JOHANNESBURG — In the sport of football (soccer), South Africa is in the spotlight as it prepares to host the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament this weekend. The Tan Academy is capitalizing on the popularity of the sport in Johannesburg by scouting and training young football talent. But it also provides the young athletes with a top-rate education, regardless of their social background.
In a quiet and serious classroom in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg are what may be the future of South African football. Like Nhlanhla Nkosi, several of the students are part of a top-class football academy called Diambars, which is located at the school. The philosophy of Diambars is to use football as a driving force to education, says Djelloul Habchi, a former professional football player from France, who co-founded the academy.
"We decided to give back to Africa and to try to promote education, and one of the ways to do it was to establish academies," Habchi explains. "We know that all of them won't be able to become professional football players. The rest need to have alternative careers."
The Diambars academy was created in Senegal 10 years ago and moved to South Africa in 2010.
Today, there are 50 students, between the ages of 13 and 15, enrolled for five years of training in South Africa. Most of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and were chosen for their football talents.
They board at the school and only go home during the weekend. Nhlanhla, 14, has been playing football since he was seven. He has been raised by his single father, who had no idea his son was so gifted. When the academy staff told him his son had been accepted, it came as a surprise.
"I myself was like 'wow.' I never thought he can do it," he recalls. "I know he can [be] a substitution goalkeeper. He could play rugby at school. He could play cricket. But in terms of being a right-back [footballer], I never thought he could do that and I was really, really surprised."
Nhlanhla has been at Diambars academy for one year and still has four more to go. He says he already feels he has changed for the better, because of the hard work and the discipline the academy requires. If a child does not pass at school, they are expelled from the academy.
"The year I came to Diambars, it was very hard for me to adapt, so I got into a lot of trouble with the teachers," Nhlanhla admits. "So I decided to change and the boarding masters are very hard. Sometimes, if you come late for supper, you just don't get any food or you just get punishment and you get your food. But, it's nice because you learn, you learn a lot from it, and when you come back home, you can actually see that you know what, I've actually changed."
In just three years, the Diambars academy has built a strong reputation in South Africa. Last year, the academy won the prestigious Premier League tournament in South Africa in every division they entered.