Football – The unifying force…

Football atheism in a land of believers:

Here in Liberia – in this land where everyone believes in something and literally everyone loves football – you get a similar bemused reaction saying you don’t support a Premiership football team that you would if you said you don’t believe in God. One devout worshipper has even embarked on the hopeless task of trying to convert me: promising to email me once a week on our return to England with reasons to support Arsenal.

Yesterday we went along to the final of the African Cup of Nations at the Relda Cinema: a dark cavernous shell of a building that was almost destroyed during the war – everything was looted from inside, including the entire upstairs. All that is left are the red theatre-style seats, most of which don’t fold up, some of which have the springs poking through, and here and there, there is no seat at all. To our surprise there were two games projected onto the huge back wall: the final between Ghana and Egypt and a game between Arsenal and Manchester United.

As people with little to no interest in football, to Michael and I it was like watching a load of brightly coloured ants running around a billiard table. I’d sooner have turned my chair around and watched the audience, who broke up the tediousness with constant screams of support and excitement.

Surprisingly everyone’s attention seemed to be on the English Premiership match rather than the African final: there’s globalisation for you! When there was nothing much happening a man a few seats down simply stood up and shouted delightedly at the screen: “Football, Football!” The enthusiasm of everyone here hasn’t quite succeeded in breaking through my own indifference to the game but I have been impressed to see what a unifying and motivating force football is in Liberia.

I don’t know if there was an official statement released to this effect, but everyone tells you that football in Liberia is “a unifying force”. During our stay, the County Meet – a football tournament between Liberia’s 15 counties – came to a climax, and the final was to be contested between Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties – the two main antagonists in the county’s 14-year civil crisis. Nimba won 2-0, but there was no crowd trouble: county officials shook hands on the pitch before and after the game and fans joined together in one big post-match party. Unlike our Premier League’s over-paid stars, professional footballers in Liberia earn around $40 Liberian per game, so anyone playing football at any level in Liberia can only leave the country to be a success.

Teku Nahn, who toured the UK with the Millennium Stars football team as a teenager in 1999, was top scorer in Liberia with 16 goals before Christmas last year. Callers to radio phone-ins clamoured for his inclusion in the national team. He was invited for a three-month try-out with Cape Town FC in South Africa, which he thinks went very well. He scored in his first game and impressed the coaching staff with his skills and hard work. Now he is waiting for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to be over before finding out whether they will offer him a contract.

If Teku makes it to South Africa it will be a success for the whole Millennium Stars club – a narrow bridge to success that others may be able to follow him across. For those left behind, the focus is shifting from their own dreams to the dreams of others. Now in their fourteenth year – they are engaged in a consultation with team members to transform the football club into a community organisation to be role models to local children and help them develop their talents in music, singing, sport, and especially football.

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