Craig Bellamy now works at Cardiff City as an Academy coach
JAMES PEARCE – Liverpool Echo
A charitable foundation set up by former Liverpool striker Craig Bellamy is being examined by the Charity Commission after the closure of its football academy in Sierra Leone.
Two former staff members claim that four boys have been left to share a single room without furniture or sanitary facilities since the academy shut suddenly last September.
The academy in Tombo, two hours drive from Freetown, was established in September 2010 and funded by over £1million of Bellamy’s own money.
A commission spokesperson told The Times: “I can confirm that concerns have been raised with us about The Craig Bellamy Foundation and the closure of its academy in Sierra Leone. We are assessing these concerns to determine what, if any, role there might be for the commission.
“As part of our engagement, we are reminding trustees of their duty to file outstanding financial accounts. Trustees must account to the public and donors for their income and expenditure and the failure to do so may give rise to concerns about the governance and administration of a charity.”
Bellamy, who scored 18 goals in 79 appearances for the Reds, has appointed a legal team to look into possible financial irregularities in the running of the Foundation.
A statement issued by Bellamy’s solicitor read: “Mr Bellamy has recently appointed a new legal team to investigate any irregularities in the management of his financial affairs.
“These investigations are ongoing and we therefore cannot comment further at this stage on any specific allegation.
“His legal team will assist all government agencies in their investigations and, if necessary, his legal team will take action against those responsible for any wrongdoing.”
The foundation’s trustees have been sent a default notice by the Charity Commission because its accounts are nearly a year overdue.
Bellamy was wrong, says Fifa chief
Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, criticised the closure of the Craig Bellamy football academy in Sierra Leone, saying that it was wrong to “sell hope” to children and then let them down.
Infantino was speaking after The Times revealed that the Charity Commission is examining concerns raised about Bellamy’s foundation, which ran the academy. Former staff members claimed that no plan was made for the future of those boys left behind when the academy closed and that some of them were now living in pitiful conditions. They also claimed that there were no proper plans to make the academy sustainable after Bellamy’s financial backing came to an end.
Isha Johansen, president of the Sierra Leone FA, has said that relations with the academy were frosty and that the foundation did not register with them despite having been asked to. Bellamy’s solicitor said that the former footballer was devastated by the closure and that he had appointed a legal team to investigate any irregularities in the handling of his financial affairs.
Infantino said that similar academies could in future be forced to meet certain conditions to ensure that they were sustainable. He said: “It’s not right to sell hope to some kids, boys or girls, and then let them down. They have to be sustainable, they have to be seriously managed and they have to be realistic as well. The worst thing is indeed to abuse the dream that many kids and their families can have in countries where it’s maybe more difficult to live.”
Johansen told The Times that she had not been surprised by the sudden closure in September. “In terms of how they conducted their business [with us] I think the relationship was pretty frosty,” she said.
Two former staff members said that they were shocked by the living conditions of four of the former academy boys, who were sharing a room with only a mattress on the floor, without access to a toilet or cooking facilities.
The Charity Commission has also issued a default notice to the foundation because its accounts are almost a year overdue. Only two sets of accounts have been registered since the charity was registered in June 2011.
Bellamy’s former business adviser Phil Baker was a fellow trustee and carried out most of the foundation’s administration, according to former staff members. Baker did not respond to questions sent to him other than to say that he was no longer a trustee.
Two hours’ drive from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, a dusty road ends in the small fishing village of Tombo, where the grinding poverty of the population contrasts with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Tombo was the home of the academy of The Craig Bellamy Foundation, set up by the former Wales striker in September 2010, most of it funded by his own money. When a reporter from The Timesvisited just before the opening, he was struck by the “gleaming new buildings and newly laid pitch dug into the hillside”.
Now the academy, once the pride of both the village and the country, is barred shut and pictures show the once-lush pitch has become a dry, pock-marked reminder of happier times.
For some of the teenage boys, the academy has paved the way to overseas scholarships, but for others who once proudly wore the foundation’s shirts and had made Tombo their home, their dreams of a better life through football have been shattered. Former staff say some of the boys are now living in slum conditions, shunned by their families and with little hope for the future.
Bellamy, who played for Manchester City and Liverpool, decided to launch his foundation after visiting a friend in Freetown in 2007. He said at the time that he wanted it to be his legacy and told the parents of those in the first intake: “I want them to succeed in life as much as my own children.”
The Sierra Leone government provided 15 acres to build dormitories, staff accommodation, classrooms and training facilities. Bellamy, according to previous reports, put £1.4 million of his own money into the project and, at the start, support was provided by local companies including the Security Support Group International (SSGI) in Sierra Leone, which pledged to contribute $300,000 (around £200,000 in 2010) over three years in a package including cash, engineering, technical assistance and security.
Around 35 promising boys, most younger than 14, were selected from across the country, while a youth league was also established with the initial backing of Unicef for 2,400 children, which proved a huge success and had the added benefit that the parents could reclaim the £10 annual cost of their schooling.
Expatriate and local staff and volunteers were taken on but, when the chief executive of the Sierra Leone arm of the foundation resigned over a difference of opinion with the trustees in May 2013, he was not replaced. Some former staff members say they started to express concerns that the administration structure of the foundation was not adequate to satisfy the due diligence demanded by the large companies who would be vital if sponsorship was to be secured to guarantee the academy’s longer-term future.
Staff members have told The Times that they were frustrated about the lack of annual reports and accounts, and that a plea to appoint an independent and experienced trustee went unheeded. The first set of annual accounts was not registered with the Charity Commission until March 2014, three and a half years after the academy had been established. These show that, in the year to May 31, 2013, Bellamy contributed £297,848 — 85 per cent of the donated income that year. The next year he contributed £92,372. The accounts highlight that income from sources other than Bellamy was not enough to sustain the academy, and its fragile position came under pressure from the ebola outbreak in 2014, when nearly all the expatriate staff left the country.
A skeleton staff kept the academy going, with the 35 boys protected from the disease that ravaged Sierra Leone, and once ebola had been conquered, efforts were made to get it back on track.
Money, though, was increasingly tight. Tom Vernon, who runs the Right to Dream academy in Ghana and who had helped to set up the Bellamy academy, said that the ebola outbreak would have made it incredibly difficult to attract any funding from local companies: “Sustaining these academies is a really hard slog, an uphill struggle anyway and, after ebola, the local companies would have just been trying to survive themselves and not have any spare money.”
At the same time as the ebola outbreak, Bellamy retired from football and his earnings from playing ceased abruptly. Hopes that he would be chosen to take over from Gary Neville as Sky Sports’ main pundit also failed to materialise.
Despite this, the annual report submitted in March 2015 for the year ending May 31, 2014, was hopeful, saying that the aim was to increase the number of students and to “develop a fundraising strategy that ensures the long-term survival of the foundation”.
Signed by Bellamy and Phil Baker, his fellow trustee and former business adviser, the report states: “The trustees are hopeful that a fundraising event will be held in the year to 31 May, 2016, which should put the Foundation in a better position.”
The financial position of the foundation is not known beyond May 2014, however. The Charity Commission’s website says that the next accounts are 343 days overdue and that the foundation will have received a default notice.
Hopes that there was a positive future after the appointment of a new expatriate manager at the academy last year failed to last and the remaining staff and boys were told last September that it would not be re-opening after the holidays.
For some of the boys, there was a lifeline from Kelsey Sullivan, an American who had originally worked at the Right to Dream academy and who has managed to secure scholarships for 14 of them in the United States.
Sullivan, 28, still accommodates ten of those boys at her family home in California while the others are at college or boarding school, but she she feels for those that were left behind: “We received a little bit of money each year from the Craig Bellamy Foundation but I have not heard from them for a year and most of the money has come from local fundraising in the US or out of our own pockets. It costs us about $100,000 a year.
“I know the kids that didn’t get to leave the academy on a scholarship are in a tough spot. Because it ended in a way that no one expected — and quicker than expected — there was not a great deal of long-term vision for those that did not manage to leave Sierra Leone on a long-term scholarship.
“I would just hope that they may be better off overall than if they had not gone to the academy.
“I think Craig had all the good intentions and the visions and then he has retired and circumstances in his personal life may have changed which made it a lot harder to sustain, because it is expensive and he paid for it out if his own pocket.
“Ebola didn’t help — it was challenging and I just tried to help as many of them as I could.”
For those boys not fortunate enough to gain a scholarship, the future is bleak. One former academy staff member, who still lives in Sierra Leone, told The Times that the boys were regarded as failures in their communities.
He said: “The boys were each given some money but they are not in a good situation now. You must remember we took some of these boys from the streets or their parents were very poor, and they do not have money to look after them any more.
“I have two of the boys living with me but others are not in a good position. Four of them aged between 14 and 18 are living together in one room in a place on the Fourah Bay road in Freetown.
“They also feel ashamed to go back to their communities, who look at them as though they are failures because they see others who have gone overseas on scholarships. They were given some money but the academy has not provided for their futures.”
There is still some hope for them, however. After learning of their plight, former staff members have been trying to raise funds and organise opportunities for those boys left behind.
The Times has made a donation to EducAid, an education network in Sierra Leone. If you would like to support the education of other children in Sierra Leone, visit www.educaid.org.uk/support-us/donate/.