Bangwe ground in Blantyre, nicknamed Pa Desert because of its turf-less pitch, is usually as dry and notoriously dirty as hell; but children have seemingly turned it into their sporting paradise. Mostly bare-footed and dressed in ragged and stained clothes, they play football with sheer determination and passion.
There are thousands of Pa Desert styled pitches across the country. Some of which have produced legends such as Kinnah Phiri, Jack Chamangwana, Lawrence Waya, Ernest Mtawali, late Cliffton Msiya and several others.
However, after years of relying on players from such rough backgrounds, many football enthusiasts believe that academies are the best way to mould the next generation of footballers—a generation that could, without any grain of doubt—reach the World Cup finals or win Africa Cup of Nations.
“Football has changed and most world class players that you watch today came from academies,” says football expert Felix Ngamanya Sapao, adding: “It is academies or never.”
Sapao explains that it’s in such academies where youths learn football basics and are psychologically prepared for the pressure that follows them on and off the field.
Four years ago, the football landscape begun to change following the opening of Surestream Academy at formerly MDC Stadium in Chilomoni Township, Blantyre.
The magnificent academy with well-kept playing fields and funded by Surestream Petroleum Limited, was designed to develop football from grass roots levels, provide football education and health related lessons crucial to the sport.
The British firm injected millions into rehabilitation of the dilapidated stadium, buying of equipment and recruitment of qualified coaches to drill the Under-12s, Under-14s and the main team that was campaigning in the Southern Region Football League (SRFL) before earning promotion into the Super League.
The rapid progression surprised even the academy’s founder Chris Pitman who said: “It has been miraculous years. We didn’t expect that within two years the team will be playing in the Super League.”
Another administrator who was left dumbstruck by Surestream is Southern Region Football Association (SRFA) vice-general secretary Kingsley Simbeye.
He explains that the academy’s players were miles ahead of those from other teams.
“Their basic skills like ball control, passing and positioning was a clear testimony that academies are the best places to groom players,” he states with emphasis.
But last week came the shocking news that Surestream has closed the academy, leaving dreams of dozens of children shattered.
The company said the decision came because it no longer holds the licence to explore oil on Lake Malawi.
Football Association of Malawi (FAM) president Walter Nyamilandu had hoped that the pace the academy was moving, in the next 10 years, the country could have been exporting talent to top European leagues.
The closure therefore, he says, is a terrible blow to the football fraternity.
Wizards FC, formerly called Surestream, were relegated in the just ended season but its players have been on high demand from top Super League teams.
The most notable ones are defender RafiqNamwera and midfielder Ernest Tambe who have joined Wanderers while defender LevisonMaganizo and goalkeeper Brighton Munthali have signed for Silver Strikers.
Through the club licensing system (CLS), FAM is pushing clubs to formulate youth development programmes as one way of promoting the sport from grass roots.
In a country where clubs are hungry for talent factories to draw lessons from, there was one in Chilomoni.