In February, I was fortunate enough to be in Accra, Ghana for the African Nations Cup. While I was in Accra, I learnt two things: Ghanaians love Ghana, and Ghanaians love football. I was amazed and in awe of the overwhelming support for the national team: the black stars. There was not a car that passed by without the national flag attached to it, neither was there a restaurant, hotel, or public venue that was Black Star banner free.
Oxford street in Osu was covered in Black Star every things…plastic wrist bands, t-shirts, hats, wigs, cuff links…even panties but I didn’t buy any unmentionables :=) I headed to Lagos right after Ghana had beat Nigeria in the semifinals…and I remember teasing a Nigerian friend over their loss…he simply retorted… “and how was your performance?? Oh wait a minute, Sierra Leone didn’t qualify, and u fit talk”. Trying to save face, I told him that it was our choice not to participate….we both laughed at my unending effort to paint a brighter picture of Salone.
When I came back to Freetown I wondered if we could ever compare to Ghana patriotism…I tried to remember back to a Zone 2 game that Sierra Leone had beat Nigeria, but other than that I couldn’t remember a time Leone Stars were seen as super heroes…maybe a bit during the NPRC regime. I know our hopes at qualifying for the Nations cup had been shattered during the election period when mobile company Africell was the primary financial supporter of the national team (although the company still has outstanding bills at Hill Valley Guest House that they have not fully honoured from last year when the team stayed there.)
Back in February FIFA banned our national stadium because of the sordid condition of the pitch and a lack of adequate changing room & toilet facilities for the players. FIFA gave us a deadline by which we had to get the stadium up to par. We got an extension on the deadline because the new APC government wrote a letter back to FIFA saying they never received the initial warning. Extension in hand the government was to dole out Le 260m (about $80,000) towards upgrading the stadium to FIFA standards.
If you drive up the hills of Freetown during the day, you will no doubt see the now totally blue stadium from afar. Personally, I think they should have painted it to reflect all three colors of the national flag…it would have been great to see.
I do not know how the company that won the bid to renovate the stadium got the contract but it is interesting to note that the current manager of the national team either owns the company or has great shares in it. I wonder what the procurement process for that was.
Over the past two weekends I have had the to opportunity to meet and become acquainted with the coach of the national team Ahmed Kanu. Older Salone football fans know him quite well as he was once the captain of the national team and many are pleased with his position as coach. Though I intend to find out more about his football career, I already am convinced that he’s a wonderful person.
In conversations with him I have been able to sense his frustrations at the lack of total financial support for the National Team. He wanted to have at least 20 players on the team as we play the first three games in the qualifier for the world cup in 2010. Currently, there are only 9 players in Sierra Leone training at Lungi. I found out that there are players willing to come and play for Leone Stars but the government has not made the necessary financial provisions to even cover plane tickets. Why should players have to come out of pocket??? I feel a bit angry, and disappointed but most importantly I feel sorry for Ahmed because all blame will fall on him if they loose their matches. Sierra Leoneans will not want to hear excuses if we do not qualify for the world cup. Rather they will continue to fuss and cuss the National Team…on the radio football fans always seem to have all the answers. Their strong criticisms of the Sierra Leone Football Association and Leone Stars are reflective of broken dreams and aspirations of the nation and individual wishes to earn a living playing football. Young men in Sierra Leone want to play for the glory and the gold but if football is your dream in Sierra Leone you have to sacrifice both. Sometimes criticisms are misplaced…and other times they are not.
I read in the paper today that the manager of Kalleone radio (soccer star and national team captain Mohammed Kallon’s radio station) turned in his resignation because Kallon suspended him for criticising the team. Some people believe that Kallon treats the team like his personal possession…sometimes he is forced to pay for player tickets and per diem. My response that is what do u expect?? If Sierra Leoneans want to decide who plays on the team they should find a way to raise funds to support the team and not put the burden on Kallon. As my father would say “spend your money and be respected”.
In the next month or, the national team has three games to play against Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and South Africa. I am 100% certain that all three countries spend more money on their national team than we do. Granted their GDPs and per capita income far exceed ours and they do not rank as low on HDI and are not post conflict societies.( Do you see all my million and one excuses why we may be doomed to not qualify for the world cup)
I have to ask if it’s actually fair for us to play these teams…maybe we should have to play equally as poor countries to compete on a level playing field (get it playing field….:-) . No one can convince me that National Poverty does not directly affect our ability to play football. We’ve convinced ourselves that when it comes to athletic ability that its pure skill, talent, and practice…etc…and I agree that this is so on the individual level. But when it comes to national soccer, the conditions (money has to be available) have to be right for a National Team to succeed in international competitions.
Some people might think that qualifying for the world cup or football in Sierra Leone is trivial compared to staggering infant mortality rates and issues like corruption and the filth ridden streets of Freetown and I would say they’re probably right. But if the National Team can qualify for the world cup it would do amazing wonders in unifying this country, it will give us a reason to be proud, patriotic, and it will help to develop our confidence in ourselves as Sierra Leoneans. Little boys, little girls, market women, and okada drivers, money man dem, bombas, and combras alike will know that we are just as able and capable to compete on an international level as other countries. No to all tem salone fo cam last…
There are several ideas that I have that were inspired by the time I spent in Ghana during the Nations Cup but the most important of these ideas is opening a bank account for the Leone Stars and ask all Sierra Leoneans who want us to make it to the World Cup to contribute to the World Cup Effort. Sierra Leoneans love football. During the Champions League, and European Football Tournament, young boys and men of all ages flock to cinema halls and pay between Le 1000- Le 3000 ($0.30-$1:00) to watch live games on satellite. We need to get these same young men and sometimes women to sacrifice there one thousand leones one time and contribute to the teams World Cup Fund. I’ve already called a friend who is a treasurer at ECOBANK and shared the idea with the team coach and other football and Sierra Leone lovers. So far people think it’s a good idea.
The target for the team is to raise 1,000,000,000 leones nationally. And for those who like myself under the circumstances would be thinking how do we keep track of the money and make sure it goes to the team. I think it would be best to have five signatories to the account three of which have to sign to authorise any withdrawals on behalf of the team. My friend at ECOBANK has said that the bank may even help promote the account & the idea as well as possibly making a contribution. Another friend at ABCTV says the tv station would be more than happy to let us advertise the cause on air…and we’re also reaching out to radio stations. I’m also thinking we need to reach out to other banks with multiple branches in more remote areas of the country. We could set up a website or develop ways and means for those in the diaspora to contribute to the effort as well.
The point is that we need to unify behind the National team and make sure that they have the financial support they need to attempt to qualify for the World Cup. Sierra Leone World Cup 2010? HOW AMAZING THAT WILL BE INDEED!!!!!!!!