By Hassan Conteh
On March 23rd 1923, a group of football enthusiasts from the Western Area formed the Sierra Leone Football League. They were, among several others; Akita Cole, Cummings Doherty, Amadu T Taylor, E.S Beoku Betts, .S. Davies, Oladipo Thomas and Inspector V Warren.. Cummings Doherty who apparently became the first elected President of the Sierra Leone Football League (SLFL) also doubled as the League Secretary. He served for 12 years.
The League registered 13 clubs and the most popular teams were; Young Tigers, Stretches, Moonlight, East End Games, South Scientists, Cline Town Rovers, etc. The clubs would have to battle for prestigious trophies (usually donated) like the Stevenson’s Cup, Barclay’s Cup, Eastern and the Western Shield. Three years later (March 1926), the Sierra Leone Amateur Football Association (SLAFA) was born.
The footballing atmosphere then, like today was characterised by adrenaline charged competitions between teams from the Freetown colony and the Protectorate with headquarters in Bo. Competitions were organised annually. The last match from those rather informal football competitions was won by a Colony team in 1955. The Protectorate team went down by 7 goals to 1.
Then came the Sierra Leone FA Cup, which is still being played across the country. The architect of this historic tournament was Amadu Dazie Wurie better known as A.D Wurie.
A number of other competitions were also played across the country, creating opportunities for other clubs to compete. The new entrants or fresh clubs were named after national heroes like Bai Bureh, Kai Londo, Mammy Yoko, Khakuma etc.
In the 1980’s, the standoffs between clubs spiralled out of control and this lead to a decisive government intervention and the leadership vacuum created as a result these feuds in the football fraternity gave cause for an emergency election that saw the election of one time firebrand politician, Hon Thaimu Bangura as President of SLAFA. As it happened, the feuds were partly fuelled by allegations that executive positions in the SLAFA were mostly occupied by members based in the Western Area.
The FA Cup which seemed to have found a sound footing also gave birth to the Under 14 and Division I leagues. These became a solid breeding ground for players who ended up representing the country in international tournaments. Other players found themselves in countries like Sweden, Azerbaijan, Finland and Norway – playing in smaller division leagues but earning relatively good cash. Sierra Leone’s first international match was against the Republic of Guinea in 1951. In 1959, the National Team travelled to the Gold Coast (Ghana) for a match that ended 2-2.
Junior Tumbo, Gbana Loko and young crop of stars like Samuel Ballay, Alpha Joh, Mohamed Kallon, Kewullay Conteh and others proudly positioned Sierra Leone on a global stage. Back then, Sierra Leone played neighboring Guinea and in that match several home-grown stars became exposed to the twilights of Football. That match, played in 1951, was believed to be the first international match Sierra Leone partook in. Later, in 1959, the country travelled and played Goal Coast (present day Ghana) and the match ended 2-2.
The Serra Leone Amateur Football Association ceased to exist in 1960 after it was become obvious that the country could now produce professional players with the capacity to play in the Leagues of Europe and elsewhere. The Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) came into existence. The same year, the football association was accredited by FIFA and the SLFA became the country’s football governing body till today.
Around 1967, Sierra Leone had six (6) overseas trained coaches and seven (7) internationally recognized referees approved by FIFA. In 1964, a National Sports Council Act (NSC) was set up but it has recently been amended giving way to National Sports Authority (NSA).
Leone Stars…A Golden Era
Between 1993 and 1996, Sierra Leone’s national team, Leone Stars, won two enviable trophies – the 1993 Amilcar Cabral Zone 2 Tournament hosted in Sierra Leone and the 1995 tournament hosted by Mauritania.
Sierra Leone also qualified for the African Nations Cup twice, (1994 in Tunisia and 1996 in South Africa). The country was able to make striking progress in the midst of repeated coups and an eleven year civil war.
Perennial Rifts of Doom
The perennial rifts within the football family have apparently prevented any real progress in the country’s football over the last two decades. In August 2013 Sierra Leone had its first female football association president. The Isha Johansen tenure has been characterised by incessant power struggles among football administrators on one hand and the government’s on the other hand. There are many who believe Isha enjoys the backing of some big boys at FIFA.
The National Team was banned from participating in international competitions by FIFA over the charge that the Government of Sierra Leone had conducted itself in a manner that amounts to political interference. Consequently, the National Premier League also collapsed. It only came back in 2018 but has again disappeared after COVID 19 struck.