War stories

Sierra Leone and Liberia are not favourites to qualify from African World Cup Group B, but as Alan Duncan reports, just being there is an achievement

It’s a tough job being secretary general of any Football Association. Worse still if you are administering the footballing fortunes of a little-known, war-torn African country. Alimu Bah, the secretary general of the Sierra Leone FA, has had much to contend with since the start of his tenure in 1996. Coups, counter-coups, death threats, a rebel invasion and the recurring ills of African football: poor infrastructure, lack of funds and a less then perfect organisational structure.

It is a small miracle in itself that Bah finds himself today at his rightful seat in the SLFA – a position re-endorsed in elections held in August. In 1997 the capital Free­town was taken over by a junta which ousted the democratically el­ected gov­ernment of Ahmad Tejan Kabba. A price was placed on Bah’s head once it became clear to them that his promise to co-operate was only a ruse to win time for his subsequent escape to join the exiled government in neighbouring Guinea.

In the middle of the propaganda war that preceded the retaking of Freetown almost a year later, Bah gave the Kabba government a huge moral victory by leading out a team of exiled players in the Zone II regional tournament for west African national sides.

In the past decade, Sierra Leone, like George Weah’s Liberia, has been plunged into the depths of a collective tragedy that has at times raised the simple achievement of fielding 11 men in an international fixture to the realms of a heroic exploit. “Every time I listen to the BBC’s Focus on Africa bulletin and hear of fighting in another corner of Africa, I cannot help but think of my counterparts and the difficult decisions they will be faced with on a daily basis,” says Bah. “What do you do?” he asks. “Do you withdraw from the (African) Nations Cup, the World Cup qualifiers, or do you persevere? And if so, will the government be in a position to even finance the team’s travel commitments?”

From Ethiopia and Eritrea in the east to Rwanda, Burundi, the two Congos in central Africa, and Sierra Leone and Liberia in west Africa, it is a common dilemma. As recently as July, Togo refused to show up for a Nations Cup preliminary round match in Freetown due to what were ref­erred to as “grave security concerns”. The Confederation of African Football de­manded that Togo honour the fixture, which they subsequently lost 2-0, only to qualify in the return leg in Lomé after a penalty shoot-out. In contrast, Congo DR (formerly Zaire) attempted to withdraw from the World Cup qualifiers, only to have their own decision reversed by FIFA under the threat of a huge fine.

While conflicts across the continent raise legitimate concerns over security, the flood of withdrawals from the World Cup even among the walking wounded has largely been stemmed of late thanks to a $1 million FIFA fee for each participating nation. But the money is not the only reason why countries like Sierra Leone and Eritrea make every effort to ensure these matches go ahead, even under the most trying circumstances. Their presence in international tournaments represents a plea not to be abandoned and isolated from the rest of the continent for another two, or even four, years. Football is an obvious and important means of re-establishing the credentials of nations undermined by conflict.

“It is vitally important,” says Bah. “You should see the look on the fans’ faces when they catch a glimpse of, say, Mohammed Kallon, who has been doing so well in Italy’s Serie A. You cannot imagine how much that does for the people.”

If football serves as a symbol of hope in times of adversity, no man has personified the struggle for peace and for a wider consciousness of his nation’s plight than the for­mer World, European and Af­rican footballer of the Year, George Weah. Liberia had been brought to its knees by internal strife in 1996 when Weah, at the zenith of his footballing powers, led out the national team in the 1996 Nations Cup in South Africa. His gesture in having single-handedly borne the costs of his nation’s qualification was not lost on Liberians or Af­ricans at large.

It showed that Weah, far from forgetting his roots, had strengthened them. We­­ah to this day is perceived by many to have done more for Liberia than any other individual since the country became a republic in 1862.

But if the legend of a Weah is a living testament to the power of football in Africa and its potential as a unifying force against a backdrop of war, no one should pretend that it can act as a panacea for all a nation’s ills. Tribal con­flicts, the battle over natural resources and all manner of cross-border grievances have left deep scars that will not vanish overnight.

And in the ever-changing landscape of conflict states, there is no immediate remedy for a country’s footballers. Even patriotism has its limits, as was recently made clear in Sierra Leone, when a group of internationals refused to board a plane for a fixture in Nigeria before receiving at least $1,000 each. Some footballers, like Monaco’s Burundi-born Shabani Nonda and the now retired Chadian Japhet N’doram, first escaped as refugees (to Tanzania and Cameroon respectively) before playing their way to Europe. But they remain exceptions among a large number whose flight from war ends incomplete and unrecorded.

Thankfully, Liberia is now getting back on its feet, with 16 teams making the most of the relative nationwide security to play home and away league fixtures for the first time in years. Furthermore, Weah has been handed the reigns of the national team who, after their recent home victory over Nigeria, are harbouring hopes of an unlikely World Cup qualification.

Sadly, in neighbouring Sierra Leone, all the first division clubs have been resettled en bloc in the capital to avoid the treacherous route leading “up country”. On October 7 the teams will make their latest attempt to restart a 17-team first division for the first time in over three years. But the financial hardship, com­pounded by war, endures without exception.

To its credit, FIFA has shown a growing propensity towards assisting the weaker nations and in its popular GOAL project is attempting to establish football academies throughout the continent. But the GOAL initiative will have to stand the test of time if it is not to become just another attempt to score electoral points in a wider political game, as can now be concluded from the redundant, UEFA-inspired Meridian project of a few years ago.

Whatever little there may have been in the shape of corporate sponsorship in the past has tended to disappear. And African football, which has traditionally relied upon the generosity of a handful of private individuals, is discovering that they too are being hit hard by the general downturn in economic activity and shifting priorities, born of war.

“You have to be ready for the unforeseen,” says Bah as he gets ready to listen again to the BBC’s Focus on Africa broadcast. “I don’t know what will happen to­morrow, but I have to believe in tomorrow to make anything happen.”

From WSC 165 November 2000. What was happening this month