Awoala Kpunpamo: Grassroots, school sports, catalyst for youth football development

Awoala Kpunpamo: Grassroots, school sports, catalyst for youth football development

A product of the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) football team, Awoala Kpunpamo, has said grassroots and school sports can serve as catalysts for youth football development in Nigeria. The United Kingdom (UK) based former footballer spoke to Trust Sports on his fond memories as a youth footballer, the football academy he has floated in Bayelsa State to groom talents and why the growth of youth football in Nigeria is stunted.

You once represented Bayelsa State in youth football and the Norway Cup under YSFON. Could you share your experience with us?

My name is Awoala Kpunpamo from Bayelsa State. I started with the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) football academy when I was 13 years old. Our first international tournament was in Norway. As winners of the Ramat Cup in 1999, we qualified to represent Nigeria in the Norway Cup in 2000. But before then, we had a big screening exercise at the Yenagoa Sports Complex which involved all the best players that had participated in that year’s Ramat Cup competition. YSFON wanted to present a formidable squad so all the best legs were invited for trials. However, they gave a bit of preference to our team because we were the champions. So, about 10 of us from Bayelsa made the final list. In all, we were 18 that made the trip to Norway. Ikechukwu Ezenwa who went on to play for the Super Eagles was our goalkeeper. Some players in the squad later played top flight football in Nigeria and abroad. At the tournament in Norway, we came third. We defeated our group opponents but lost in the semi-final. However, we won the losers’ final to bring home bronze medals. That was my first major trophy and medal in football. The then Governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Diepreye Alamieyesesigha hosted us to a grand reception. As bronze medallists, we automatically qualified for the next edition of the competition. As a matter of fact, I attended four editions of the Norway Cup. So, that was how my football career started.

What informed your decision to float a football academy in Bayelsa?

I am motivated by what I have achieved in football to give something back to society. Giving back for me is something that is necessary for everybody in life. At one point in life, you have to give back and you can only give back in the area you are actually passionate about. So, after my experience in Norway, I decided to go to England. I have been living in England since 2009, but last year, I decided to give back. I do come to Bayelsa every year because I have invested in real estate here, but I have seen the same talents that we had 20 years ago. There are still raw talents but there is not proper structure for their development. Therefore, I decided to float an academy called Bayelsa Football Academy. We discover and groom top talents in football. Our academy is one of the best in the country.

How do you recruit your players? 

We move round all the local government areas in Bayelsa and pick the very best young players and bring them to the capital for training. They are aided to develop their God given talents alongside education. As a matter of fact, we don’t pick good players in the streets only. We go into schools to scout for talents. The last time we went to Opolo secondary school, we picked three young talents there. We ensure they go to school because there is life after football. So, we enrol them in secondary schools to make sure they study. For some, we engage them in my construction company where they are given employment to reduce their challenges during their time in the academy. 

How would you describe the future of your academy?

The future is quite bright. Recently, one of our players signed for Bayelsa United feeders. The idea is to move from the academy to the teams in NPFL and leagues outside the country at 16 to 19 years. The idea is to move them to Europe to study while playing football. Once you study in England or any place in England, you can actually play there because you already hold a residency permit. The idea is to get the right sponsorship and the right channel. We don’t want the same mistake we made 20 years ago in our football career to be repeated by these youths. This is one of the fundamental reasons for floating this football academy.

In concrete terms, how talented are the players in your academy? 

To be honest with you, the young talents we have are incredible. The academy manager, Chigozie Christopher, is an ex-international. He was very talented during his playing days. I was here last year and saw the quality of the players that we have in our fold. Bayelsa United spotted one of our players during a match and they came for his signature immediately. We have a bunch of talents in the academy. We are waiting for the pre-season in Europe to start, so I can actually send some players for trials. The players are under the umbrella of the AK-Prime sports, which is collaborating with AK-Prime logistics in England.

What would you say is responsible for the dwindling fortunes of youth football in Nigeria? 

Grassroot football in the country is a bit different now because so many people are involved in it. Everybody wants to get involved. There are so many academies but there is no organization, no standards. Before now, most football clubs tried to set up feeder teams. Right now, there is every need for a standard youth football league in the country. Every premier league club is supposed to have a youth team but the reverse is the case. In all honesty, we have to go back to the days of youth football and school sports where raw talents abound. We have to go back to local government football tournaments. The bottom to the top approach is the best. National school sports festival won’t be a bad idea. When there was Shell Cup and Ramat Cup in the heyday of YSFON, so many talents were discovered and nurtured to stardom. It is a shame that Bayelsa cannot go to the Ramat Cup anymore because of a lack of sponsors.