Soccer, Nationalism and Political Crisis

Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective

July 27, 2001

The on-going saga of the Liberian football is an interesting one and I am tempted to look at the whole issue from another perspective. Not long ago, the Lone Stars lost by a goal to Ghana. After that match, George Weah, who has risen to the status of iconoclast in our society, was attacked verbally, and his mother's name was dragged in the mud. People from every part of the country were distraught when he announced that he would no longer wear the national colors. The country went into mourning and President Charles G. Taylor, intervened personally, making promises and giving Mr. Weah all latitudes to run the Lone Stars. Now, Ghana is going to play in Nigeria and the fate of Liberia, as participant in the next World Cup will depend on the outcome of that match. Mr. Weah wanted to attend the match but Nigeria, the country that opened its arms to Charles Taylor, the man who killed so many peace-keepers and innocent people from that country on his way to power, said they could not provide security for one man, a soccer player. It's a pity. It's a pity for Nigeria and for ECOWAS and our sportsmanship. I wonder what would have happened if Mr. Weah had just boarded a plane and gone to Lagos. I don't think Nigerians will lynched him. But by asking permission, the whole issue was politicized. It seems that Nigeria, like Liberia, needs that match very badly.

The attack on Weah after the Ghana match was a symptom of things at home. It brought to the surface the deep seated anger and frustration of the people. This anger was directed at Mr. Weah but one must look for its sources from somewhere else. Soccer was used as an outlet but it was not the only reason. A 19th century philosopher said, "sports is the opium of the people." In ancient Rome, Gladiators were brought into the arena to appease the poor masses that had no other satisfaction in life. In the same ancient Rome, where senators, generals and the Emperor and his Court built palaces, spent their days frolicking and enjoying the good life, the only pleasure for the masses was to see gladiators fight to death or watch Christians eaten by lions. And the masses filled the coliseum day after. Hitler, while he built up his nazi machine and used every resource in impoverished Germany to build his oppressive and destructive nazi war machine, provided the poor masses of Germany with the Olympics. So did the Russians when things could not have been worse for the common Russian. So does China today by hosting the Olympics. And for us, attending the World Cup is not simply going to play a soccer game; it has become redemption for Mr. Taylor and his entourage. A presence at the World Cup would justify everything else. The fact that his son-in-law Edwin Snow tightly controls the Liberian Federation of Football in law, is not an accident.

Liberia today resembles that ancient Rome. Sports has become the only pleasure in the country, the only religion, the only outlet for the frustrations of the masses while the powers -to -be enjoy the rare pleasures left in the country.

Mr. Weah came to prominence under the reign of Master Sergeant Doe, another tyrant, just like the one we have today. His political failures, his political crimes and his corruption were compensated in the eyes of the masses by the great interest he had in soccer. He turned soccer into a religion and this justified everything else he ever did in the eyes of the common Liberian. Now, soccer, with its many popular dramatics has taken center stage in our national life.

As all Liberians, we hope that our flag will fly among those of other countries during the World Cup. We hope that Mr. Weah will continue to bring to the Lone Stars his knowledge, integrity and great patriotism. He has done a lot for the country. Since the beginning of this nightmare in 1989, he has become the only shining star in the land. It is little wonder therefore when he is called to run for President.

Mr. Weah must however understand that as a gladiator, he must always win, because defeat will mean death. He has become the only source of pride in our country. He brings hope where there is hopelessness. He brings joy in a country where poverty, fear, despair are the lot of the day. Many Liberians cannot afford a cup of rice to feed their families but they would scramble, borrow and sacrifice the last penny to go watch the Lone Stars. Because soccer has become the only pleasure left in a society doomed by poverty.

All things being equal, the odds of Nigeria losing a qualifying game to Ghana on their own field is almost 0 -1000. There are talks that Ghana may go "sell" the game to Nigeria because even with a victory, Ghana has no chance of advancing. There are many speculations, none of which seems reasonable. Unless a miracle takes place, Nigeria will win this Sunday game and Liberia could miss a chance to participate in the World Cup. We had our chances; the game to win was the Ghana - Liberia game, played on our own turf, in the stadium bearing the name of the Master of Soccer, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. Whatever international conspiracy allegedly was fomented to stop Liberia from going to the World Cup, nobody stopped our players from scoring that one goal. All they needed was one shot at the goal and they didn't get it. That's sport.

Well, we hope that after soccer, Liberians will turn their attention to more important issues. That after soccer, we will bring our attention to the peace process and national reconciliation. Our love for soccer cannot and must be used to blind us to the most important issues in our society.

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