By CHRISTOPHER HARRESS
An ex-Hibs football player has established a footballing charity that combines the incentive of football with education.
Jimmy Adjovi-Boco, who was born in Benin and now lives in the French town of Arras, says: “I created this charity 10 years ago, but the idea goes back a little further. At the end of my career at Hibs, I decided to go back to university and I graduated from a prestigious business school in Lille.
The charity combines hard work in the classroom with teamwork on the pitch to allow children to become professional footballers or go on to further education. It is through this combination that Jimmy believes Africa could find the answer to long-term prosperity.
“I wanted to do something for the African continent. I consider education to be one of the priorities if we want this continent to develop.”
Twelve years after his last season in professional football, the 46-year-old is able to look back on a notable career in French and Scottish football, where he is still idolised.
Although his only season in Edinburgh proved to be an unsuccessful one, it hasn’t dampened any of Jimmy’s memories of his time in “one of the most beautiful” cities, even eulogising about Hibs fans singing Sunshine on Leith.
Jimmy adds: “The players who made the biggest impression on me are big Yogi (John Hughes) and, above all, Chic Charnley, who is one of the most talented players I have played with.”
It was during Jimmy’s time at Easter Road that the concept of Diambars was born. He was one of a few African players playing outside France at the time, and the only professional football player from Benin.
Jimmy says: “Now we have been able to see – through the World Cup – that there is still a long way to go to reach the highest international level. Even for a competition played on our continent, we did not manage to go further than the quarter-finals. We still have a lot to do regarding the training of our young players, but also of our coaches.”
Along with Patrick Vieira and close friend Bernard Lama, who was having an equally disastrous season at Paris St Germain and also facing the end of his career, Jimmy decided in 1998 that it was time to give something back to Africa.
He explains: “When you have the chance to earn good money as footballers, it is important to know when to give back, especially for the African continent that suffers from many problems. It is our duty and it is what we try to teach to our young players.”
Diambars, which means “champions” in Wolof – the language of Senegal – initially operated with a presence in France and a camp in Senegal, but recent success has enabled a centre in South Africa. Jimmy even hopes to expand to Scotland.
The charity recruits around fifty 13-year-old boys each season and, while no guarantees can be made about a successful football career, many of the graduates have the opportunity to go on to university or employment afterwards.
However, with between 4000 and 5000 applications received every year, only the very best players can be recruited.
This year’s crop of players at the Senegal centre look to have a promising future, with over 75 per cent pass marks in their final year exams, compared to the national average of 45 per cent in the country.
By educating the players, the charity aims to avoid the situation from the past where young promising African footballers were taken to Europe and often abandoned when they failed to make the grade, leaving them with nothing to fall back on.
Jean-Claude Mbouvin, of the charity Culture Foot Solidaire, knows of 800 African boys who have been effectively ‘lost’ in Europe, while others put the figure as high as 5000 children.
Students live an almost military regime of football training and education at Jimmy’s academy, where they enjoy free food and accommodation for the duration of their five-year stay – a luxury which millions of African boys their age can only dream of.
Given that 50 per cent of men in Senegal cannot read or write, Diambars is succeeding where governments and billions of dollars of investment have failed – a true testament to the work of Boco, who believes that football and education is the way forward.
While only 20 per cent of Diambars boys will go on to play some kind of professional football – often at low-paying African teams – a few will make it through to the elite European leagues each year.
In terms of success, the charity is doing very well with graduates being sold to clubs around Europe, or going on to study at university.
The message of “giving back” is one that the graduates take on their travels, knowing that their success is a matter of life and death for the charity.