Paradou AC: The barefoot academy revolutionising Algerian football

Paradou AC, a tiny club in Algiers, had to travel an unconventional road to ensure their continued survival. Now their success is revolutionising the way Algeria thinks about football.

“Seeing academy kids play barefoot, without a goalie, against players two to three years older and completely dominate them with beautiful, technical football — the way it’s supposed to be played — it’s hard not to appreciate it,” Walid Ziani, a Canadian-Algerian journalist, enthused to Mail & Guardian. An ardent fan of the project, Ziani lives in Ottawa but visits the club four times a year.

Paradou was established in 1994 but, after a failed expedition in the country’s top division, largely due to the lack of financial strength to attract big-money signings, founder Kheiredine Zetchi was forced to innovate. 

In 2007, the idea of football academies in Algeria was almost non-existent. “Clubs had youth teams, but the youth teams might train like two, three times a week. Very little resources, very little interest,” said Ziani, who emphasised that clubs generally relied on their financial strength to woo talents from within and across the continent, rather than groom their own.

“Basically what the president said was that, ‘For our club, it’s impossible to compete with the big clubs and the only way we can compete is to pay big money for big players, otherwise we can never compete.’ It’s a tiny club, no fans, limited resources.”

The Ivorian team Asec Mimosas offered an alternative model that appealed to Zetchi. The academy is credited with producing the bulk of Côte D’Ivoire’s “Golden Generation”, including Yaya and Kolo Touré, and Gervinho. The academy is run in partnership with JMG Academy, owned by Frenchman Jean-Marc Guillou.

‘A match made in heaven’

“They both had the same vision of what they wanted and it was basically a match made in heaven. Zetchi had the club; Guillou had the idea; JMG had the technical know-how; the experience,” said Ziani.

The academy was established in Tessala El Merdja, on the rural southern outskirts of Algiers. Players from ages 11 to 13 were brought in, with one of the auditions being keepy-uppy — an exercise designed to check a prospect’s technical ability and balance. Successful inductees moved into the academy and attended to their schooling responsibilities from its grounds.

Their football education was delivered in an unconventional style. They played barefoot and without a goalie, against older players who were stronger and more physically imposing. These battles aided them tactically and technically, helping them to develop an astute ball control that was far superior to that of most of their peers.

Their style is akin to the famous Barcelona tiki-taka philosophy and was crucial in the decision of Spaniard Josep María Nogués (also a former Barcelona player) to sign on as manager in 2016 — his first time working outside Spain — as they looked to get back into top-flight football.

“After leaving the Gimnàstic de Tarragona, an agent came to offer me a position in Algeria in an academy called Paradou AC. They were looking for a trainer for the first team, but also to carry the technical direction of the academy. An academy that favours beautiful play, a Barcelona style, and not direct football,” Nogués told La Gazette Du Fennec.

By May 2017, Nogués had guided Paradou AC to promotion: a return to Algerian top division after a 10-year absence, but now with young and carefully groomed talents from their academy.

Champions of Africa

The club has gone on to represent Algeria on the continent, playing in the 2019 Caf Confederation Cup. The country looks to be in good hands when the likes of Riyad Mahrez start to fade out. Four of Paradou’s products were in Egypt as Algeria coasted to the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 2019, with Youcef Atal and Ramy Bensebaini at the fore.

Zetchi oversaw that triumph. He had left his post at Paradou to become the Algeria Football Federation’s president in 2017, and had to overturn the fortunes of a chaotic Algeria national team setup. Products from his brainchild undoubtedly helped out. He’s since begun replicating the Paradou model across Algeria, with a number of academies springing up aimed at developing the country’s football.

Atal and Bensebaini represent Nice in France and the German Bundesliga’s Borussia Mönchengladbach, respectively, and are among the eight Paradou exports in Europe. Hicham Boudaoui, 20, holds the record for the most expensive transfer from Algeria. In September 2019, barely two years after progressing from Paradou’s academy to the first team, he joined Nice for €4-million. 

He was an instant hit at the Allianz Riviera and was named the club’s young player of the season after Covid-19 saw the 2019-20 French top-flight campaign end abruptly.

Paradou has become one of the African hotspots for European scouts and agents looking to poach North African talents that have honed their skills in the most natural way: barefooted.

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Tolu Olasoji
Tolu Olasoji is a Nigeria-based journalist covering sports in Africa, and its intersections with human being and social issues

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