Craig Bellamy has faced many
challenges in his career. But nothing like the threat posed by Ebola to his fledgling Sierra
Leone based Craig Bellamy Foundation and his ‘boys’.
REDHANDED: It would have been easy when you retired to do all the typical things an ex-professional footballer does, but you started a foundation?
CRAIG BELLAMY: I never do anything easy (laughs). I’ve had plenty of sleepless nights, especially with what’s happened over the last couple of years, you just can’t plan for something like Ebola.
Did it spread quickly?
It had been in the North a while and spread quite slowly to begin with. That was the disappointing aspect of it as it wasn’t acted on quickly enough - it only became a ‘problem’ when it started to appear in Europe. Fortunately, it didn’t quite get to us. We educated the boys on the precautions you have to take, which protected them and they could pass that on to their families outside. It was a real shame. It was a country really on the up, after many years of turmoil, and then it all went into lockdown. Fortunately, it’s been clear for a month now.
How has it impacted the Foundation?
It’s certainly impacted the footballing side of things – they still train and go to school, but we haven’t been able to play games. Same with the national youth league system we helped start.
So the Foundation’s not just about the elite academy?
Oh no. The league is the biggest part of it. When we first arrived there was no real youth system so with Unicef we set up the youth league but made it clear that kids had to go to school to participate because attendance in school was low. We had to educate the coaches that it’s not just about football, it’s about education and community.
Whilst it’s partly about winning games, teams can also get points for community work. So if a team lost on a Saturday straightaway they’d be on to the local chief to find something that needed to be done – they’d paint a police station to get extra points. We love that.
What are the priorities now?
We need to get the league running properly again. And it all needs to be self-sustainable, it was heading that way before Ebola. Sponsorships have pulled away, as many companies pulled out of Sierra Leone, or cut back, because of the threat to life. And anyway, how could we go looking for sponsorship when there were much bigger problems due to Ebola? So we need to get that back on track.
Positively, my first boys are 18 now and two of them are at Hartpury (sports college in Gloucestershire), four in Santa Barbara, two in Cambodia and many are going to college. We have one very good footballer – he’s been to Chelsea, and he’s been offered a professional contract in Sweden (Visas are too hard to get in the UK).
Does your experience come in handy to guide these players?
Possibly, but Hartpury has more knowledge than me. For me, I look at them as 18-year-old kids who have their own path. If they want to stay in college, great. If they want to go back home, that’s fine too. But if they want to stay in football, of course, I’ll give them advice. It’s totally up to them.
How can people back here in Wales help?
We’ve always had small donations and that means a lot because that’s real understanding and caring about what we do. The amount doesn’t matter. I didn’t do this for me to run an academy - it was because I fell in love with the place and the people. Even if it makes one life different, it’s enough and that just fills me with a lot of pride. Anyone in my shoes would have done exactly the same.