Craig Butler is a tireless promoter.
He’s calling from Malta – where he’s been with several players from his Phoenix All Stars Football academy – and is getting ready to fly to Germany to support his adopted son Leon Bailey and Bayer 04 Leverkusen as they take on FC Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal semifinl.
Over the course of the phone call, he muses about his adopted son, Bailey, winning the Ballon d’Or and labels his other son Kyle Butler “the next Iniesta.”
Butler founded Phoenix All Stars Football Academy 15 years ago in Jamaica and now has 425 players in the academy, with players as young as four-years-old.
The academy has grown to prominence with the emergence of Bailey, and to a lesser extent Kyle. Both initially signed for KRC Genk in the Belgian league – after a last minute flirtation with Standard Liege in murky circumstances involving a trip to Mexico – before heading to Germany and Kyle moved to Malta.
The former Toshiba executive turned football academy founder and coach is a controversial figure in Jamaica. Look through Jamaica’s main football forum and hundreds of posters are willing to share their opinion on CB (as he’s routinely called) and his influence on “the Belgian” (Bailey, due to his initial signing for a Belgian club.)
His run-ins with the Jamaican Football Federation over his sons and their potential spot on a national team have sparked several angry rebuttals from the federation’s president and he’s been an outspoken critic of the way the federation is run, as well as promoting his sons’ ability – possibly beyond their realistic levels.
But Butler insists everything he’s done is to drag Jamaican football forward, bringing it up to modern day demands and changing the mindset of Jamaican footballers.
“It’s not something you can change when you’re older, you have to start from when the kids are young,” he says. “The same things people love us for you know, ‘Jamaica, no problem man, relax’ is the same things that will kill us when we go on a trial at an international club or in Europe.”
He says the academy’s formation came from a simple request from when his son Kyle was five-years-old.
Kyle asked his father to train him as he wanted “to be as good as Ronaldinho.” Initially rebuffing his young son’s request, Butler told him he could play with school. But with school soccer only two days a week, and the younger Butler’s desire to become a professional, Butler acquiesced and started training his sons.
He says his goal was to help lift Jamaican players from poverty and provide a stable place for them.
“I think through football you can alleviate poverty and crime in Jamaica because if you’re able to help your community, you can uplift everybody,” he says.
After starting with his sons, more kids started joining. Butler then set about formulating a multi-prong approach to achieving success.
“I decided to push them hard to be the best that they could be. It included public speaking, image projection, morale and social responsibility,” he said. “Incorporating the proper training methods of Jamaica track and field, Belgian skillsets, Dutch off-the-ball movement and Slovakia’s physical core training, so they became a new breed.”
Essentially, Butler is claiming to have created the perfect blend of footballer.
He emphasizes that this “new breed” aspect includes charity work and education. No academy player is allowed to have a cumulative average of below 75 per cent in their reports and each player must both participate in charity work and help coach other academy players.
Players who have come up through the ranks can’t emphasize how much the experience has changed their lives.
“It’s my life. I’ve learned everything from there, they taught me how to become a better man,” said Kevaughn Atkinson, a striker for Maltese club St Andrews FC who joined Phoenix when he was eight-years-old.
Atkinson says the academy has helped him with speaking English and taught him how to carry himself in public. He hopes he’s able to help inspire young Jamaicans.
Online, Butler frequently mentions the re-birthing abilities of a phoenix, the mythical bird and namesake of his academy, and how the academy is a large family. Both Butlers and Bailey have a tattoo of a phoenix – over their hearts and on the left shoulder respectively – referencing the academy and how it makes them a family.
Butler says he’s proud of the work done by Phoenix so far but has grand plans for the future.
He says the academy – which currently sits on five acres with dormitories and two pitches – is looking to expand and build turf fields as well as build four satellite camps across the country, in a bid to grow their influence.
Butler says that there is a clear plan for the academy to follow, with a clear transition plan as well as a parental board – designed to ensure children are looked after.
“For me, I want to make sure that after I’m gone there’s a succession,” he said. “Lots of coaches or academies don’t think about what happens after they’re gone. I’ve put everything in place to make sure Phoenix will continue, survive and never die.”
He says the next step is for Phoenix have 30 to 40 players playing in Europe – up from its current crop of 23 – and have them give back to their community.
With the success of Bailey, Butler claims he’s moving with major agents in the footballing world and his players are now being recognized on larger stages, despite one-fifth of his 23 European-based academy players playing for Maltese clubs.
“I’m moving in a different realm now. I’m friends with Jorge Mendes, Mino Raiola, Pino Zhavi, all the major players. Teams now recognize us,” he says.
But for now, the main issue he says the academy faces is its battles with the Jamaican Football Federation.
He has strong criticism for the board members and the way the team is handled.
“Every country who is wise develops their football culture based on what their strengths are,” he said. “When you look at how Jamaica plays, Jamaica has been playing how anyone who coaches them wants to play and it should be the opposite way around. They should be playing to what our strengths are. We’re the fastest people on the planet so we should be utilizing a system that incorporates speed and technique.”
He went on to claim that the federation prioritizes picking players from clubs owned by the board members so that they can qualify for work permits and get transfers to countries such as England.
The Jamaican Football Federation could not be reached for comment.
Butler has been accused of asking for a role within the federation to develop players, and faced sharp criticism from Jamaican Football Federation president Michael Ricketts. In 2017, Butler vowed he would look to win the JFF presidency.
Rickett’s compared Butler’s demands to treating the federation like “a patty shop,” and would not allow a person to take a position on the board in return for their son playing for the national program.
He further claimed Butler has no record of local success.
Butler is adamant that the national program is disorganized, and he’s simply using the tools at his disposal to bring about systemic change, despite him mentioning both Kyle and Bailey as a joint call-up.
“The national team does not have a system of development. They only seek to recruit. So we’ve had to really fight them and put our feet down to fight for a system of play and development. The only leverage we had was that the boys won’t play if you don’t do it. So, we’ve been holding out for change,” he said.
What can’t be argued is Butler’s support for his sons. After the DFB-Pokal semifinal between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, Butler took to Instagram to blast Leverkusen for not starting Bailey – despite the official club Twitter account tell fans he was being saved for an important upcoming weekend fixture. He also criticized Bailey’s teammates for failing to pass to him.
This is my son#phoenix bloodthe put him on the bench#they put him on at. Left back# they don’t pass to him the opponent double teams him#the kick him down#what does he do? Get up and put the free kick in the back of the damn net that’s what #this is phoenix and. We don’t know what it is to back down #hey life bring it#let’s. Do dis
Speaking after the match, Leverkusen manager Heiko Herrlich brushed off the criticism.
“I accept his opinion, that’s it,” he told reporters.
For now, Butler says he’s focusing on coaching and developing Jamaican footballers.
“Even if the national team won’t do as we ask, we will be the model. The players coming out from us will have the development already and will have a national football culture,” he says.
Personally, the next few steps for his sons are clear.
“The next step is to have the best player in the world and win the Ballon d’Or. I think Leon is on target for that and Kyle is the next Iniesta,” he says.
How realistic those goals are remain to be seen.