Politics and the Sierra Leonean Football Association

We are currently in the middle of what many consider to be the pinnacle of football, the FIFA World Cup. Now into the round of 16, 32 teams, of which 5 were African  have competed to be crowned the best international side in the world. However, for one African country football has been dominated by politics off the pitch rather than players on it. Since 2013 the Sierra Leonean Football Association (SLFA) has been in crisis, with disagreements over who is in charge, leading to splinter groups and boycotts. Coupled with the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the Sierra Leone domestic league hasn’t officially competed for four years. Having visited Sierra Leone in 2011 to do some football coaching, I have experienced first-hand the passion for football amongst Sierra Leoneans.

In 2013 there were four potential candidates for the Presidency of the SLFA. These included; Isha Johansen, Mohammed Kallon, Rodney Michael and Foday Turay. Kallon, a former Inter Milan and Sierra Leone national player, has legendary status within Sierra Leone for his exploits in Europe. Kallon even bought a team in the national league, known as FC Kallon. However, despite his status, Kallon, Michael and Turay were all deemed ineligible to run for President and were subsequently disqualified. In order to be eligible to run for Presidency of the SLFA, candidates had to have resided in Sierra Leone for no less than 5 years. The SLFA argued that Kallon had residency status in another country between 2008-2011 and was thus unable to run. As a result of the disqualifications, Isha Johansen became the next President of the SLFA unopposed.

Isha Johansen, like Kallon, owns a football team in the national league, FC Johansen. Johansen set up the club in 2004 as a means to help young people following the devastating civil war which had plagued the country since the 1990’s. Since 2004 Johansen had been involved in football, especially at youth level, in Sierra Leone. However, despite her experience within the game, not everyone was behind her election success, especially given that she had won unopposed.

Following the disqualification of Kallon, 10 of the 14 Sierra Leone Premier League clubs decided to boycott the league. This occurred in 2013, just before the Ebola outbreak of 2014. During the Ebola outbreak, football was banned as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. This not only halted the prospect of any domestic football in Sierra Leone, it also meant that the national team was forced to play its home matches in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite the ban on football in Sierra Leone being lifted in December 2015, domestic football remained in limbo. Still boycotting the SLFA official Premier League, 11 domestic sides decided to form a breakaway league in 2016. This failed, with only 9 rounds being completed and two clubs dropping out. Since the separate league ended abruptly there has been no domestic football.

For Johansen, Ebola and the breakaway league became the least of her problems. In September 2016 Johansen and some of her officials were arrested by anti-corruption officials. It was alleged that Johansen and her officials had failed to respond to calls regarding discrepancies in financial statements of the SLFA. Following the allegations, Johansen was set aside by the SLFA and replaced with Brima Mazola Kamara.

The decision of the SLFA did not go down well with FIFA, who stated that the decision was invalid and that Johansen and her deputy  should remained in their positions. What materialised was an SLFA split between Johansen and her team, recognised by FIFA, and Kamara and his team who had been put in place to replace them.

Outside of football, the country held a general election earlier this year. Opposition candidate and former military ruler for a brief period in the 1990’s Julius Maada Bio won the election following a run off against Samura Kamara.  Bio’s new sports minister, Ibrahim Nyelenkeh, has declared his intention to restart domestic football in Sierra Leone within 90 days of taking office. Nyelenkeh also declared his support for the FIFA road map for the SLFA, who are meant to hold elections that had already been postponed.

When and if these elections take place, they are likely to be politically charged again. Johansen has already said that she will run again, while the man the SLFA replaced her with, Kamara, has also stated that he is likely to run. For a country passionate about its football, the return to some sort of normality would be welcomed.

Featured image | FIFA World Cup 2018 | Коля Саныч | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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