EL CAMBIO ACADEMY:Change Like No Other

In a country with about 100 youth soccer academies, only Masaka-based El Cambio Academy stands out with a blueprint of what an ideal set-up should embody; the norms, objectives and goals that youngsters in a particular stable should aspire to become on and off the field.
 

What you need to know:

Preaching Excellence. In a country with about 100 youth soccer academies, only Masaka-based El Cambio Academy stands out with a blueprint of what an ideal set-up should embody; the norms, objectives and goals that youngsters in a particular stable should aspire to become on and off the field.

The pin location will get you stranded in Masaka Town but one phone call got yours truly to the unofficial home of Uganda’s best  youthful soccer players. Less than three kilometres from the town in a village named New Kumbu – a poor man’s version of Muyenga in Kampala City -   as I amble into an institution-like blue gate with the words; El Cambio Academy (ECA) inscribed on it, I immediately realise the word professionalism cannot be overstated.

The protocols observed in this post Covid-19 pandemic era, the beaming smiles to welcome a face they’ve probably seen or  never and the bee-hive activity going on at every glance is bound to leave one with a twisted neck. Time check is 4pm. The boys and girls are returning from school and forthwith in a hurry not to be late for practice which is about two kilometers away – The New Kumbu Playground in Masaka City Kimanya, Kabonera Division. Thomas Thor, the vision bearer – since 2018 when the academy was initiated – works like a tracer bullet. There is no minute to waste as every second is planned. 

Happy Family. Artiste Bebe Cool (C) alongside the academy youngsters and officials soon after the music video shoot.

Make a change
“Twanguwe, mangu mangu, twagala e’nkyuuka kyuuka,”  Thor rallies the little ones in the local Luganda dialect asking them to; “Do everything quickly so that we strive to make a change, ” – as they pace around the house; changing from their school uniforms to looking for their playing kit, boots and donning them before they stride to the ground with a host of at least 20 volunteer coaches from Europe and six local ones that are on ECA’s books.
Soccer could be the main thing but ECA is not all about playing football. Soccer is just the launch pad Thor and the academy are using to change lives of the little ones and make the future world beaters.
“El Cambio” is a Spanish word meaning ‘Change’. And ‘Make A Change’ is the academy’s tagline. “Our passion is to change lives on and off the field. Our aim is to nurture talented soccer players in an elite environment that will allow them to continually improve on their soccer abilities,” opens up 39-year-old Thor, also a former professional Danish footballer.

“Off the field, we provide the students with a great education that includes a character program to develop their character and prepare them to become future African role models.”
Easier said than done! But for ECA, they’re a living testimony to their mission and already have a sneak peek into what the future holds for them.

Fairytale stories
Isaac Bakwira, a S.2 student at Blessed Sacrament Secondary School in Kimanya, unlike others, stays back at the house and is given the task to give me a guided tour.
“I am not going to play today because I have a scheduled interview and aptitude test on Zoom with Dunn High School in California, USA who have agreed to take me up on a four-year free scholarship,” reveals the 15-year-old multi-faceted youngster, who joined in 2018.

“It is not only my football talent taking me to the US, I am also very good in class and my results were well-received. Here, it is not about football but also your education and personal character. I have been told that when I go to Dunn, I should pursue my calling. If it is soccer then I should become a professional and maybe come back and play for Cranes one day. But if it is education, I should go on and chase the white collar job. The academy wants us to open up doors for all other kids in Uganda and the region. We must also become role models for others,” said the youngster who wants to become a doctor, as he thoroughly explained each of the academy’s core values; Integrity, Giving Back, Persistence, Love, Curiosity and Social Intelligence. 

Bakwira heads out to the Land of Opportunity this August and Thor says it is part of the academy’s unique long-term vision that aims to provide a major social impact and forthwith become the leading elite football academy in Eastern Africa by the end of this year.
Six more youngsters from the academy will go to Denmark for  a three-to-four week stint to express themselves and get to learn a different culture and language.
“We have children from all over the country. We admit the best. There is nothing like this place and you will not find it anywhere in East Africa. Coaches from other academies recommend to us and we also send out our scouts. We give those that meet our requirements a two-week trial and recruit only those that pass. No one can pay his way into El Cambio,” says Thor of the academy that has 30 boys and initiated five (now seven) pioneer girls into the set-up soon after the pandemic in January 2021. 

“Getting the ‘Girl-Child’ on board is the best thing I have ever done,” said Thor as we dig into our dinner meal of posho and beans. “They have the same rights, passion and love of the game. They should be given an opportunity. With them, we are now a big complete family,” says Thor as he fights in vain to hide his now emotional face.

Special touch
Nutmegs, artistry, unbelievable dribbling, no-look and short-crisp passes, quick play interchange and pinpoint diagonal crosses followed by well-executed goals and seemingly choreographed celebrations are not the norm amongst Ugandan teams at all levels. But here at ECA, it is daily bread for the eyes of onlookers who swarm the training ground to have a glance at the sessions and it’s the  youngsters’ way of life. “It is important that football is taught in the right way,” chips in Eddie Ssenyombi, a Caf D coach who hails from Nyendo and started out with the academy in 2018. 

“We don’t look at winning. We compete in tourneys every second week. We can go and win 10-0 but that is not what matters at this age. We leave the kids to express themselves and correct their mistakes without barking at them. They know we wish them well and it gives them a good feeling to be in such a special environment. We want them to win consistently and in the right manner in the future,” adds the 20-year-old who was in charge of the day’s proceedings during the breather. 
The academy primarily uses two schools; Good Foundation Primary School in Kijjabwemi and Blessed Sacrament’s primary and secondary schools. The children are not attached to the respective schools’ co-curricular programmes as they must be available for ECA programmes after the classes. 

“Like in a match, our training sessions last 90 minutes. We build players from zero skill, from technique to match situation. 95 per cent of the work we do with them is on the ball. They know the modern football trends and that’s why they play with so much maturity,” adds Ssenyombi who will do a Caf C course this year. During training, the volunteers and coaches are restless. The smartly dressed youngsters play like their lives depend on that particular session.

Striker’s account
“We love this,” striker Gavin Kavuma Ashraf, previously at coach Jamil Mukwaya’s Global Stars Academy in Bunnamwaya, says as he catches his breath. 
“I used to play football for fun. And now here I play it for a purpose. My future is certain. At my previous academy, we had to share five balls amongst more than 40 kids. But here, everyone can have their own ball at any particular time. Before I came here, one could leave a training session with less than 10 touches on the ball in a session of two hours but now the ball is always on our feet,” explains the 15-year-old S.3 student, who adores Senegal star striker Sadio Mane and celebrated Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Kabuye reckons he prefers staying at the academy because of the non-toxic environment compared to home where his mother Hadijah Nakiboneka has to divide attention amongst 11 other children including siblings, adopted children and  relatives.”

“Mr Thomas (Academy Director Thor) looks after us well. He visits and gives our families something. He also allows us to call them. We also visit but sometimes many of us prefer to stay because we love each other so much and we treat each other like brothers and sisters. 
“Our birthdays are celebrated in a big way, on many Sundays we are taken for pizza and swimmings. We also get a chance to play Fifa PlayStation and watch European soccer matches and highlights packages if they’re before lights out time of 9pm.  And during holidays, Mr Thomas brings teachers and emotional speakers to teach, inspire and help us improve our characters.”

 The youngsters hone their skills under the tutelage of their local coaches and volunteers. 

Well structured
From the way traffic is run, ECA, whose target group is from nine to 11 -year-olds, are shooting for the skies. Their cast of ambassadors includes; Brian Laudrup - a former Danish striker who now works as a commentator, Morten Olsen - ex-Denmark coach,  Kasper Hjulmand – Denmark coach, Daniel Wass – Denmark and Atletico Madrid star and  Emiliano Marcondes, who plays for Bournemouth in England.

The set-up in Masaka has six local coaches, three administrators; Richard Kaggwa, Moureen Bukenya and Joyce Bukenya, three physiotherapists and an average of 20 volunteer coaches from abroad on a daily to help build content for the academy as well as gain work experience by doing internship in any of the academy’s departments. In total, 20 Ugandans are also full staff employees of the academy.
“We have structures in place and everything we do is on schedule. Our academy structures are copied from Ghana’s Right To Dream Academy. They are the best in Africa and have many players they’ve exported to Europe,” reveals Thor, whose father died 12 years ago but had his mother Lis-Madsen present during this interview. 

On this particular weekend, ECA were scheduled to play at Masaka Recreation Grounds with the girls, junior boys in action and the big boys (13-14 year-olds) scheduled to take on the volunteers. The boys went on to wallop their coaches and volunteers 6-0 in a 9x9 match that was played in four quarters of 20 minutes. “We might be older than them. But we aren’t at the same level of fitness. They’re also far better than us technically. We cannot beat them,” joked youthful coach Ssenyombi. 
 
Big mentality
El Cambio is sponsored by Nike and its products are currently from all  over Uganda (Jinja, Kampala and Entebbe thus far). ECA opened up their gates and literally work with over 80 academies in Uganda that believe in their process. ECA want to be the bull in kraal because they believe they’ve earned the rating as the best in the region.
“Most academies do things differently. Most of them are wrong as they put winning ahead of all other things. For us, we respect the Ugandan culture but we want to bring in modern trends,” says Thor, a man who played as a central midfielder in his heyday.

“The level we have achieved in a few years is unbelievable. No one has ever had as much talent in one place. The other academies have noticed our superiority and are coming to us. They want to be with us. They realised we are not their rivals and will never be their competitors. They have realised that for the academy business to survive  every setting needs to have a powerhouse.
“El Cambio is the powerhouse of Uganda because of what it sets out to do. The other academies now understand this and they are willing to spread talent and ensure special needs of youngsters are taken care of.”

Relationship with Fufa
Giving respect and taking responsibility are among ECA’s values - something they want to be contagious enough to catch other academies, youth football authorities and the game’s governing body – Fufa.
 “We have created a better framework for youth football and hopefully we will get to share everything with Fufa. We would like to keep the relationship strong and not seem superior to them. Working with them will help us learn together and brush off ideas with each other,” Thor advises.
“We are in-touch with Uganda Youth Football Association (UYFA). The door is also open for Fufa to come and see what we can do,” he answered when asked why none of their players surprisingly were considered for any of the national under-age teams.
  
“But that is besides the point. We know all coaches that start these academies really try. They don’t have enough materials  because they don’t have money. They’re passion driven. But they can replicate some of the things we do.  They should get on social media and tell the truth about their academies. Social media can also be used for fundraising. We are in this not for just three to five years but forever. They should operate with the same mentality.”

Celebrity attachment
El Cambio is a mega hit on social media and it has attracted volunteer promoters like Andy Skillz, a Ugandan freestyle footballer and Brian Brizze Mengel, a Danish freestyle champion as well as top Ugandan artiste Bebe Cool and Fun Factory comedian Hannington Bugingo, who were recently in New Kumbu to shoot a free promotion music video for the  academy. 
“Bebe Cool’s gesture was a nice one. He helps us to spread the word of change using his talent. 
“We want e’nkyuuka kyuuka (change). It will impact many lives. We are proud of the several goodwill ambassadors that have done their bit for us.”
For Bebe Cool,  the government of Uganda and Fufa should pay attention to programmes and academies like ECA because it is one of the best things that has happened to this country. 

“Our government must know that the youth’s unifying factor and passion is in sports and entertainment, and support it. But our government is still failing to understand the dynamics of young people. It is the only way they will win them over,” says Bebe Cool, in a passionate tone. 
“Thor should be given due respect. He has proved that there is opportunity and talent all over Uganda. My visit to Masaka answered the question as to why our players don’t make it abroad. We don’t want to learn, listen and share information.

“I was very impressed. Thor has gone for quality over quantity and he’s getting the little ones to learn professional traits at an early age. What I saw on the pitch left me so embarrassed because there is no single player I had seen before in Uganda including my son (Alpha Thierry Ssali) that can come close to those 12–13-year-olds in terms of talent and maturity. I am sure  many authorities don’t know this, unless they go there,” added the celebrity musician whose father – a former minister Jaberi Bidandi Ssali- was the manager of the Uganda Cranes team that reached the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations final.
Bebe Cool has rightfully called out Fufa to visit ECA and exchange ideas soonest.

“Fufa have done well thus far but going to Masaka will open up their eyes further. They need to marry their ideas with Thor’s philosophy. If Fufa use his formula, it will make our players very good. 
“People like Thor are professionals that must be given a chance. The most important programmes must be set up from the grassroots. So that we get proper footballers,” concluded Bebe Cool, who is also an ardent Arsenal fan. 

Eagle-Eyed. El Cambio Academy founder Thomas Thor (L) keenly follows the training session from the sideline

Possible dreams
In a handful of years, Thor wants the academy to have a maximum of 70 youngsters including 18 girls and also be able to buy land near Kampala in three to five years so that the academy can stop renting a home and hiring pitches.
“It will all cost a lot of money. But our new home will help us to do our activities and programmes cheaply without any hindrances.” 
WRITER’S NOTION  
Worthwhile Voyage.Yours truly has been to many academies in Uganda that despite striving hard remain works in progress.
Visiting El Cambio Academy was eye-opening as it left a forever deep-rooted mark in my memory. 
What a philosophy being rolled out in front of our own eyes, in full throttle! 
The voyage to and from New Kumbu, Masaka Municipality - 262km southwest of the capital city of Kampala -  was not in vain. 
Positive change is possible if there is a vision and blue print to be followed.  

WHO’S WHO?

Founder:  
Thomas Thor
Head of Recruitment: 
Abbey Kakumirizi 
Head of Physiotherapy: 
Eddie Ssenyombi 
Head of Administration: 
Richard Kaggwa
Head of Programs: 
Joyce Bukenya
Head of Character: 
Ruth Ruzindana
Head of Marketing: 
Isabella Campos
Coach:
Steven Lusembo
Coach:
Godfrey Kagoya

AMBASSADORS

Brian Laudrup
Former Danish footballer
Morten Olsen
Former Head Coach of the
Danish national football team
Kasper Hjulmand
Head Coach of the Danish national football team
Daniel Wass
Footballer for Valencia & Danish national team
Anders Hemmingsen
Danish influencer
Emiliano Marcondes
Danish footballer for AFC Bournemouth
Daniel Wass
Denmark & Atletico Madrid
[email protected]

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