While sport is generally known as a means for exercise and maybe a career for the select few who dedicate their lives to it, some sports clubs have sought out another use for it – the social development of their young athletes. Kurt Aquilina spoke to Fgura United president LARKIN BONNICI, who is spearheading several social-development and educational programmes within the club…
In a project which found its beginnings around five years ago, the Challenge League side has introduced after-school programmes for youths as young as those in the Under-4 age group.
“As a club, we decided we wanted to give that added value that maybe others don’t – a reason why parents should choose our club and feel at ease leaving their children with us,” Bonnici explained.
“Following the great work of committee members before us, apart from consolidating the technical sector of our coaching, we wanted to enhance the social and educational aspect.
“So, we sought out means of helping a player in his technical development, as well as his social and educational development using football as the way to do it.”
Bonnici highlighted the pre-coronavirus success of one of the club’s programmes which brought youths to their facilities right after school where they would eat and work on their homework or any other school-related activity together and after that, head to training.
“This way, we don’t see their technical development as an opportunity cost to their education but a complement to it,” he said.
Bonnici explained that apart from this, they have introduced activities aimed at improving skills which the youths will need even both on and off the pitch – leadership and communication skills.
“You need those kinds of skills, so we started workshops to enhance them. We didn’t replace the training sessions with workshops, but we hold them either before or after. So, as I said before, it’s an added value which most often, we don’t even charge for,” the Fgura president emphasised.
“I believe it’s a recipe for success which is showing also on the pitch because after all, we are a football club driven by results. When you look at last season, even with COVID-19, we closed off the season with the U19s winning the league and the U-15 as well.
“The latter are now going to compete in Section A for the first time which is very positive for us.
“While our job is to develop them, we are there to help them achieve their dream of becoming footballers – that is our main goal.
“It gives me great satisfaction to see a 17-year-old player from our ranks making his debut in the Challenge League. We believe in our philosophy and if there’s anything I want to be remembered by is that I gave opportunities to many youths to make it with the senior team.”
Bonnici stressed that their goal of creating future players is high up on their agenda.
“Who are we to tell a player ‘listen, your dream is not possible’? We need to be there, and have the obligation, to get him as close as we can. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
“How we come about doing it is something we often discuss, and it shows through the number of trips abroad we take our kids.
“In 2019, we took our U-5s to Italy and they enjoyed it to the full. This year, we were planning to travel to Watford FC and play in the Paris St Germain stadium. But obviously, COVID-19 disrupted all those plans.”
Asked about parent collaboration, Bonnici described the relationship between them as healthy, despite the issue of streaming, where children are categorised by their ability. Naturally, this brings up some disappointment among parents and Bonnici said they “receive criticism but in a constructive way”.
“We have a good relationship with the parents. I believe they are our stakeholders and we value them. In fact, we are usually (at the club) everyday available for suggestions. We do this with the youngest age group right until the seniors without any judgement,” he said.
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth season has faced numerous setbacks, including postponement back in October. Friendlies are also not allowed.
“(COVID-19) is quite an anomaly. But we need to understand that those taking decisions are not doing this like you and I talking at a bar. I’m convinced that if a decision has been taken, there must have been a valid reason even though clubs want football to continue, especially in terms of sponsorship and their nurseries,” Bonnici said.
“But not giving youths the possibility to at least train will set them back a hundred years, both from the technical aspect as well as mentally.”
Bonnici said he had spoken to many parents who nearly begged him to restart training as soon as possible last June because they were seeing complete changes in their children. He added that any decision taken should be for their well-being.
“I don’t think the children can take another stoppage and frankly, not even the parents,” Bonnici lamented.
“Football (training) is one of the few instances when a parent can calm down because they’re leaving their children to get out their energy for an hour and a half.
We believe in our philosophy and if there’s anything I want to be remembered by is that I gave opportunities to many youths to make it with the senior team
“We need to find ways of continuing competition at youth level. I say this as we are one of the teams which invested highly in youth football and are being gratified with players who have qualified and are hungry to play in Section A. We are prepared, technically and physically, for this hurdle so the sooner we start, the better.”
Asked about the future, Bonnici emphasised that the direction taken by the committee is not something one-off.
“We already have players who have debuted (at senior level) and are part of the nucleus of our club. Obviously, what is happening now started years ago so a 17-year-old player was 12 years old five years ago. So, I believe it can only get better,” he said.
However, he admitted that like any other human being, a young player might wake up one morning and decide not to continue playing for a number of reasons.
“We don’t have any guarantees with our young players so throughout the years, we invest in these workshops so that we can even instill the value of perseverance and help them learn to handle their struggles.
“In fact, we are currently running a programme with Sedqa with 12- and 13-year-olds in this regard, obviously with COVID-19 limitations taken into consideration,” he said.