Ghana coach Paa Kwesi Fabin answers every question thrown at him at the post-match press conference wearing a broad smile on his face. However, when it comes to his U-17 football team, it’s no laughing business for him.
The 59-year-old laid out a strict criteria before picking every boy in his team for the ongoing Fifa U-17 World Cup, in which they’ve made the quarterfinals – school is compulsory.
“For me, education is very important,” Fabin said to reporters.
“I told them that in my U-17 team, if you don’t go to school, we won’t allow you to play.”
In Ghana, he says, primary school is for kids aged 6-12, junior high school for 12-15, while senior high school from 15-18.
“To be in my team, you need to be at least in junior high school, or early part of senior high school,” Fabin says.
Apart from education, there’s another challenge that the coach has had to tackle.
“Some of the parents of these boys are jobless,” he says. “Some are farmers, and a few have jobs.”
No wonder, Fabin faces a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders. He has to ensure that the promise these boys are showing at this level on India’s football fields translates into something meaningful going ahead.
“It’s difficult because in our country, football is a way out of poverty,” he says. “In the past, we have seen a lot of players who are from poor backgrounds but are now living well because of football.
“So, when parents see an opportunity for their kid to play for the national team, then they know that he’s on the right path. He can also maybe play in Europe and start making more money,” he adds.
But that hope can also sometimes spell doom for these boys.
Scouts from various clubs, who are also currently in India for the World Cup, pick the bright ones from various teams and take them abroad. But not all of them make inspiring success stories. Many are abandoned by these foreign clubs after some years, facing a point of no return, both on the football field as well as in their battle against poverty.
“Our problem in Africa is that scouts pick them up and send them outside. And some of them are abandoned, some of them don’t get good teams to play in. Therefore, they fizzle out,” Fabin says.
The coach doesn’t want any boy in this side to suffer the same fate. And hence, the focus on education.
“We started preparing for this tournament only in July, because it was school time before that. We get them for about two weeks, and then they go back to school. And then they come back again for some weeks. So, it’s not constant,” Fabin says.
He doesn’t mind that risk for the benefit it offers, but, again, has set some rules.
“I tell them that when they go back to school, they have to work on their game when they get the opportunity. Maybe train on their own, do some physical work too. So that when they come back to us, they’re not rusty,” he says.
Except for their opening game against USA, they haven’t. And now with a ticket to the quarterfinals, Fabin hopes that Ghana’s golden 1990s phase, when they became Fifa U-17 champions in 1991 and 1995, starts again with this tournament.
“If these boys get good guidance, I believe they are the future stars of football,” he says.