Sierra Leone has been in the spotlight for many reasons over the past few years. The nation acclaimed to be the entry point for the liberation of slaves in the eighteenth century has had its fair share of negative publicity.
It’s a beautiful country, on the bank of the Atlantic Ocean, and with a rich historical and cultural heritage. Unfortunately it’s also very central to the fallouts of many civil unrest situations in recent time. There was a spillover of the Liberian civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
In football, the sport that seeks to unite warring nations and that has done so over many years, Sierra Leone has threatened to be an exception to it. For as long as I can remember, Sierra Leone football has been bedevilled with various conflicts, in- fighting, weathered a good number of FIFA suspensions and threats of suspension from the football community.
Since the present leadership of Sierra Leone football came into power, it had escalated. There were people within the country that seemed to fail to realise what history -making achievement their country could be associated with, by having one of only two women football association presidents in the whole world – in Isha Johansen. Rather, the strife and unrest continued. We heard stories of multiple leagues being run, multiple national coaches, direct confrontation between the government and the Johansen-led SLFA.
Their last attempt at a General Assembly in June this year ended in chaos, with security operatives putting paid to peaceful deliberations. Now, as if all this was not enough to contend with, Sierra Leone then found itself in the middle of a major pandemic – the menace of Ebola. And, obviously, the outbreak of the disease in Sierra Leone and parts of West Africa, affected the already disenchanted growth of football in the country.
Local league football was suspended, while there was a threat to Sierra Leone being able to compete in international football. The compromise was then to allow them ‘host’ international fixtures in countries of their choice. In recent months, Sierra Leone has had to play their home games in two-legged ties in their opponents’ home ground, thus playing both legs at the same venue.
When one looks at the leadership of SLFA under the dynamic and very active Isha Johansen, he/she cannot help but feel a sense of empathy for this country. It is a country that has great football talent, natural gift of physique, and there should be no reason why they should not be standing toe to toe with the so-called bigger nations in West African football.
Johansen breathes life into Sierra Leone football. She is a delight to listen to, especially when one wants to hear passion and deep-rooted commitment to a cause. Her cause is Sierra Leone football. And she takes it on with such devotion. With the Ebola problem, Johansen sought support, trying to find a way of getting football to assist in some way, in combating this horrible disease. Her efforts yielded fruit. She got FIFA to give a reasonable sum of money to support the Ebola cause. She attended the Balon d’Or and managed to get the three top players in the world to carry boards/placards to support the ‘Fight Ebola’ cause. She smooched the Football Association (England) to make a donation.
She was seen as an action woman; dimunitive but assertive and determined. And it was working wonders. The whole world sees what she is doing, except, it seems, for her own people back home.
Then comes the challenge of trying to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. First came the unceremonious exit of the Leone Stars coach, young John McInstry (Irish), due to the fact that no one really knows who employed him and what the procedure was for him to stay or leave. A better offer came along, and he took it (today McInstry is in charge of Rwanda as they prepare to host the Africa Nations Championship in January next year). It left a void. There was no one to take the Leone Stars forward into their qualification matches.
The technical director John Sherrington was fired amid a row with the country’s sports minister. This was the guy who was detailed to handle the national team temporarily. A shortlist was drawn from the applications received for the vacant post. But for a good number of reasons, that plan had to be ditched. Funding was not forthcoming.
Isha went to work again, and, as she is fast gaining in reputation, she gets a good compromise solution, albeit temporary.
Step up Ghana FA through its president, Kwesi Nyantakyi. The GFA decided to grant a “loan” to the SLFA of its highly decorated coach of the U-20 team, Sellas Tetteh, to go guide the Leone Stars through a three month phase which would include a match against reigning African champions, Ivory Coast. A victory for Sierra Leone football again, with them having to part with little or no money, yet gaining the services of someone I see as a top coach in African football.
Then comes the match against the Ivoriens. And the question of where to play it, given the fact that full international clearance has yet to be given to Sierra Leone to host international matches. In the U23 category previously, in a two legged fixture against Cameroon, they had to play both legs in Cameroon, and still managed to beat the Cameroonians to progress to the next stage of Olympic qualifying. Having to play both legs of that next round in Algeria, it became too much and they succumbed to the Algerians.
So it became imperative that the Leone Stars find a home of their own, to take teams to.
Step up Nigeria Football Federation and its leader, Amaju Pinnick (with whom Isha Johansen shares common passion, traits and dynamism). Nigeria agreed to host the Sierra Leone v Ivory Coast game on 6 September, in Port Harcourt. Football won again, in Sierra Leone, as its neighbours stepped up to help.
Watching the match itself, one can see that, with the right situation, Sierra Leone will rise in football. Sellas Tetteh, from 2-3 weeks’ training with the Stars, managed to get them to a shape that saw them deem themselves unlucky not to inflict a rare defeat on the reigning champions of Africa. The match ended 0-0. And as for the venue of the match itself, the government of Nigeria, particularly the Rivers State governor, Amaju Pinnick and the NFF he leads, and the people around made it a home away from home for Sierra Leone. The turnout was impressive, and the Leone Stars must have been spurred to perform as they did, with the support they got.
It’s called lending a hand. And big kudos to Ghana and Nigeria for stepping up to the chase. Big kudos to Kwesi Nyantakyi and Amaju Pinnick for spearheading the help and assistance they gave to Sierra Leone. And top marks for Isha Johansen for her resilience and for seeking out the people who ended up helping her, and helping Sierra Leone.
It’s far from over, though. Sierra Leone needs help. This country has great footballers, and has a good football heritage. They need more in the way of helping hands to rise to their potential.
Sierra Leone needs a substantive coach for its national team. The government is not forthcoming with funding as they should. We need people who can get close to government bigwigs and get them to listen that football is nothing but a positive tool to social and economic development in any country.
We need people who can get close to President Ernest Bai Koroma and let him see what football can do, and how he can help bridge this gap between the personalities involved, a gap that seems to be jeopardising the progression of many youths of Sierra Leone. But we need people out there, to enlist in one way or other, to lend a helping hand to Sierra Leone football.
On a morning when we heard the most unwelcome news that a new case of Ebola was found in the country that we had heaved a sigh of relief over previously, all I can think of is, please let us lend a hand; as the country, the youth of the country, the game of football in the country and the indefatigable leader of football of the country, deserves no less than your support.