When the Phoenix came to town

By Sam Jeffery

On any given Friday around 3pm many of us will generally be winding down from professional servitude and beginning to ramp up for the impending weekend frivolities. However on this Friday just past, patrons of the Eastern Suburbs were treated to a spectacular pre-weekend treat as Madills Farm hosted Ernie Merrick and his Wellington Phoenix to train in front a throng of excited football fans of all ages.

As part of their Football United 2014 tour, that will see Premiership sides Newcastle and West Ham head to New Zealand, the Phoenix were in Auckland and made the home of Eastern Suburbs their own for the afternoon. Two Suburbs first team players, Ernest Wong and Haidar Jabir, were also lucky enough to get the opportunity to train with the players, whilst the generous swell of fans were able to have their photos taken and shirts signed once the session came to its conclusion.


Having trained earlier that morning the session was a relatively light affair but was equally an excellent opportunity to observe the showcase of talent that the Phoenix have. Stars such Tyler Boyd, Kevin Durante and Matt Ridenton could be seen caressing the ball around Madills with aplomb, under the watchful eye of Ernie Merrick, whilst the Lilywhites own Jabir fitted in with pleasing ease.

Suburbs keeper Wong worked separately under the guidance of former Celtic and Scotland keeper Jonathan Gould, now Phoenix GK coach, and was thrilled at getting the chance.

“It was great to play with professional players and get the chance to be coached by someone like Jonathan Gould. I really enjoyed it, particularly as it was at Madills and the club I play for.”


Whilst only two Suburbs players were lucky enough to get the chance to actually train with the Phoenix, hundreds of young fans got the opportunity to interact with the players once the session was over and it is to their great credit that not one fan would have been left disappointed with the time the players took to sign and be photographed with.

Suburbs Chairman Chris Ruffell, responsible for orchestrating the successful event, was left satisfied by what was achieved.

“I think it was a good day all round, we had a big crowd which is great and I thought the Phoenix were certainly very approachable and interacted very well. Overall it’s been very worthwhile and we thank them for their efforts and would love to welcome them back anytime”.

It was a sentiment echoed by the Phoenix hierarchy.

“It’s been a great day”, Coach Merrick commented, “both the Suburbs boys are clearly very talented, and this really is what it’s all about [regarding the swarms of jubilant youngsters running around]”.

It would be impossible to disagree with the affable and thoroughly likeable Merrick, and with the sun beginning to set late on Friday it was with great thanks that Eastern Suburbs bade a fond farewell to its guests.


The Phoenix return to Auckland next month to take on West Ham at Eden Park, and it would be a shock should there not be a whole host of young Suburbs players present, clad in the shirts signed by their heroes. The tour is dubbed Football United, and anyone present on Friday would not testify to a more appropriate title.

An Open Letter from Chairman Chris Ruffell

What are we trying to achieve?

I was asked recently by a coach/parent of a 9-year-old Suburbs player, “what are we trying to achieve at Eastern Suburbs?” This was in reference to the Junior/Youth training and playing program at the club. My answer was simple – we want all players to enjoy their time at Eastern Suburbs whilst giving them the best possible opportunity to reach their potential as a player.

From an enjoyment perspective we attempt to arrange many teams based on friends requests and try and arrange competitions that are as even as possible so everyone can experience winning and losing. There will always of course be the strongest and the weakest team(s), such is sport. From a development perspective we offer many coaching programs, coach education, and extra competition for the elite and a variety of other things to assist players reaching their potential. One of the biggest obstacles to player development sadly can be the game itself, and the perception from parents around the measurement of improvement. It can also be one of the best development tools. Let me explain.

Football like most things is a learned activity. With regards to development we measure a person in regards to what he or she can do in relation to the best. For example, the measure of IQ is an intelligence measurement in relation to your age and the mental ability of other humans. Many of you will have had children at school that undertake NSW testing that show they have a reading age of an “X” year old. We measure the ability of a pianist on how well he or she can play and have a grading system to work through which gets progressively more difficult. What we as humans seem to do instinctively is try and encourage our children to learn an activity as quickly as possible and get great satisfaction when our kids excel at something and become significantly better than their peers at the same age. My experience however is that irrespective of where your child fits into the evolutionary scale of whatever activity they are undertaking, we as parents enjoy seeing them improve. I also believe the children get more enjoyment when they are learning.

The involvement in team sports is a very “kiwi” thing to do. There are so many positive aspects that many of us probably don’t fully appreciate. We understand the physical aspect around healthy living, and starting this at a young age is very good. Being “part of a team” and not letting your team mates down by being reliable/punctual. Giving your best for the team. Understanding and dealing with winning and losing. It is also a family activity with Mum and Dad, often sisters and/or brothers on the sideline all supporting the participant as well as the rest of the team. This is genuinely “quality time” in a forever more fast paced “online” life that we now live.

The problem is how do we measure progress? It is easy to measure enjoyment; the kids are either happy or sad. They either want to play or they don’t. Obviously we as parents can impact this as well. Shouting on the sideline or telling your child all the things they did wrong during the game will naturally have a negative influence. Fortunately I don’t think this happens too often (but does happen). But from a progress perspective what we would like to see is no different to any other activity and that is for player’s to display traits that you would expect from players older and better than themselves. So what are those traits?

Before I answer that I would like you to ask yourself as a parent whether you know the answer to that question.

For many parents the major measurement devices they recognise in relation to football are:
• Goals scored/shots
• Goals conceded/saves
• Won/Lost
• Tackles made

Sadly, these things have no bearing on whether your child is improving or not. Although it is of course a team game, in the developmental Junior and younger Youth years we focus on teaching the individual skills required to master the ball, and introduce the tactical appreciation required as they acquire these skills. The difficulty is of course that during the process of learning these skills, many mistakes are made. The consequence of these mistakes and where on the field they are made, can impact greatly on the result of the game.

This leaves us with two choices:

1. Focus on instructing the children in games to avoid risking use of underdeveloped skills that could cause mistakes, and greatly increasing their chances of winning or;
2. Encouraging them to try their underdeveloped skills in the game as well as training and accept willingly the consequence that losing will / may be a by product in the immediate term.

At Eastern Suburbs, in an attempt to achieve our goal of having our players reach their potential, we are choosing the second option. If every team did the same thing then the winning/losing by-product would in fact be nullified. And if winning is a large component of the enjoyment factor (I don’t necessarily think it is, it is more related to the environment created within the team) then this also should balance if everyone takes on board the same philosophy.

So as a parent if I am not to judge the players improvement or progress by goals scored/conceded, games won/lost, tackles made shots saved, then what do I judge it on? Here are some of the things that we like to look out for at a young age (not in any particular order).

First touch, technique whether passing, or shooting, ability to use both feet, composure on the ball, movement with or without the ball, athleticism, close control / dribbling, coordination, “tricks”, decision making, accuracy, playing with head up, recognition and utilisation of space, speed, confidence on the ball. There are many more.

For many parents not brought up on the game of Football, the ability to recognise some or all of these attributes is near on impossible. It is in its own unique way like a different language you hear but occasionally recognise individual words. The tendency is to think when a team wins they played well, and when they lose they didn’t play well. But within that win or loss there will have been skills displayed as listed above that were performed very well at times, and others performed poorly, by both teams. Focusing your praise on the important skills and attributes displayed well (win or lose) is far more important than recognising either the result or trying to avoid mistakes that may impact the result. If you don’t have the knowledge or experience to recognise these attributes, you are much better saying nothing as you may well be unwittingly applauding actions which are detrimental to the progress of your player.

Let me give you an example which I see all the time. The ball comes to a player in defence with very little pressure on him/her, and the ball is kicked a great distance forward. Parents clap, danger is gone because the ball is further from the defenders goal and occasionally the ball goes directly to a striker on the same team who is now in a goal scoring position. If I relate that to how the game should be played based on how the best players play the game (and remember we are trying to develop our players by emulating what good players do) what do I want to see? Firstly the player controls the ball. Secondly he/she then makes a conscious decision to dribble or pass based on the space and players around. Once the ball has been accurately released he/she makes a run to support that player.

Unfortunately taking this course of action gives the player several opportunities to make a mistake and give the ball away in a dangerous area. And when that mistake occurs it could well be costly for the team. However if the parents on the sideline applaud when he/she belts the ball down the field, the next time they are in the same position they will do exactly the same thing because he/she enjoys the adulation received as a result of the action. From a development perspective an opportunity is missed to undertake a course of actions that will require several different skills which when mastered will make him/her a significantly better player than one that can only kick the ball a long way. This is one example.

So as a parent what should you do? Firstly recognise in its most basic form, football is a game where you try and keep the ball. I don’t mean the individual keeps the ball, but the team keeps the ball. This is done by either passing or dribbling around and through the opposition. From a development perspective it is better to lose ground and keep the ball, than gain ground and lose it. One of the problems with the game from a development perspective is that the goal is like a giant magnet. Players for some reason come hell or high water need to get the ball towards the opposition goal preferably through the shortest possible route. If this involves somehow going directly through opposition player’s bodies then so be it. When you watch the top players playing they look to work their way around the opposition, creating gaps to play through by clever manipulation of the ball player movement and speed. If something is not working they retreat and then start again looking to probe and puncture until something opens up which can be exploited. These top players have developed the attributes required through many thousands of hours of practise and countless mistakes and failures. But they eventually learnt from those mistakes and good coaching.

In most top football academies around the world the parents if allowed at games are required to remain silent. The parents watch quietly, just as they would if they went to their child’s school to observe them learning in the classroom or playing in the orchestra. We are not a top academy, but recognise that if we want our players to reach their potential we too might emulate some of the things that organisations better than us undertake. So what we’d like Eastern Suburbs parents to do is come to your child’s game, enjoy a coffee and a chat, and just let the kids do their thing. Remember, they’re not there for your entertainment, they’re there for theirs.

If they can be left alone and applauded for the right reasons, the game can become one of the best development tools of all.

Thank you,
Chris Ruffell

Will Richardson – World Cup bound

The phrase “you’ve gotta be in it to win” is an often overused cliché that’s generally spouted by some sort of gameshow host or salesman. Equally, “once in a lifetime” can be a bit of an exaggeration. In the case of Eastern Suburbs’ very own Will Richardson, both sayings could not be more apt. Because this young Kiwi is getting the chance to do what every football fan across the globe dreams of doing, walking out on the biggest stage in international football, the World Cup Final.

Will, who plays for the ESAFC 10th grade Yellow Team, was one of over 1000 youngsters aged between 6-10 who entered a McDonalds Skills Zone Day on the Auckland Domain. His mum Victoria explained how it all came about.

“We were sent an email through from the club about the McDonalds Day and we took both Will and his sister down to have a go. We didn’t hear anything else about it until two weeks later when a PR guy from McDonalds called”.

It was then that Victoria was asked several questions relating to Will’s suitability, age and, tellingly, passport. Finally as the conversation neared a close it was revealed that Will had in fact won, and his mum was given the unenviable task of having to keep it a secret.

“I was told not to tell Will so that we could surprise him at training!”

Thus following a full three days of blissful unawareness the surprise was finally sprung on Will by All Whites Tim Payne and Matt Ridenton amidst something a media frenzy.

Will - World Cup

“Will was absolutely speechless”, Victoria revealed, “it really is once in a lifetime”.

Victoria is not wrong, of course. Not only will Will and his mum get the chance to soak up the atmosphere and drama of this most prestigious of international tournaments, they get to do so in one of the World’s great cities.
As part of the prize for winning, the Richardson’s will be housed in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer, on Ipanema Beach.

Will also gets the opportunity to play against the other 21 lucky winners, tour some of Rio and sneak an early look at the spiritual home of football that plays host to the final, the Maracana.

Asked who he’d like to accompany onto the pitch and who he’d like to win, there is little surprise to his answer:
“Messi – I’d like Argentina to win”.

Time will tell who the eventual tournament winner will be, but for Will Richardson, he’s already a victor in the eyes of every football fan across the country. For following the rather ignominious defeat to Mexico in the Playoffs it seemed inevitable that there would be no New Zealand representative at this year’s World Cup.
Not anymore.

Time for a Healthy Dose of Footballing Medicine

By Sam Jeffery

It’s that time again. Fever has struck and frankly with each passing day it becomes more and more of an epidemic. We should’ve been prepared, we all knew it was coming of course. One of those cyclical diseases that strikes every 4 years – same time, same symptoms, same outcome. But the cure isn’t housed in some doctoral encyclopaedia, nor is it ingested via pill or syringe. The antidote comes in that most pleasurable form – International football and in the most lavish amounts possible. For what we all suffer from is World Cup Fever.

June of a “World Cup year” is the culmination of 47 long months of arduous torture and longing. In the immediate aftermath of a World Cup there are the initial early stages of major football-withdrawal symptoms; tears, tantrums and transfer-talk. Luckily the Premiership season swings into life just when it would appear that life no longer required living. The eager football fan is appeased and gorges on league, cup and Champions League delicacies all the while blocking out thoughts of Jules Rimet and that glistening golden trophy.


The Euros, Copa Americas and African Cup of Nations – inferior brothers to their loftier kin – of course present a large degree of comfort to us football fanatics. But then the ripples begin, and ripples soon become waves. The qualifiers start. Excitement surges through the veins of all the hopeful nations. It’s just a teaser though, we’re being mocked once again because we’re still a full 2 years away from the main event.

As an Englishman (yet to experience a qualifying campaign here in Aotearoa) qualifiers involve a blundering, painful struggle against a variety of lowly Baltic states and principalities – Macedonia and San Marino are staple opponents – and the boredom generated by such affairs makes the shining lights of Rio seem far off.

But as qualification begins to loom tantalisingly on the horizon, and the spotlight start to veer towards the World Cup destination so the excitement begins its now seemingly endless rise.

Brazil has been plagued with demonstrations, destruction and even deaths. Do the football fans around the world really care? Harsh to say but probably not. Morally we do; in reality it’s all about the football now. It’s so close and we all know that Brazil are going to put on one hell of a show.

Squads are announced, wallcharts are printed or purchased, sweepstakes are completed. Twitter, Facebook, and all across the web armchair pundits offer their opinions. Pub discussions rocket and excuses are already being planned for late arrivals to work, early exits or just plain “sickness”.


And then finally, finally after all those long, dark World Cup-less days the moment is finally due to arrive. A feast of football from the finest banquet the world can offer. Fans from all nations descend upon Brazil ready to party in sporting paradise. There’s a hint of envy (well, jealousy, let’s face it) at those that can afford time and money to make the pilgrimage but our consolation is epic.

The greatest players, 3 matches a day, four and half hours of sensational football. And it’s not just the games of course, we’ve got build-up, analysis, post-match reaction, highlights. By the end of the day we’ve known every moment of each match in gooey detail, and back to our mundane lives we go, for a few fleeting hours.

And then the cycle starts again. Hour after hour, day after day, for 4 glorious weeks. It doesn’t get any better. Whether we’re watching one of the favoured South Americans or one of the no-hopers, it doesn’t really matter. The possibility of a stunning strike, silky team goal or scandalous sending off, the excitement never dims.

A mere 2 weeks from now the eyes of the world descend on the spiritual home of football. It’s a worldwide pandemic – World Cup Fever has struck.

‘Fast Freddy’ – New Zealand’s one and only Speed Endurance coach

By Sam Jeffery

“Sprinting is like learning a language. There’s only one way to do it – the technique must be correct and it’s all about repetition”. This is the straightforward logic that Freddy Farmer preaches to his pupils day in day out as he steers them towards upper and lower body co-ordination. Farmer is New Zealand’s only recognised Speed Endurance coach, and he imparts his years of wisdom week after week on the up-and-coming youngsters at the Eastern Suburbs Academy. In this week’s blog we meet the man dubbed “Fast Freddy”.

Freddy Farmer arrived in New Zealand at the ripe old age of 60; the profession on his visa application read “Speed Endurance coach”. In what must surely be the very definition of “no-brainer”, Immigration were quick to grant Freddy his visa, given that there is not one other of his coaching kind in all of New Zealand. Freddy has learnt his trade from Margot Wells, widely respected around the world as a pioneer in Speed Endurance, and coach (and wife) to 1980s Olympic 100m Gold and 200m Silver Medalist Alan Wells.

“I was always a rugby boy back in England”, Freddy proclaims, “scrum-half, then to centre and wing. I was always into my sprinting so it was only natural really”.


As captain of his club, Surrey-based Effingham, Freddy was responsible for everything, including coaching. It was here that he began to implement some of his passion for sprinting and sprint endurance.

“I’d always been interested in how the body works – why can some people move quicker than others? Sprinters always look neat and tidy when they run, their body movement and so on. I’d always thought about it and I used to bring this sort of stuff into my rugby training”.

So focused with Farmer on implementing his philosophies into training that one team even had t-shirts made that read “Freddy makes me sick”. His focus and passion for speed endurance would eventually bring him to where he is today – a professional coach – and it fits in with the fabled ‘School of Speed’ creator Margot Wells.

In brief summary, fearful as I am that majority of Kiwis will not be well-learned in the Wells family history, Margot was herself a Scottish sprinter of some ability, but gave up her ambition to compete in order to train her husband Alan Wells. Wells, in the late 70s, was a second rate long jumper, however thanks to the intricate coaching techniques employed by his wife would go on to claim 100m Gold at the Moscow Olympics (along with 200m Silver) and various other Grand Prix victories.

Margot Wells now runs her own company – “Well Fast – School of Speed” – and is universally recognised as the defining voice on Speed Endurance. Her client list is vast and includes various international sportsmen, England rugby stars Danny Cipriani, James Haskell and Mike Brown to name but a few. In 2007 Freddy Farmer took his chance to meet and be tutored by Wells, and learn the skills and add the valuable credentials required to succeed.

“She’s a brilliant lady, a really smashing lady. She’s changed everything, all with simple logic. Even 10 years ago coaches would be getting to pull sledges and parachutes to get quicker; Margot argued this was rubbish – why would you teach the brain that?

There’s no International Federation of Speed, or some such qualification. She is the Federation of Speed, she’s the most respected there is.”

photo (2)

When Freddy and his family decided to make the move to New Zealand he brought with him his credentials as a graduate from the Wells School of Speed. There weren’t many takers – “lots of places are pretty old school, they haven’t got a clue really” – until our own pioneer Chris Ruffell made contact with Freddy and invited him for a meeting. Before long ‘Fast Freddy’ was signed up at Madills Farm.

Embarrassingly naive to the whole concept, I then asked Freddy what exactly Speed Endurance actually is.

“The premise is based on upper and lower body co-ordination. To get quicker and to “get speed” you must move vertically and horizontally strong. It’s about repetition.”

Freddy will often be seen on weeknights at Madills putting the youngsters through their paces. Whether it’s frog jumps, hurdles or jumping from one ring to the next, the core logic is simple.

“I always say to a new group – you’re here to learn how to sprint, not how to run as fast as you can. It’s about the technique, it must be correct. Sprinters aren’t simply born with ‘it’ – that’s cobblers. You can create them”.


Fast Freddy is helping create speedy footballers for the Eastern Suburbs. Having initially started in a more advisory role, Freddy has been given license and budget to expand his program and now runs sessions for large groups of youngsters and the ESAFC Academy. Some of his graduates, people like Jonty Thompson and Ben Allan, now grace the Mens Premiers and Reserves on a regular basis. He also trains Alice Tilley, who’ll be representing New Zealand at the Junior World Orienteering Championships in Bulgaria.

What’s abundantly clear from talking with Freddy is his passion for what he does. He lives and breathes Speed Endurance and he’s equally as passionate about teaching it to the future stars of the Eastern Suburbs.

“The club has been brilliant in buying into this and moving it forward. No other club can offer this program, no other club can offer what Eastern Suburbs has got”.

And that’s because no other club has Fast Freddy – the only Speed Endurance coach in the country.

The Disneyland of Football

By Sam Jeffery

The Disneyland of Football:
How Qatar’s staggering ASPIRE Football Dreams programme has helped an oil- rich nation on its quest for footballing recognition, attracted criticism but ultimately challenged the nature of conventional youth scouting.

When thinking about Qatar, the immediate association made is about a Gulf nation rich in natural resources, affluent to say the least. It certainly wouldn’t be for its sporting prowess. The awarding of the right to stage the FIFA 2022 World Cup has gone a long way to thrust Qatar into the limelight, but perhaps not in the way in which the ruling al-Thani family would have envisaged. Yet it is the sincere intent of the family to invest heavily in creating a sporting legacy in Qatar, and constructing an image to leave a footprint on the global sporting stage. Examples of Qatari-backed success are just beginning to form – al-Thani-owned Paris Saint Germain were recently crowned Ligue 1 champions for the second year running, whilst just last year Just the Judge, owned by Qatar Bloodstock Racing, won a first Group One horse racing Classic. Yet it is the lesser known, though genuinely startling, ASPIRE Football Dreams programme that is changing the very face of football scouting, and may well ensure Qatar’s place at the table of global sporting acceptance.

When former Eastern Suburbs coach, New Zealand Knights manager and Fulham FC youth coach Paul Nevin stepped into the headquarters of Qatar’s ASPIRE programme in Doha back in 2007 he was blown away by what he describes as the “best facilities on the planet”. Paul had received a call from a long-time contact in the English game to say that Qatar were seeking elite international coaches to join an ambitious project that would put Qatar “on the map”.
“I’d initially planned on staying a year, gaining some more international experience, and moving on. I ended up staying five years; I worked in the Disneyland of Football“.


ASPIRE Initiative
By way of background, in 2004, funded by the ruling al-Thani royal family in Qatar, the ASPIRE programme opened its doors with the steadfast intention of “developing champions for Qatar” across a range of sporting disciplines. With an “empty shell” to fill with the very best coaches the world could provide, elite performance experts from across the globe were lured to Doha; from the Australian Institute of Sport to France’s INSEP, industry leaders in Sports Science and sporting excellence were recruited.

Nevin joined the ASPIRE initiative in 2007, and discovered a footballing academy akin to that of a European club, but on a national basis.

“The ASPIRE academy runs from Under 9s through to Under 19s, with the intention of developing Qatari players for the national team. But one of the major flaws was a lack of competition locally to test the side against”.

Upon its inception it was not long before major European and international sides were being sent to Doha to take on the various age groups of the ASPIRE Academy.

“At the start of the academy the teams would lose 8, 9, 10-0; but by the end of the 5 years I was there – when we played teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and the Brazil National Team – we’d be winning a lot of the games”.
Nevin was a senior member of a vast coaching team recruited internationally. With an effectively limitless budget and ambition to match, the al-Thani family invested in coaches from a staggering 34 different countries and from some of the most elite clubs in Europe.

“I had coaches working under me from clubs like Barcelona, Everton, Juventus and Ajax. It certainly wasn’t easy managing them all”.

With this elite structure in place Nevin and Co were tasked with scouting and developing all the potential Qatar had to offer. Given that Doha is effectively half the size of Auckland, after a finite amount of recruitment the footballing talent pool domestically was farmed to its maximum.

“We had the domestic programme up and running – our academy had all the mechanisms to work. That’s when Josep was brought in and Football Dreams started”, Nevin states.

Football Dreams
The “Josep” to whom Nevin refers is Josep Colomer, former Director of the Barcelona Academy La Masia, brought into the ASPIRE set-up as Head of Recruitment and charged with cementing ASPIRE as the world’s best football academy. Famously lauded as the person to have discovered Lionel Messi, Colomer is the architect of the Football Dreams programme.


The colossal project, sponsored by Nike and partnered with UNICEF, is now in its fifth year, and offers young players (aged 13) from developing nations across the globe the chance of a scholarship at ASPIRE’s lauded academy. It was devised as a chance to develop the Qatari national side by allowing the home nation’s elite to train and “learn off the best” from around the world, whilst at the same time delivering a truly humanitarian project that conclusively falls under FIFA’s social principle that “football can assist the developing world and create a positive social impact”.

“We were giving young players the chance for a scholarship at the academy, a chance of superior education, to nurture them, and to give them a platform to go and succeed either in their home countries, in Europe or across the world”.

The numbers behind the project are as gargantuan as they are staggering. In the 2013 project as many as 750,000 youngsters were tested, across 60,000 matches, 80 playing fields and 15 countries (10 in Africa, 2 in Asia, 3 in South and Central America).

Nevin explains the logistics behind the numbers,

“Take Cameroon for example. ASPIRE would send coaches (mainly Spanish thanks to Josep’s links) and enlist around 6000 volunteers in Africa to do the initial scouting. Anything from 60-80,000 13 year-old children would turn up with their passports across 12 fields in the North, South, East, West of Cameroon.
This would be whittled down to 40, 20, and 10,000 and so on, until a final 50 were selected. I would then fly in along with a goalkeeping coach and physical coach and at the national stadium [in Yaoundé] we’d stage a week of tests and games. From the initial thousands, we would select 3 to come back to Qatar for the chance of a scholarship”.

And so such immense scouting occurs across Africa, in Central America, and in Asia. 3 of the best are selected from each nation and the lucky fifty are flown into Doha and the footballing “Disneyland” for a month of intense training, testing and game time. Only then are the very best 3 or 4 gifted the golden ticket and offered the full scholarship at ASPIRE. It is a process that defies belief in sheer magnitude and cost, but one that Nevin argues is both genuinely humanitarian and groundbreaking.

“Besides the obvious benefits of the scholarship, where ASPIRE Football Dreams has given a chance to players in places like Africa who would die for a chance to play football, it’s had other enormous impacts on these countries”.

Nevin points to examples such as the donation of hundreds of thousands of mosquito nets to malaria-affected areas of Africa; all the nets are embroidered with images of Messi and Andreas Iniesta to entreat youngsters to use them. He also highlights the perhaps unnoticed benefits of ASPIRE entering the less developed nations.

“When the 3 best 13 year-olds are selected to come from the 50 for the trial in Qatar, 47 are obviously left behind. Therefore countries such as Vietnam and Ivory Coast – countries that cannot afford elite football scouting and coaching – have now effectively had the best 47 players scouted for them”.

Furthermore the time spent by ASPIRE coaches, and funding provided to these nations, helps develop youth scouting systems and methods, all with the underlying benefit of assisting the respective FAs and national teams.
It should also be noted that those that do not make the final cut in Doha are given the opportunity to live and train at the ASPIRE Senegal academy, a place Nevin describes as “one of the most fantastic place I’ve ever worked”.


Given the magnitude of the project it’s clear that successes are a not so much a target, but a prerequisite. Equally, with such an investment must surely come a sought end game?

When Football Dreams initially started sceptics chimed that Qatar was simply handing out passports to winners of the scholarship. This has been strenuously denied by Qatari officials and has certainly not proved the case. Andreas Bleicher, Chief Executive of ASPIRE Football Dreams stated “we are not requiring them [the scholars] to play for Qatar”.

It should be noted that any player wishing to adopt another nationality and be naturalised can only do so 5 years after turning 18, so effectively aged 23. Given that these are the very best young players from across the globe, it is safe to assume they will be selected by their home nations before the age of 23; an assumption given solid substance when you consider that 30 ASPIRE Football Dreams graduates have represented as many as 10 Home Nations at varying youth levels.

“It’s all about coverage. Qatar wants to be in the public domain, and become a valid footballing nation. PSG and Malaga are investments, and the Qatar Foundation is partnered with Barcelona, but Football Dreams can give Qatar world recognition.”

Whilst a number of ASPIRE graduates have represented their home nations internationally there are yet to be any major breakthroughs in a European club. Nevin argues that once this happens then ASPIRE will have the true recognition it seeks.

“It would put them on the map. A role model to play in a bigger team would be massive”.

When Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup there was an enormous amount of criticism levelled at both FIFA and the chosen hosts. Accusations of corruption and vote- buying were rife but have proven unsubstantiated. The Football Dreams initiative certainly came under the microscope, particularly when considering that a number of the countries that sit on FIFA’s Executive Committee (that decides where the World Cup is staged) are also places in which ASPIRE undertakes its scouting.

However there is no evidence to suggest foul play, and in fact one could go so far as to say that it would make good business sense to illicit a level of awareness from potential voters, much like a politician canvassing for votes ahead of an upcoming election. In practice, if Qatar’s ASPIRE undertook a humanitarian project that clearly provided much needed funding and infrastructure benefits in a downtrodden country, it would seem perfectly justifiable to look favourably on them as a nation.

There is no rule-breaking and nothing illegal, and in fact criticism should not tarnish the work that the Football Dreams programme has done and continues to do.

The Future
Having left last year (he will join Norwich City ahead of the coming season) Nevin is able to look back fondly on an enormous improvement over the 5 years at ASPIRE.

“I took the 1994 group to Spain to play Barcelona, Villarreal, Espanyol, Valencia and both Madrid teams – we won every game.”

In the 2011 Milk Cup in Ireland – a tournament previously graced by some of the best young players (Messrs Beckham and Scholes spring to mind) – an ASPIRE side crushed Manchester United 5-1 in the final.
It would be fair to say that improvements have been vast, and there seems no reason to not continue this upward curve.

ASPIRE recently purchased Belgium second division side KAS Eupen and the squad now consists of 15 players from the Qatar based academy along with 2 from Senegal. Giving the players the exposure of being away from home, the comforts of a sheltered life in Qatar, and some valuable life experience is deemed pivotal to the ability to succeed. Of course given Belgium’s loose work permit regulations it will also help facilitate possible moves to other European clubs.

There have been marked successes for ASPIRE graduates, with over 30 representing home nations at varying levels. With an underlying goal to improve the standard of Qatari footballers through assimilation with the best talent the world can offer, it can be noted that players such as Muhammed Naim, Saad Al-Sheeb, Ibrahim Majid and Fahad Khalfan have all gone on to represent Qatar; all are graduates of ASPIRE.

With former ASPIRE coach Fahad Thani now managing the national side, and able to utilise first-hand knowledge of the up and coming players through youth ranks, it would appear the goal of creating Qatari champions may well be on track.

The Football Dreams programme is an outlandish proposition. No mere publicity stunt, it is the latest investment by the Qatari Royal Family to help facilitate a growing sporting superiority for aspiring Qataris, and to catapult this small Gulf nation into the spotlight for its sporting prowess.
It is an initiative that stretches the very boundaries of what can be achieved with the right personnel in charge, the right structure in place and of course necessary investment; Qatar’s Football Dreams is the most extensive scouting network the world has seen.

Of course to truly earn international respect, the results must appear credible, and whilst there are undoubtedly a number of successes at youth levels worldwide and within Qatar’s own international team, the need for an ASPIRE graduate to truly “make it” in a top flight team is still unfulfilled.

One suspects it is only a matter of time before this football dream is turned into a football reality.

Modest, mild-mannered, and masterful between the sticks: Meet Ernest Wong, ESAFC Number 1.

By Sam Jeffery

When you step into Madills Farm clubhouse, spiritual home of Eastern Suburbs AFC, it is impossible to miss the grand board on the wall which houses the names of all the Lilywhites players to have represented New Zealand at any level. One of the names emblazoned on said board is that of “E. Wong”. Wong represented his national team at the 2007 U17s World Cup and U19s Secondary Schools, and can now generally be found gracefully prowling and commanding the penalty areas of grounds up and down Auckland as the ESAFC number 1. For a man of 23 he has a perhaps surprisingly anecdote-laden career to date, and shared some of his experiences with me for this week’s ESAFC blog.

Having began playing in goal roughly 11th or 12th grade, and first joining Ellerslie, “Ernie” has enjoyed a steady stream of success which has seen him work his way up to undisputed Number 1 at the Eastern Suburbs, via worldly trips to Korea, the UK, Malaysia and Singapore.

Whilst goalkeepers are stereotypically recognized as being of a taller ilk, Wong is built slightly more diminutively, and bases his game on goalkeepers of similar physical stature.

“Huge Lloris or Iker Casillas – Schmeichel was the best ever, but I’d like to be like those two,” Ernie proclaims when questioned on his heroes and whom he aspires to be like. His fondness for the Frenchman Lloris also explains why Ernie sports the 25 on the back of his jersey, rather than the more traditional number 1.


2006 marked the beginning of a fairly meteoric rise – which actually coincides (obviously) with when Wong joined Eastern Suburbs – and culminated in a call up to New Zealand U17s training camps and some game time against Tahiti.

When the squads were announced for the 2007 U17s World Cup in Korea, Ernie was selected, though the details of the call-up elude him.

“It was a really good feeling. The squad was picked but I’m unsure how I was told though! I didn’t get any game time but it was brilliant to be around some of the players”.

Wong is alluding to a number of now-recognised players that play at the highest level.

“I remember Victor Moses scoring and doing back-flips and stuff, and Danny Welbeck. They both scored two actually. And I remember the Rafael twins. The best player was the Spanish dude Bojan [who went on to represent Barcelona and Roma]”.

One moment from the World Cup really sticks in Wong’s memory.

“Memorable moment is definitely the Brazilian players stealing Powerades from our fridge. I was probably the only one that saw them though!”

Fresh from keeping his mouth shut following the scandalous Samba thievery, Ernie returned to Auckland and in 2008 was soon jetting off to England for a collection of tour games arranged by former Auckland City player Paul Seaman (no relation to ponytailed goalkeeping maestro David). Games included West Brom, Colchester, Northampton Town, Charlton and Fulham and Ernie, despite being based in Luton – a town that makes Invercargill look like a glamorous holiday spot – speaks highly of his time in the UK.

“It was a really good experience and I felt a lot sharper when I came back to New Zealand. We were just playing proper games, not coaching clinics or anything. It was great.”


World Cups and playing against professional English teams are one thing, I hear you cry, but what about the Eastern Suburbs!? In 2009 Wong broke into the Suburbs Reserves for the first time and actually went on to win Player of the Year, though forgot to attend prize-giving.

“I never got my trophy I don’t think”, Ernie chuckles; note to C. Ruffell – pull out the archives, dig into the vaults, let’s find this dust-ridden award.

Recognisable by now due to a ninja-like pony-tail Wong’s stock at Madills continued to rise through the 2010 season and he would soon become Premiers No. 1 the following year.  Barring a minor hiccup it is a position he has held ever since and having returned from yet another overseas adventure at the start of this year, Wong is in as good a form as ever.

“My coach had some contacts in Singapore”, Ernie explains about his early-2014 trip to Asia, “he’d said he could help me get some clubs to train with hopefully.”

Despite training with a club named Geylang International and another called Tampines Rovers, Ernie was convinced it was a dead-end as there was some understandable reluctance from the locals to just let a seemingly random player train.

“I was about to end it there and have the last week to holiday but another contact in Malaysia invited me to train with a team called Kelantan – who’d won the treble a couple of seasons before and the Cup that season.  I trained with them for a week and trained with the best 3 keepers in Malaysia.”

From being despondent in Singapore to getting tips from Malaysia’s number one, Ernie returned to Auckland with another international anecdote and has seen this season’s Eastern Suburbs side roar to the top of the table.

When questioned on the team’s chances, the conviction is clear.

“It’s the youngest team I’ve been involved in, and I’m certain we will win the league”.

Such a forthright declaration bodes well for the remainder of the season, and the Suburbs will hope Wong’s performances remain in “keeping” (pun intended) with his career to date; interesting, enjoyable and ultimately successful.

Floodlight at the end of the tunnel

There was great news last week with the announcement that resource consent has been granted for the total flood lighting of Glover Park. Coupled with the renewal work at the ground, this will have significantly positive impact on our training.

Work began early February by the contractors and they are making good progress on site, despite being hampered at times by dust conditions caused by the very dry weather. The recent rain has allowed work to continue this week.

Significant gains have been made with the irrigation system now installed, but at this stage we do not have a connection to the water supply. The new footpath around the fields is about 80% complete and the main earthworks were completed some time ago. Horticulturists among you will be pleased to note that the kikuyu is regenerating nicely.



The main and collector drains have been installed, and only the installation of slit drains and sand carpet remains to be completed, which should happen within the month, subject to weather conditions.

Application for training lights has been approved subject to a number of conditions and the council will now go to tender for the installation of the lights in a few weeks’ time. There is (flood)light at the end of the tunnel thankfully.

The sports fields will remain fenced off once the drainage and sand carpeting are complete to allow the grass cover to establish properly and mature. The soccer games that are usually played on this park over winter have been transferred to Pt England Reserve for the season.

It’s with great pleasure that we can report all of the above and Eastern Suburbs will update you once we’ve got some finality around an official floodlit opening.

Eastern Suburbs – El Salvador Edition

Earlier this year New Zealand U-17s and Eastern Suburbs Premier Women’s player Jolene Muir embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to El Salvador, in aid of promoting football to underprivileged locals. Jolene was kind enough to scribe her story for us here…

Since I was four years old, soccer has been a great passion of mine. Yet as I grew older I underestimated the number of opportunities that could arise from it. In my final year of college I was playing for the Eastern Suburbs Premier Women’s team, my college 1st XI and the NZ U17 Women’s team, as well as coaching at Eastern Suburbs. Upon graduation I didn’t have my future decided but knew soccer was always going to be a big part of it.


Almost a year later, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee to study and play soccer at Lipscomb University. It is a small Christian university with a new and developing soccer program, and I know I could not have made it here without my club and coaches support. However, the opportunities did not end there.


Over our Spring break, March 14-21st, members from our soccer team travelled to El Salvador on a mission trip. Each individual had to fundraise for the trip and the support I gained from Eastern Suburbs was incredible. Working alongside Sports Outreach Institute, we spread the word of God by teaching and playing soccer with underprivileged children.


We began our time at the soccer academy they run. This is run on Saturdays by volunteers and is free for any neighbourhood kids. With fields of dust and little equipment, it made us truly appreciate how well-off we are back home. Yet the things they lacked they clearly did not miss, as these were some of the most joyful children I have ever met. In the morning, we coached the younger boys, aged from about 4-8, and in the afternoon the older boys and girls. While the language barrier was difficult at times, through the use of a soccer ball it was made easier to communicate. We taught them games and drills before having a large scrimmage which, as expected, turned into boys tackling and jumping on us in order to score a goal.


Later in the week we went to the local school, Nuevo Cascatlan, where we got to join in with classes P.E sessions and the children’s recess. Told we would be playing soccer with them, we all expected to see a shabby field somewhere, but there was none. There was no grass to run on or trees to climb; the school was probably the size of a regular soccer field and entirely concrete. There was a tiny concrete soccer pitch with metal goals and faded lines. Yet this was enough to keep them happy. Whether there were four people on the pitch or forty, there always seemed to be a game going on. Joining in here we met so many wonderful children and made so many friendships which will never be forgotten.


It was not all about children though, as we got to meet and play with people our own age too. We played mixer games and got to know the women’s soccer team at ESEN University, which is a private business university in El Salvador. We also got to play with the El Salvadorian U20 National Women’s team, which was an incredible experience. Through both of these encounters we gained insights into life in El Salvador and got to meet some incredible people. We listened to their stories and shared our own, truly getting to know these new friends.


Looking back, it’s crazy to think how much one week impacted our lives. Through a simple soccer ball we were able to experience and share joy with these people, in the most unexpected circumstances. In New Zealand and America, these environments are rarely seen or heard of. Often we take for granted all we have. This experience was truly an eye opener and I am so thankful to all those who made it possible. 


First team draw, Reserves Triumph at Metro

Eastern Suburbs’ top two teams began their respective seasons with credible results away at Metro, at Michael’s Avenue on Saturday.

Despite initially going a goal down, the 1st team fought back well to first equalise (through a Nic Robson penalty) and then go on to dominate the game and will probably count themselves unlucky not to have gone on to win.


The Reserves faired better on a scorching hot Auckland day, grinding out a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from young winger Ben Alan. Solidity at the back, coupled with a disciplined midfield meant the result was the least the Lilywhites deserved.

Next stop Madills, and hopefully a continuation of the unbeaten start to the season