Craig Bellamy reveals passion for Sierra Leone project
Wales striker Craig Bellamy has spoken for the first time of his pioneering charity work in West Africa ahead of a two-part television documentary starting this week.
The controversial 32-year-old is in the spotlight for the right reasons with his work at the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone.
The former Wales and Cardiff City captain, who has just returned to Liverpool for a second spell after leaving Manchester City, said he was inspired to set up the charity after suffering his own footballing heartbreak.
He said: “I was on the bench for the Champions League final for Liverpool in 2007. I didn’t get to appear. I was disappointed not to appear. I was at my wit’s end.
“I had a mate working in Sierra Leone, and he said ‘Why don’t you come out and see me?’ and I fell in love with the place. It really scared me but I felt I had to do something. If I didn’t I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
The star, who has scored 18 times in 63 appearances for his country, has pumped more than £750,000 of his own money into the charity since setting it up in 2008.
The foundation runs the country’s only football academy in Tombo, 90 minutes from the capital Freetown, and also co-ordinates a league of 88 teams in four regions nationwide, allowing 2,000 boys and girls to play sport in the impoverished country.
Bellamy said: “The poverty is another level. It can either scare you or it can make you want to do something about it. Thankfully it made me want to do something about it.
“To qualify to play in the league they need to go to school – it’s not about football, it’s about education. It’s been a massive success, truancy rates have gone down and UNICEF say it’s one of the best things that has happened to Sierra Leone.”
Latest findings from UNICEF show the school attendance rate of children playing in the league is more than 90% – three times greater than the national average of 29%.
Teams pick up points not only for their results on the pitch, but also school attendance, fair play and taking part in community projects.
In 2002 Sierra Leone emerged from a brutal civil war which claimed 50,000 lives and left 100,000 wounded.
The first episode of the documentary shows Craig travelling from his home in the Vale of Glamorgan to West Africa, and includes footage of him meeting an amputee football team – victims of vicious machete attacks during the 11-year war.
Cardiff-born Bellamy, who spent last season on loan with the Bluebirds, said: “Everyone there has a story about the war – with a war that’s only 10 years old you are bound to have people who are affected by it.
“But what I love about the people of Sierra Leone is that they see a future for themselves.”
The double-part documentary follows the livewire striker – whose former clubs include Newcastle, Celtic and Blackburn Rovers – on a 10-day visit to Sierra Leone in June this year.
“I’ve never done a documentary before, I felt totally out of my comfort zone but it was something that had to be done,” said Bellamy.
“I’m a private man – who you see on the pitch is not who I am off it – so making this has been a learning experience for me as well.”
And he paid tribute to his parents, saying his upbringing had helped inspire him in his charity work. “My parents were great, my dad gave me everything. What I’m trying to do is to give the same support to my boys in Sierra Leone so they can make a success out of their lives.”
The show comes while three players from the academy – 14-year-old centre-forward Mustapha Bundu, central midfielder Santigie Koroma, 15, and Sulaiman Samura, a 14-year-old centre-back – are spending a six-week training placement at Cardiff City and staying at Bellamy’s home with his family.
Programme director Steffan Morgan said filming had brought out Bellamy’s true character.
“We see a different side, the real Craig if you like – a complex, intelligent, articulate person who has a vision for Sierra Leone,” he said.
“And we meet the wonderfully warm people of Sierra Leone, a country that’s beginning to get back on its feet after the Civil War.”
The first episode of Craig Bellamy’s African Dream airs on ITV1 Wales at 7.30pm on Tuesday.
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