Football’s Renaissance: Premier league returns amidst FIFA ban
By Christian Sesay
The legendary American footballer, Vince Lombardi said ‘Football is like life – it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.’ Football is more than a sport. It’s an experience that concentrates locals’ defining characteristics: passion, intensity, loyalty, friendship and camaraderie.
Like partisan politics, it is extremely popular in Sierra Leone. Although there is immense local interest in foreign football, the English premier league, Campeonato Nacional de Liga de Primera División, commonly known as La Liga, the Bundesliga etc, people are still very passionate about the local game. However, in recent years, the game in Sierra Leone has not got the attention it deserves. And the reasons for this poor state of affairs are many, not least, politics, structural set up, accountability and a lot more. The game is still popular across the country as it used to be played from schools to the communities and district and national levels. The civil war and Ebola put a temporary halt to the development of the game. The suspension of school football has also had an adverse impact on the game’s progress.
Until recently, Sierra Leone enjoyed the full support of international governing body, Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), with millions of dollars poured annually into the development of the game. For four years, the Sierra Leone Premier League, the highest league in the country, was in slumber. Throughout this period, many abortive attempts were made to revive it.
Due to what FIFA described as political interference in the game, a ban was place on Sierra Leone’s participation in international competitions. In a statement, FIFA said: “The Bureau of the FIFA Council decided today to suspend the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) with immediate effect due to government interference.” With the suspension of the country and the absence of any competitive league the game was in decline.
The restart of football in the New Year was great news. Prior to ascending the presidency, Julius Maada Bio had committed to give the kiss of life back to the game. The President fulfilled his promise when the government announced a Le 3.5 billion support to the premier league. Though seen by many as drop in the ocean, it came as great relief and helped kick start the national league.
Alimu Bah, ex-general secretary of the Sierra Leone Football Association, described the support for the Premier League as “unprecedented.” It “has never happened before and it is welcoming.” Good decision, huge funds from central government! But beyond this is an irony; some of these clubs have the capacity to raise more than what was given them from the Le 3.5billion as government support. The appointment of a Premier League Board gave some respite to football loving fans, with Barrister Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai serving as the Board Chair. He has been in football for the better part of his life and has great passion for the game. After a series of consultations with football stakeholders and other spade work done, the league finally started. President Bio joined thousands fans who thronged the national stadium to see East End Lions beat their arch rivals Mighty Blackpool in the first match.
Notwithstanding the great start to the premier league, the game of football is still plagued with daunting challenges. In an interview with SierraEye, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai Esq. said FIFA and the Sierra Leone government will sort themselves out. “The FIFA ban can continue and the government will handle it. They are talking.” As Premier League Chairman, he said, he would want the ban to be lifted “but that is not my preoccupation. What I want to see is to ensure the football is played.” For years, he said, Ghana had to pull out of international football because of a stalemate with FIFA. They went home, organized their domestic league, had strong players and when they came back, they qualified for both World Cup and African Nation’s Cup. “This could be blessing in disguise for all of us,” Saffa Abdulai said.
Alimu Bah shared the same view, saying, the FIFA ban has nothing to do with the on-going league since “you cannot wait for FIFA to lift the ban before you start playing the beautiful game. Let the Premier League play and let the government look at the second, third divisions and district leagues.”
Sierra Leoneans have shown tremendous support for the domestic league. For Saffa Abdulai, the benefit of the Premier League is enormous. “It helps with national cohesion. Everybody is today talking about football. The game does not count one’s political background. In a much polarized country, we already have people coming together. The games are also now helping with job creation. Now the players wake up in the morning, go to the pitch and get trained…”
The first division league is expected to commence soon. It will be followed by the second division with 24 clubs. Many young and upcoming players will soon have a great opportunity to display their talents.
Thirteen clubs are presently battling for one trophy. The heat is on and the battle line drawn. Household names like East End Lions (The Killers), Port Authority (Water Front Boys) and Blackpool (Tiss Tass Boys) are all in contention. As the game is being played, there are other vital issues to be looked into. One key issue is that of accountability. The current board has initiated an open forum by way of engaging the media thereby enabling them to ask questions and get first-hand information on the running of the league. Teams have also been urged to sign professional contracts with their players, to pay their players and provide them with a means for a livelihood.
Football has always been messy. Some of the core problems include match fixing and faulty governance in the beautiful game. Political interference is another. The need to give attention to other sporting disciplines is also vital. Government, through the Sports Ministry should speedily look at the legal framework to set up a Sport Authority and national sport policy. This is of strategic importance. Once they are rolled out, other disciplines could be taken care of.