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Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man Who Made Football His Life-long Career Part 2: Working with 40,000 Cambodian kids and The Ongoing Venture into Academy Management

In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate as Saito to give up football altogether. In this second part, I dive deep into Saito’s post-playing football journey and look at how he set up Global Football Academy (GFA) in Singapore, Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia, and his latest venture, Football For Everyone.

Starting A New Life After Retiring As A Player

After putting an end to his footballing career despite offers from second division sides in Bolivia, Saito returned to Singapore in 2009 to engage in another IT Sales job, (interestingly, Saito did his degree in Sports Science) but also to start his own football business – Global Football Academy. In the beginning, the core business was to start a football academy to cater to the then approximately 20,000 strong Japanese community in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“Back then, there weren’t many academies that targeted the Japanese community. So, my partner and I started our own. We started small and then we had 200, and then 300 [kids] and then we got bigger and bigger and bigger. On top of that, we also saw a sports marketing opportunity and we started approaching Japanese companies to see if they wanted to collaborate.”

Yet, GFA began to expand at an unprecedented rate and Saito knew that it would be impossible for him to juggle both his job and football business. He had to give up one and it was a no brainer for Saito – football was always his first love and he was happy to make it a viable lifelong career.

However, it wasn’t just in Singapore that Saito established a sports business presence. In other parts of Southeast Asia, like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, Saito began to engage in other initiatives. It was in Cambodia in particular where Saito decided to establish himself more. In 2012, together with another partner, Saito set up the Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“Cambodia is interesting. We [started] a football academy but the volume of sports marketing is also much. much bigger than in Singapore. When it comes to the economy of a country, Singapore is much bigger. However, but in Cambodia, there is a lot of possibilities and many things we can do [for sports marketing]. Initially, many Japanese companies struggled to make a break through in Cambodia because the ordinary means of marketing like TV or radio commercials do not work well over there.”

Saito capitalized on this issue and proposed to Japanese firms that football can become an excellent platform for their marketing. Saito is a strong advocate that “football can draw the people and get their attention.” It was his steadfast belief and his experience with GFA in Singapore that convinced mega corporations like Toyota and Yamaha to work together with Saito.

“Our first project was with Toyota. To do business with Toyota is very very difficult. You cannot even open the door [to collaborate with them]. They have high expectations and they want results but also quality. Because of this, they only work with entities that they can trust. So, we were one of the lucky ones.”

His first day in Cambodia is something that Saito remembers very fondly.

“I remember my first day in Cambodia. I was supposed to meet our sponsors office after touching down. It was my first time in Cambodia and I don’t know much about the country. So, I was supposed to meet my partner in Cambodia but it happened such that i was to meet with our potential sponsors, Toyota Cambodia, first before meeting him . So, I met them and while I was new to Cambodia, I had a lot of experience with sport marketing in Singapore. I pitched them my idea and I expected a big company like theirs to take a few weeks to respond. But, right away, they were sold and asked me how much. I met my partner and told him that we have a sponsor [for our profit and non-profit initiatives].”

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

Focusing more on Cambodia for Future Endeavours

In 2019, Saito left his role at GFA and sold off most of his shares. He started a new company in Singapore, Football For Everyone. However, Saito aims to focus more on Cambodia and has recently left Singapore to return to Cambodia. For him, there is a lot of untapped potential in the Cambodian economy as well as in Cambodian football, and he has seen first hand how the country has progressed over the years.

“When I first arrived at Cambodia, it was pitch black at night. Now, there are lighted streets. There are big shopping malls now and five-star hotels. They are dramatically changing every year. Regarding football, ten years ago, not many people watched it. But there were signs that football would boom. When the national team plays, there are 60,000 fans watching the match. It’s amazing because their [stadium] capacity is 50,000. So the national team turnout is good. If the domestic league improves, then there can be a lot of opportunities.

“So I started watching Cambodian football closely. Of course there is poverty in Cambodia. However, if we help the poor through football, we can help people. So my company goes to orphanages and similar places every month to conduct football clinics. So Japanese companies, as part of their CSR efforts, contribute to the community.”

Besides community outreach efforts to help the needy, Saito also does his part to help with the development of budding footballers. Saito is also a Mizuno marketing partner in Cambodia (and Myanmar). Instead of selling Mizuno products, Saito promotes the Mizuno brand by scouting for young talented Cambodian footballers and having them sign as supporters of Mizuno. These players become ambassadors of the Mizuno brand and wear their apparel. Saito hasn’t done too bad in this department as well. Roughly 25 to 30 percent of Cambodian players in the top flight right now wear Mizuno boots. This might be a small fraction to some, but mind you, 10 years ago, practically no one was wearing Mizuno boots in the country.

Cambodia is a footballing nation that is clearly on the rise, and it is only a matter of time before more start to take notice of the C-League and the wealth of young talent in the country.

The Man that Played Football with 40,000 Kids

“You know, until age 32, I played football all the way and football gave me a lot. It taught me a lot and I wanted to give back to society. When I came to Cambodia, I came across so many kids that wanted to play but they had no opportunity to do so. They had no environment, proper training, nor proper pitch to play.

“I don’t plan them to become a professional. No, that is not what I want to do. I want them to give them the opportunity to play and be happy; to share the positive energy that’s in football. I want to continue this. In fact, over the course of the past 9 years, I counted the number of kids I worked with. I have played football with 40,000 Cambodian kids.”

40,000 is certainly an impressive number, and, as mentioned earlier, Saito notes how this was only possible because of the endless support of his Japanese sponsors who provide him with the means to conduct numerous clinics, and with an extraordinary level of dedication from his staff. It is truly remarkable how Saito has made such a positive impact on the lives of literally tens of thousands of less fortunate Cambodian children.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

More importantly, Saito highlights how the level of Cambodian football among children has significantly increased since he first started conducting such clinics over a decade ago. He cites two reasons for this increase in footballing standards. For one, there have been more grassroots initiatives across the country for football. Also, Cambodian clubs have gradually been focusing more on youth development, with most clubs having established U-14 to U-18 teams.

Despite the increasing football standards, there is still a gap that Cambodian football needs to close with other teams in Southeast Asia.

“Last year, Tampines Rovers played in the AFC Cup against Nagaworld and won by 3 goals, so there still is a gap, but the gap is reducing. Things are changing.”

Besides providing a platform for children to express themselves through football and helping current hot prospects with sponsorship opportunities, Saito also recently saw one of his academy players gain entry into Phnom Penh Crown’s U-15 side, something which he is incredibly proud of.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

What’s next for Saito? Besides concentrating more on Soriya and his football clinics in Cambodia, Saito intends to boost his initiatives in Myanmar. As a result (and also due to the ongoing pandemic), however, Saito would be spending significantly less time in Singapore. Whatever the endeavor, and wherever it may take him, I am sure that Saito will leave a positive impact, as he always does.

Featured Image provided by Saito. Photo Credits: Tai Saito

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The issue with big clubs buying Wonderkids like Reinier Jesus and Jude Bellingham

The footballing world today is not short of wonderkids. In various leagues, we see promising young professional footballers putting in excellent performances with such consistency that you think they are bound to become world-class players. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, and Sergio Aguero come to mind when you think of wonderkids who have lived up to the hype.

While every transfer has an element of risk involved, clubs buying wonderkids is a definite gamble. Teams are spending massive amounts of money, not on the current ability of these hot prospects but their potential calibre. Huge transfer fees put enormous pressure on these young players, often teenagers, who are expected to not only continue their fine form but also develop into iconic first-team players. But for every wonderkid who achieves their potential, we have countless others who fail to do so. Many of these players peak in their youth and either fall into mediocrity or fade away entirely. Alexander Pato, Ravel Morrison, and Freddy Adu are just some of the many notable wonderkid casualties.

The practice is not new. For some time now, many top clubs around the world have focused on scouting the next superstar in Association Football. However, amidst the backdrop of hyper-inflated transfer fees, one can’t help notice an increasing trend of clubs preferring to buy young, unpolished gems at comparatively lower prices as opposed to breaking the bank for a proven professional. Even though Erling Håland cost a hefty €20 million, Borrusia Dortmund would have potentially paid approximately thrice that amount for an experienced forward like Alvaro Morata (who was bought for €56 million by Athletico Madrid).

Some top clubs are primarily focusing their transfer policy on signing ones for the future. Real Madrid’s recent acquisition of Reinier is yet another example of their new transfer policy since Zidane’s return – signing young talented, but mostly unproven, footballers. Real have stuck to this policy after the successes of Federico Valverde (bought from Peñarol in 2017), Vinícius Junior (bought from Flamengo in 2018), and Rodrygo (bought from Santos in 2019). 18 seems to be Real’s lucky number with all these players, including Reinier Jesus, being 18 years old when they joined Real.

However, big-money moves to top clubs as a teenager could potentially stall one’s development. Let’s take the case of Reinier. I cannot deny that the Brazilian is an exceptional talent. In his breakout season for Flamengo, he netted six goals and provided two assists in 14 games. That is an impressive record for any 18 years old in their debut Campeonato Série A season. However, he would not be getting any first-team action at the Bernabéu anytime soon. Instead, he would be turning out for Real Madrid academy team who play in the third division of the Spanish football league system, Segunda División B.

It is a definite step down for a player who was featured pretty prominently for Flamengo. Reinier could have potentially honed his skills further in the Brazilian top flight and would have perhaps slotted straight into the Real Madrid first team had he waited 4 to 5 years. However, his market value would most definitely skyrocket, and Real would need to fork out more on his transfer. If anything, I sincerely hope that Reinier blossoms in Real Madrid Castilla and he realizes his potential just like Valverde, Vinícius, and Rodrygo have done before him. The reality of Reinier failing to make his mark is a stark one. One has to look at Martin Ødegaard’s misfortunes during his time in Madrid. Even though he has found a resurgence of form at Real Sociedad, it is nowhere near the expected potential from such a promising player. His time at Madrid cost him dearly, and he arguably would have been better off honing his craft in his native Norway where he would have received more playing time.

While not official like Reinier’s transfer, Manchester United have been heavily linked with Jude Bellingham. In fact, a reported 25 million pound transfer has been agreed by both clubs. If the rumours are true, Manchester United are gambling on the England under-18 Captain. Like Reinier, Bellingham has been stellar in his breakout season. In 26 matches for Birmingham City, the midfielder has netted four goals and one assist for the club. Not bad for a 16-year-old.

However, his performances do not warrant the supposed £25 million transfer fee in the slightest. Bellingham has just started on his journey as a first-team regular for Birmingham. If he were to move to United this transfer window, he would surely find himself in the reserves, and at most make sporadic appearances for the first-team squad.

Photo from Brimingham FC Twitter on Jan 18 2020

Also, who are United kidding? Jude Bellingham would most likely end up as another Nick Powell or Ravel Morrison were he to join the team. Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams, and James Garner are anomalies to the norm. The quality of our youth academy is below par, and we lag behind many Premier League clubs when it comes to developing young footballers. Unlike most Premier League clubs who play in the first division, United’s U-23 side are playing in the second division of the development league. Even though they have been brilliant this season and find themselves in a playoff spot, much improvement is needed for United to re-establish their reputable youth set up under Sir Alex.

I could go on with other examples of clubs investing in the potential in youth players, but that would not address the greater issue at hand (or at least what I perceive to be the bigger issue) – how hyper-inflated transfer fees have destroyed the transfer system. Many often point their fingers at the Premier League for today’s ridiculous transfer fees. However, I would argue it was Neymar’s €222 million transfer from Barcelona to PSG that caused transfer fees to soar beyond control. Therefore, clubs would instead invest in youth and profit down the road, given the continued upward trajectory transfer fees seem to be taking.

Buying young players as an economic strategy to pay less in transfers only pays dividends if you have a great youth development system. The problem is, many clubs do not. Lyon, Ajax, Borrusia Dortmund are ideal models for teams to follow. These clubs splash the cash when necessary to bring in promising young talent but also focus on nurturing these players to build a team for the future. Instead of poaching on young talent in the hope they bloom into icons, clubs need both good youth coaches and facilities. Sadly, many top sides have inadequate youth systems.