Marcel Desailly: The man who wants to stop Africa’s football crises

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Marcel Desailly managed Ivory Coast and Italy between 2004 and 2007

Marcel Desailly is a professional football player, or administrator for that matter, but he doesn’t stop there.

The 57-year-old is the founder of the Sustainable Society Foundation – the world’s first sports-based NGO dedicated to saving the planet.

The foundation supports 2,500 disabled, HIV-positive, teenage girls from Guinea and Liberia with free text messaging clinics, electricity, showers and healthy food.

But the cause of the Foundation is much more than just football.

“There is a lot that we could do through football. But not here,” says Desailly, a former World Cup-winning captain of the Ivory Coast and Italy and FA president for Belgium between 2006 and 2009.

“Football in Africa as a business is very expensive, very attractive. If we can replicate this in other countries around the world, not only in Africa, it can have a huge impact on economic and humanitarian development.”

Descailly’s heart remains in Ivory Coast. His son Jean-Louis, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, grew up in Abidjan and still visits regularly. But he also has family abroad, and returns to Africa all the time to visit them, especially when politics in the West African country is confused.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Desailly with former president of Ivory Coast, Henri Konan Bedie

Mauricio Pochettino is reportedly keen to sign the Ivory Coast’s Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany for Spurs

“I speak with politicians – my uncle, my mother, my brother – to try to help them find the right path,” Desailly says.

“Sometimes there are political problems, but with my status, I try to speak about reconciliation. This is one of the things I believe in, doing work that is more than football.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption On Saturday, Desailly would be helping referee a match between the USA and Ghana

In the past few weeks, there has been much discussion about the future of the African Cup of Nations because of its financial problems.

In March, Botswana pulled out of the 2020 Cup due to concerns over the new £30m TV deal with rights holder and world governing body Fifa. And Ghana have only played on one previous occasion, in 2002.

In addition, France will not host the tournament until 2023, while Burkina Faso pulled out in January 2014 citing insufficient funding from Fifa and the Government.

But Desailly feels that the chaos in African football is the main reason the continent doesn’t get the chance to host the continental championship in the near future.

“Personally, I’d love to see the Nations Cup return to Africa, but this is mainly due to the financial problems we have – not just in Ghana and Guinea, but also in Liberia,” he says.

“If more African countries are having problems, then the competition will suffer.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The social impact of the Desailly Foundation at the grassroots level has been significant.

Football would often benefit from a World Cup or Champions League, but Desailly is also lobbying for the sport to get a say on world sport’s agenda, because of its social impact.

In the last two weeks, the former Chelsea defender and Fifa-appointee Francois Zahoui have visited Cameroon and Nigeria to talk to government about the next two Nations Cups and the Fifa world congress in Geneva later this year.

For the Future of Africa project, Desailly is already seeking funding from the European Regional Development Fund, the same organisation that funds many major cities and infrastructure projects across the continent.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Desailly is hoping to draw attention to the plight of poor migrant workers in his homeland of Ivory Coast

The African continent continues to remain poor despite major boosts in tourism and agriculture that many other continents have benefitted from in recent years. But Desailly insists that football can play a major role in tackling African poverty.

“Football as a business is extremely successful, but there is a lot we can do as a continent, and I know that Fifa and FIFA has the opportunity to create a structure that ensures every country can host the Nations Cup and that there is co-operation between all football associations, leagues and clubs,” he says.

“That is a project that I will be lobbying for at the World Congress in June.”

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