The road to Arsenal runs through the community

Nico Manduzio’s path to working with the English giants took him from Europe to Africa and back again, all along discovering his passion for developing players on and off the field.

Even in his wildest dreams Nico Manduzio couldn’t have imagined how great things would pan out for him when, ambitiously, he began sending his CV around the world in 2020. The then fitness coach of Hout Bay United in South Africa was on the hunt for a new job during tough economic times. He endured several rejections before English giants Arsenal came with the offer of a role as one of their community coaches. 

“I got 45 nos, four maybes and one yes, and all I needed was one yes. I got in closer touch with Arsenal and they wanted me to work for them, so that’s how I got to London,” says Manduzio. “I didn’t really fancy moving to the United Kingdom, but if there was a reason to move to the UK it was football 100% – football is big here – and London. I wanted to move to London. Out of those 50, 18 CVs just went to London clubs. I’m just very lucky the most historical and prestigious one actually said yes.”

Apart from being Hout Bay United’s fitness coach, the Italian-born Manduzio was also their wellbeing team leader. The third-tier ABC Motsepe League club won many admirers, including Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp, because of their community-oriented approach to football that empowers young local players by supporting them on and off the pitch and helping them find employment. 

For Manduzio to be a part of that project, he first had to give up his previous life in Germany selling motor vehicle charging cables. “I was working in an office in a nine-to-five job for 15 years and I was just fed up. I didn’t see myself working in the office anymore just banging the keyboard and staring into the monitor. My passion was always sports,” he says. 

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Manduzio went to Uganda for a social work project in 2016 and approached a primary school teacher to help him coach football. He was prepared to do anything, he says, even just moving the cones around, but within days he was in charge of the sessions. He ended up coaching the children for a month.

“I realised how much of an impact you can have on people – on teenagers and young children – with sports. It’s not just how you kick, score and win a game. You can go beyond. There are so many life skills you can teach using sport as a tool.”

Manduzio subsequently left his job, sold everything he could spare and decided to travel the world seeking to make a positive impact through sport. After three months in Namibia, he travelled to South Africa, initially wanting to stay for only a few weeks. However, Hout Bay United stole his heart.

During the early stages of the first Covid-19 lockdown, as football was on hold, Manduzio worked with the club on a food delivery programme. But he knew deep down that the next logical step after a prominent role at a semi-professional football club had to be in the professional game. Then came Arsenal.

Taking Arsenal to the people

While manager Mikel Arteta and his squad focus on trying to rebuild their Premier League season, Manduzio and his colleagues at Arsenal in the Community carry the brand into various communities through a variety of sport, social and educational programmes. That is not to say there is no football coaching involved – they seek to identify promising young players and also work with disabled footballers at the club.

“As Arsenal in the Community, we’ve got diverse social inclusion projects,” Manduzio says. “We’ve got events where we give people the opportunity to visit the Arsenal hub, which is right next to the stadium. We’ve got events where we’ve got children with special needs – autism, for example. 

“We’ve got amputees who play for Arsenal in the [England] Amputee Football League. We give them the possibility of coming together and playing together. Through professional coaching, we give them skills to compete in the amputee league.”

Indeed, three Arsenal members were part of the England side that were knocked out in the quarterfinals of the 2021 European Amputee Football Championship, which was held in Poland in September. 

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Stefano D’Errico, community coach leader at Arsenal, says he is proud of the growth Manduzio has undergone at Arsenal. “[He] is now more and more involved in the delivery of the activities related to social inclusion – football and disability, sessions in estates, etc. It is an area that, considering Nico’s previous experiences, background and interests, I think represents a good chance to establish himself more and more, giving back a lot to the participants [who] have the chance to work with him.” 

Having found a niche in community coaching, Manduzio plans to stay involved in social development projects. He also intends to travel the world to focus on Arsenal in the Community projects overseas.

“For me, it’s the right pathway. It’s something I’m really passionate about doing, but I don’t know about the rest of my career. I’m not sure yet. So many things can happen. I hope I will find a way to reach out to even more people – that is my main goal. Can I make them live a better life through teaching football or sports in general? That’s my main aim,” Manduzio said. 

“If I’m one day going to be an academy coach, a women’s team coach or whatever? I don’t know yet.”

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