England celebrate after winning the 2014 UEFA Under 17 European Championships (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Bongarts/Getty Images)
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England’s schoolboy success only adds to sense of confusion

Were FA’s ‘old school’ methods the right approach all along?

With a swing of Jonjoe Kenny’s right foot, English football’s ills were cured.

The England Under-17 side, in capturing their second European title in five seasons, were able to showcase the merits of a grassroots system that had shunned modern thinking and ploughed straight on with traditional means.     

Greg Dyke’s controversial plan to introduce a ‘B team’ competition into the English football league structure disappeared to the cupboard containing the Premier League’s ‘39th game’ proposal and Richard Scudamore’s custom-made golf clubs.

The parents screaming from the touchline on local playing fields every week were vindicated. The ham-fisted youth coaches who habitually used the stronger, taller kids at the expense of their smaller, snappier peers, were victorious. The dinosaurs that had ensured the acquiring of a UEFA ‘A’ coaching qualification cost five times as much in the UK as in Spain, saw their pricing plan justified.

It was enough to make you wonder what the fuss had been all about.

At the same moment as England’s youngsters were completing their penalty shootout triumph, esteemed Spanish journalist Guillem Balague was hosting an evening with colleagues from Sky’s football magazine show Revista de la Liga. The panel dissected the merits of the English and Spanish games – two pyramids often heralded as being amongst the most exciting and dynamic in the world.

I had expected Balague and guests to have a set of ready-made steps for English football to take to ensure their successes in the international arena matched those of their Iberian cousins.

Instead, the author of A Season on the Brink was forced to defend the controversial Spanish television rights arrangement – a package notorious for benefiting the nation’s biggest clubs – Real Madrid and Barcelona – apparently reinforcing the superiority of the two giants at the expense of a competitive top flight. Hadn’t this been something cited as a reason for England’s international poor fortune?  

Instead, the panel were far keener to talk about the concept of Spanish ‘B’ teams and how a similar infrastructure would work in England. To reinforce his point, Balague invited onstage a former Watford scholar - Austin Eaton – forced to ply his trade in Chile and Spain due to his lack of opportunity on these shores.

Whether or not Eaton is able to turn his career around working at second division side Cordoba is as much of a mystery as how many of England’s under- 17 squad – by now celebrating on the giant screen behind Balague’s head- will go on to represent the full national side. What is clear, however, is that the concept of ‘wasted’ youth is a powerful weapon. 

In that respect, the decision to jettison Ashley Cole from England’s World Cup squad for this summer’s tournament in Brazil is illuminating. Cole, a veteran of 107 caps for his country, seven FA Cup winner’s medals and three Premier League titles must have been incredulous as he replaced his handset after Roy Hodgson’s call to effectively signal an end to the Englishman’s 13 year international odyssey.

Cole, despite a reduced role at club side Chelsea this season, could still argue to be amongst the finest full backs in Europe, yet there were few condemning Hodgson for picking 18-year-old Luke Shaw – an international novice - in his stead.

It is representative of an English desire to roll different dice, even if better dice are already in hand.

English football, much like many of the nation’s other sporting pursuits, is a box of contradictions. Dyke’s England Commission report published last month seems unsure if we are too hard or too soft on our young players.

For all the trendy criticisms of the footballing infrastructure in this country, England have, three times in the last five major tournaments, been a set of penalty kicks away from a semi-final berth. Had those shootouts ended in triumph rather than heartbreak, England’s competition resume would be one dwarfed only by Spain and Germany across the same period.  

Conversely, during the same era, and with a largely identical set of players, there have been extraordinary failures too.  In the 2007-2008 Champions League season, the Premier League laid claim to three of the four semi-finalists, yet the national side were unable to qualify for that summer’s European Championships. The division in the successes and failures of the period is stark.

In the aftermath of Germany’s surprise 2010 World Cup showing, former coach Jürgen Klinsmann talked about how, after Germany’s footballing nadir in 2004, he had sat down with future manager Joachim Löw to discuss the restructuring of the nation’s football setup. 2010’s semi-final run was, he claimed, a vindication of that policy.

It was the sort of sound bite that drove the English press into raptures. The idea of being able to combine the most precious of sporting commodities – youth - and the chance to rail against an out of touch football administration was an opportunity too good to miss.

The nature of the sport dictates that judgements are made of infrastructure and managerial decisions on the basis of one kick of a ball, stroke of fortune or moment of stupidity.

The reality of so many British successes in a catalogue of sports across the last decade shows that management flabbiness is not endemic.

And so, if England’s senior side do follow their schoolboy counterparts in celebrating success this summer, expect the national game to be trumpeted as a hybrid of ruthless commercial endeavour and competitive self-interest.

If not, however, Messrs Balague and Dyke might be knocking on the door with a few questions.

 

 

 

You can follow Cameron on Twitter here.

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Scarred lands: visiting the villages Boko Haram left behind reveals the toxic legacy of terrorism

The progress and challenges of Nigerian communities rebuilding after Boko Haram’s insurgency begins to wane.

“Sometimes it’s when I go to bed that what happened comes back to me.” Two years ago, Boko Haram militants stormed into 23-year-old John Amida’s home late at night in a village in Gwoza, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. Shielding his eyes with his hands from the torchlight saved his life. He shows me the mark in the centre of his forearm where the bullet aimed for his head went instead.

“All my friends were either killed or abducted,” he says. “I don’t try to forget what happened because it’s not possible; it’s with you even when it is not in your mind. The best thing is just to keep on living every day.”

After a broadly effective 18-month military campaign, Boko Haram remains a deadly yet waning force. Many communities once occupied by Boko Haram are now liberated. In Adamawa, just south of Borno, over 630,000 people previously displaced by Boko Haram have returned home.

With them, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now live in camps, or – like John and his family – in host communities. He and his family live in a home vacated and lent to them by a local. All over Adamawa, IDPs live in homes shared with residents or given to them temporarily in exchange for help, crops or token sums of rent.

Adamawa is a serene, largely rural, mountainous state. Even deep into the dry season, driving through the roads that cut between its vast countryside, its land is incredibly scenic. But within local communities, in more rural, isolated villages north of the state’s capital, Yola, the picture is more complicated.

Gombi, a small town a few hours’ drive from Yola, was recaptured from Boko Haram in late 2014. Much of what was destroyed in the insurgency – shops and small businesses – have been rebuilt or replaced. The local government buildings have been largely restored. The impact is still visible but, according to locals, decreasingly so.

But in less urban areas, like in Garaha, a village in Adamawa, rebuilt homes sit next to broken, abandoned houses, churches, mosques and buildings blackened by the fires that damaged them. Local government officials say the damage across Adamawa by the insurgency has set the state’s development back by a decade. Funding for rebuilding the state, which local governments complain is insufficient, is concentrated on urban areas.

According to Chief Suleimanu, a traditional ruler in Garaha, mental health issues are widespread but few are financially able to access support. While some people have been able to move on, others are still dealing with the consequences.

“Many couples and families have separated,” he tells me, detailing how in some couples one partner feels attached to their home while the other can’t face returning, or feel there is little to return to.

“The same with the children, some of the young people have gone to bigger cities like Kano or Abuja because of a lack of opportunities.”

Many returnees, who left camps in Cameroon to come back to Adamawa, are from families who have lived in their villages for generations. Their ancestral roots anchor them to their homes because their farmland is their main source of income. Non-agriculture-based industries provide few jobs. For many people, fleeing their homes meant abandoning their livelihoods.

As of 2015, 52 per cent of people in Nigeria lived in rural areas. Their relative isolation is a blessing and a curse. Larger rural spaces provide them with adequate land to cultivate their crops – but it also leaves them exposed.

During Boko Haram attacks on Garaha through to early 2015, there was minimal protection from security forces who often take hours to arrive.

For many people living in rural Adamawa, life is getting harder and easier at the same time. Armed herdsmen, mainly from the Fulani ethnicity have become a greater threat across Nigeria, partly due to tensions between land ownership and cattle grazing.

According to locals, killings by herdsmen have increased this year. But villages are addressing their vulnerability. Armed vigilantes, some of which formed due to the lack of military protection against Boko Haram, are increasing. The police services are often too far away or too under-resourced to protect them. But some vigilantes now have more weapons and vehicles due to help from state services and locals. It is not an ideal solution but it has made places like Garaha safer.

With this new-found relative safety, villagers have begun farming again. With cash grants and donated tools from charities like Tearfund, it has been easier for thousands of people to begin cultivating land. In many villages there are small, lively recreation centres where young people play snooker and watch sport. Many of their places of worship have been rebuilt.

But the situation is grimmer in communities where such charities are not present.  Without resources, state or non-government help, rebuilding is a real challenge.

Adamawa is a state maxing on its credit of hospitality, relative safety and appreciation of agriculture. A recession in Nigeria and a severe food crisis in the northeast have added pressures on returnees and IDPs. Liberated communities will need more help and attention before they truly feel free.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.