By Benedict Nyankun Wisseh
Last year, President Sirleaf appointed football icon, George Weah, peace ambassador. In this position, Weah is expected to undertake initiatives to reconcile Liberians and secure peace among them. Since the appointment, no comprehensive pronouncements about the roadmap to secure peace and reconciliation were made until in May when Weah announced that he was staging a “peace match” as the first step on his roadmap, if he has any roadmap, to secure national peace and reconciliation. This was not a surprise, for Weah has stated that he will “use sports to promote peace in Liberia.” Undoubtedly, this prompted him to extend invitations to retired football players from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone to come to Liberia. But he failed in his imagination to use sports to promote peace by using the wrong players.
Yes, Milla, Okocha, Kallon, Fofana and other former African footballers accepted the invitations and came to Liberia and, on June 22, played in the “peace match” against a Weah’s select Liberian side that was constituted exclusively by players who played football professionally in Europe. It is two months now since the “peace match” took place and the invited foreign players returned to their respective countries, leaving behind unanswered questions in Liberia to debate. How did bringing Roger Milla and company to Liberia benefit the peace process? Why did Weah exclude Santos Maria and the Liberian footballers who preceded him from the “peace match” in favour of foreign players?
For many Liberians, the “peace Game” was an ordinary entertaining football game to watch but they cannot see and say how it benefitted the peace process. It will be unfair to ask the public to identify the benefits the participation of the foreign players in the “peace match” accorded the peace and reconciliation process. It will be unfair because Weah, the peace ambassador and the architect who extended the invitations, cannot tell them and the entire country how a football game, played by his foreign football friends, has benefitted the peace process.
I believed Weah when he announced that he would use sports to secure peace and reconciliation among Liberians. Not only did I believe him, I was excited because of the elevation that it would accord the national standing and significance of sports in Liberia’s national life. But the enthusiasm and expectation were evaporated by Weah’s invitations to Roger Milla and company. As peace ambassador, I assume Weah knows that securing peace and reconciling Liberians is an internal problem that requires a Liberian solution determined by Liberians. So, using only Liberian players would have been a reasonably proper thing to do.
The reasons for inviting retired Liberian footballers are common. Unlike the foreign players, the retired Liberian players have vested national interests in the peace and stability of Liberia. They were born in Liberia, grew up there and played for the country. A multitude of them was in Liberia during the life of the civil war and experienced the many forms of its mindless brutalities. They suffered personal losses that they have not and will never recover from. As Liberians, they have ethnic connections to the counties. So, since Weah asserts that he will use sports to secure national peace and reconciliation, the respective backgrounds of the Liberian players placed them in a unique position, unlike the foreign players, to serve as peace ambassadors to their own people. In this role, they and Weah would have travelled around the country, playing exhibition games of football and basketball and engaging their own people in conversations about peace and reconciliation in the towns, villages and cities. Using only retired Liberian footballers, instead of the Milla led foreign players, would have benefitted Weah’s efforts and the peace process and saved Liberia the money wasted to bring and host the foreign players.
Mr. Weah’s decision to exclude certain generations of Liberian players, however, was meant to convey a message. One has to look at the sides that played in the “peace match.” Mr. Weah’s select Liberian side that played against Milla led foreign side was constituted predominantly by Liberian players who played professionally in Europe. The exclusive selection of these players to play against the foreign side was not inadvertent. It was calculated to demonstrate contempt for other retired Liberian footballers, the players who preceded Weah’s generation. If their exclusion was not a demonstration of contempt, then what was it? Why was Roger Milla, a football contemporary of Santos Maria’s, invited to play in the Liberian “peace match,” but not Santos Maria, a Liberian football great who was in Monrovia at the time this game was played? Why were Waka Herron, Joseph Sion (aka Kofi Bruce), Koko Wleh, Teah Fokofo, Sarkpa and others, all Liberian football greats, excluded from an exhibition football game in their own country?
The answer is embedded in the African psychology of feeling inferior to everything European when it comes to football. Generally, based on this psychology, African players who play professionally in Europe are considered to be better than the ones who only play in Africa. The influence of this psychology has determined the selection of an African player of the year in the past 20 years and continuing, leaving those African players who play their club football in Africa ignored. Therefore, the Europe-based African players, when they return home to Africa, prefer to play each other in charity or testimonial games, excluding the Africa based players. This psychology has become very influential that it determines African football associations’ preferences for European, rather than African, coaches to coach their national teams.
We know that the exodus of Liberian footballers to Europe commenced with Weah prior to the conclusion of the 1980s. In Europe, the Liberian players played against and interacted with the retired African players Weah invited, developing personal friendships with them. These Liberian players, for the first time in the country’s history, qualified Liberia twice for the African Cup of Nations (ACON). As a football fan and Liberian, I am proud of their accomplishments. However, due to these accomplishments, these Liberian players have adopted this psychology and considered themselves to be better players than the players who preceded them. Therefore, for Weah and his boys, playing against a Liberian side, made up of former local players without professional football credentials, would have been a sacrilegious thing to do. Hence, he decided to invite the retired African professional football players and exclude Santos, Waka, Sion and other retired Liberian players.
Putting the exclusion of Santos Maria and others in context, it was very disappointing and, historically, has profound implications because it was made by Weah, a Liberian football great, contemptuously disregarding the sacrifices and contributions made by Santos Maria, another Liberian football great, to the growth of football that paved the way for Weah and others to develop and sustain their skills and talents that propelled them to their professional careers.
How can one successfully argue for Liberian athletes to be recognised and respected nationally for their sacrifices and contributions to the national life of the country, when George Weah, the most famous Liberian footballer worldwide, who now occupies positions from where he can be more than just symbols of achievement, and can actually serve the interests of the sports communities in vital and tangible ways, seems most at a loss, lacking purpose and drive inspired by selflessness and appreciation of those who played before him? One will think that exhibition games, as was the “peace match,” will be occasions to which we invite our retired athletes to recognize their contributions and pay tributes to them. Santos Maria, not Roger Milla, should have been on the other side of the field playing against Weah’s side, while the spectators reminisce about the past performances of these two great players and their colleagues.
About the author: Benedict Nyankun Wisseh is a graduate of the now defunct Charlotte Tolbert Memorial Academy and leaves in New York City. Wisseh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.