FREETOWN (Reuters) - West Ham and Wales striker Craig Bellamy is funding a 650,000-pound ($1.26-million) soccer project to help children in Sierra Leone.
Education and community projects will go hand-in-hand with the 14 new leagues and 68 youth teams that Bellamy is also setting up throughout the poor West African country, the player says.
“This trip is to show my face and to show how serious I am,” he told reporters beside a beach after a kickabout with fans in the steamy capital Freetown on Sunday.
“It will be my second home. I have no doubt about it.”
The academy will be set up on 25 acres of land in the fishing village of Tombo on the country’s Atlantic coast while the new leagues will help to spot young potential.
“I want this done properly, to an international level. I don’t want any young children, if they have talent, to be overlooked,” said Bellamy, 28.
“It will make the national team stronger. There’s talent everywhere.”
England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand funds a soccer academy in Uganda and this month announced plans to set up another in Nigeria.
On Saturday, Bellamy watched Sierra Leone beat South Africa 1-0 in a World Cup and African Nations Cup qualifier. As hosts, South Africa are guaranteed a place at the 2010 World Cup finals but their poor form has been worrying fans.
Unlike South Africa, Africa’s biggest economy, Sierra Leone is deeply poor and ranks bottom of the United Nations development index, a broad measure of quality of life.
Bellamy first visited Sierra Leone last year, making a point of stopping at every dusty roadside football pitch to join in.
“It was overwhelming: you either don’t want to come back or you fall in love,” he said.
Teams in the new leagues will be rewarded not only for winning matches but for fair play, school attendance and community projects too.
He said the academy should be running within a year.
“I’m not looking at getting the next Drogba, as long as every child leaves ready with a good education,” he said, referring to Chelsea striker Didier Drogba from nearby Ivory Coast. “I’m not looking to gain anything from this opportunity — except every couple of years to change 250 children’s lives.”
“They know everything about the Premier League,” said Bellamy, who was mobbed everywhere he went, as fans chanted his name and demanded autographs.
A car he was traveling in was so enthusiastically greeted by local supporters beating on the roof and bonnet that it got dented.
“I feel a little bit embarrassed with the attention I get here — but why not make yourself useful?” he said.
Sierra Leone is recovering from more than a decade of civil war that finished in 2002 and was infamous for its AK47-toting child soldiers and rebels hacking off people’s limbs with machetes.
Youth unemployment runs high and more than 70 percent of Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty line.
“They have been through a lot of problems,” Bellamy said.
“It’s difficult coming here...You can’t understand how people live like this, and then how strong are these people.
“Children and their fathers and grandfathers have all been given a gun; and now my aim is to throw them a football.”
Editing by Alistair Thomson