Milawi

The Scottish Football Supporters Association are currently working with the Scotland Malawi Partnership to set up a sustainable certified football coaching programme in the country. Scotland’s premier football publication; Nutmeg Magazine takes a look at the project…

It is estimated that more than half of the world’s population consider themselves to be association football (soccer) fans, according to worldatlas.com.

Yes, if we were ever in any doubt, football is the most popular sport in the world. It captivates audiences locally and nationally across all corners of the globe, with Scottish football one tiny cog in a wheel that spins and spins. In some countries it is big business, in others less so. While mind-boggling multi-million-pound deals are regularly struck among Europe’s elite or fans are asked to stump up large sums to take their pristine seat at sponsored stadiums simply known as The Emirates or The Etihad, there are far different sides to the beautiful game.

I’m not talking about a dreich November night on the terraces at Central Park in Cowdenbeath or a goalless stalemate with Albion Rovers, but the development of the sport in far less wealthy countries where the simple sight of a football can see children running for a kick with beaming smiles.

Some Scots are still working on spreading the football word. Take Paul Goodwin, director of the Scottish Football Supporters Association (SFSA). In late April, after a 24-hour journey from Glasgow via Dubai and Lusaka, he and Jimmy Bone – former manager at St Mirren, among others – arrived in Lilongwe, the bustling capital city of Malawi in south-east Africa. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with over 50 per cent of the population living below the poverty line and 25 per cent in extreme poverty.

“It’s a vibrant, dusty, hugely busy and exciting place,” says Goodwin. “There are thousands of people going everywhere and loads of people walking, which is the main mode of transport. There are mini-buses where six or seven people are hanging on to doors and roofs, there are loads of traffic jams and it is all disorderly – but fun and exuberant at the same time. In terms of poverty, it’s seeing people walking in bare feet and people at the side of the road selling whatever they have grown to turn a living. But there was no begging – there was a huge amount of dignity about the people, who were very welcoming and hospitable to us.”

It was a rewarding eight-day visit that had been long in the planning. Labelled as an SFSA development trip, it could prove much more than that over time.

The SFSA is the national football supporters umbrella group representing fans of all Scottish clubs. A volunteer-run, not-for-profit social enterprise, it is the only independent fans’ body with representation at Football Supporters Europe and has nearly 71,000 members. It is well-placed to support and deliver innovative programmes that can use the power of football to enhance a community, consulting widely with many football clubs, supporters’ groups, the Scottish government as well as the Labour, Green and SNP political parties on fans’ affairs. It also has working relationships with both the SFA and the SPFL.

One such campaign that shows how football can be used for the power of good, is that in Malawi. It came from a discussion around the SFSA’s “Taps Aff” campaign and their desire to pursue a Scottish government facilitation grant of £10,000 for the project later this year. It was an idea that also came from historic ties. Founded in 2004, the Scotland Malawi Partnership is the national civil society network coordinating, representing and supporting the many people-to-people links between the two nations.

Links between Scotland and Malawi began with David Livingstone’s journeys up the Zambezi and Shire Rivers to Lake Malawi in 1859, long before the borders of the modern nation of Malawi had been established.

“For years it has been bugging me, seeing kids’ old boots and strips and wondering, where do they go?” asks Goodwin, a father and Partick Thistle fan. “It lies in a cupboard or occasionally goes to a charity shop. We have a surplus of stock and how can we distribute it? There are historical connections between Malawi and Scotland, going way back to David Livingstone, and then we learned there is no community football development programme there. There is no infrastructure. Once we spoke to the Scottish Malawi Partnership, there was interest in the kit and for both football communities to talk to each other. There is no equivalent fans’ group in Malawi, so for them there is also interest in that too, to develop one and build their infrastructure. It would be great to try and bring the countries together, like UEFA and FIFA speak so much about, namely spreading the love of football.

“We want to create pathways for Scottish football clubs and fans to donate football strips, and boots etc, to Malawi on a regular basis and build a relationship between the countries. This would help support sustainable certified football coaching in Malawi and potentially develop football scholarships there.”

Goodwin and Bone, the recently retired SFA coaching performance manager, headed out in April to meet with Play Soccer Malawi, including CEO Patricio Kulemeka, and other interested parties to allow them to develop a detailed proposal for submission. “The people were so appreciative of what we were trying to do,” says Goodwin. “Even we arrived at the airport there was a ‘Welcome’ banner. We had help and support from Emirates airlines who had heard our story and knew we were taking loads of kids’ kit over, about 10 bags, with clubs like Hearts, St Johnstone and Falkirk supporting us. It was such a big deal for the people in Malawi that we were coming. They had done their research on Jimmy as well, who he had played for and coached.”

Bone has varied experiences in this area. In 2018, he travelled to Lesotho on similar work. He also had two stints coaching in South Africa. It is his time in Zambia, however, that still draws a big smile. Bone led Power Dynamos to the African Cup Winners Cup in 1991 – the first southern African team to win a continental trophy – before tragedy struck [See Nutmeg Issue 9 – The Power And The Glory by Andrew Jenkin]. Within a year of Bone returning to the UK, five of his former players had been killed in a plane crash that wiped out the Zambian national team. He is now a patron of Africa On The Ball, a Scottish charity that, through sport, helps communities like those Bone has experienced. Visiting Malawi was another chapter in his much-travelled career.

Goodwin continues the story: “We didn’t just open the kit bags up. Play Soccer Malawi used a pair of shorts, a top or a pair of boots, as an incentive to make sure the children were actually attending school and doing their homework. If it was all positive, they could aspire to getting a bit of kit. The kit was one part of the trip and the other was the coaching.

“The sports centre at Lilongwe only had a burnt sand park. We worked with the under-17s who feed into the national team. They warmed up by singing, dancing and doing chants – it was compelling to see! Jimmy also worked with the women’s homeless World Cup team. We then went down to Blantyre (spot the further Scottish connection) which is a little more Westernised, with less hustle and bustle.

“We went to a private school there which did have a grass park. They had advertised we were putting a session on for boys aged 11-13 and there were meant to be 15 boys but 80 turned up! I watched what Jimmy was doing and tried to mirror it! Some of the boys had bare feet and some only had one shoe, which made us determined to do more. It was very warm but there was no water. There was a tap close by, and there is running water, but none had a bottle to use. We would love to do a fundraiser to source 3,000 bottles, take them out and educate them on the importance of hydration.”

Goodwin and Bone met the chairman of the Malawi FA and the chairman and president of the domestic league. They are keen for Scotland’s support: “We are looking at setting up a coaching network in Malawi using the skills of Jimmy who has many years’ experience in this area,” notes Goodwin. “Once established, we could use the coaching network for other education and wellbeing promotion.”

The work is admirable and, in the short term, the basis of a potential plan has been formulated that would allow for a supported pilot that could be rolled out next spring. This could involve the SFSA making links with two close-by village communities in Malawi and two local football communities in Scotland. The clubs in Scotland could hold a derby match where old kit could be collected, with the same activity happening in Malawi.

Goodwin, who closer to home has recently helped launch a new supporters’ group, Thistle For Ever, aimed at securing a majority shareholding for Partick Thistle fans, sees future benefits for all.

“The long-term development of sustainable relationships, nurtured between teams and fans in both countries via social media channels for example, would be fantastic,” he continues. “Coaching development would be another phase of the concept. The nirvana situation for us is an association between a little town or village with a team here in Scotland so we can build relationships and watch it evolve. I can’t wait to go back to Malawi.”