard from anywhere in the world. Please contact me if you are interested in giving new, gently used [materials], or whatever you think would be a help to our players.
The path from a dream’s conception to its birth can be long and painful. In fact, without the skill of those who scrub-up, don gloves and help guide the dream along, many a great hope never sees the light of day. It’s been almost a decade since Midas won the Lion’s Gold Cup in Hamburg, Germany. I wonder how many more years will go by before we really tap into the nooks and crannies hiding Africa’s talent?
Whether we help fund a dream training center or donate a pair of cleats doesn’t matter nearly so much as that we each do what’s in our power to do. We can touch African youth with the gifts we have to share. After all, the next Messi may be Nigerian—and we wouldn’t want to miss that.
This interview has been minimally edited to only correct grammatical/spelling errors that conflict with its comprehension. Styling and such have been added for structure and effect.