The invisible children’s football teams of Liberia

I didn’t intend to start a football team when I moved for work last year to Tubmanburg in Liberia. Now, after 16 months, the new club that came about by chance has three teams. And some of the players are no longer invisible.

 

Tubmanburg is not a big place. It doesn’t get a lot of visitors, so the people got to know my unfamiliar face very quickly. Although I work mostly with children, my job has nothing to do with football, but I could see boys playing football everywhere.

Lions FC football

Get in there! – Lions FC, in white, scoring in their first football match in June 2016.

In the beginning was Lions FC

Lions FC pitch clearing

Levelling the playing field – Lions FC began by clearing their own football pitch.

Various boys aged about 7 to 11 began asking me one by one to give them a ball, every time I saw them. I promised I’d provide one, but only if they formed a team. We had a hilariously serious meeting where they chose the name Victor FC. They swapped it pretty quickly for Lions FC, which they’ve been ever since.

Children are invisible to many adults.

According to recent figures from UNICEF, almost half the country’s population (2.2 million out of 4.5 million) are under 18 years old. When I walk through the local community, I see children everywhere. All the children know my name, and I try to remember as many of theirs as I can.
I have realised that children are invisible to many adults. Adults don’t really hear what children say or take their views seriously. With so many children around me all the time now, it’s impossible for me not to be aware of them, not to hear them, or not to make eye contact. Not in Liberia.

Baby Lions

Lions FC has split into two age groups now. The main team is aged roughly 11 to 15. And we also have Baby Lions, who are about 6 to 10. The former took part in the Tubmanburg Champions League last month, competing under the name Newcastle United against adult teams much bigger and stronger. They managed to beat PSG and draw with Arsenal, but lost 4-1 to Man Utd (wouldn’t you know it?) and missed out on the knockout stage. But they became very popular in the town as the “pekins who can play”!
Baby Lions on the other hand talk a good game. They love the idea of challenging neighbouring teams, getting corner flags and painting the pitch, but don’t usually get themselves round to actually playing. They’re forever kicking their ball into the back door of a nearby house and having it confiscated by the owners. “They seized our ball again!” is a familiar cry.

‘Pass and Support’ and football code of conduct

Lions FC line up pre-match.

Pass and support – coach Quaye Johnson lines up with Lions FC before a match against Millennium Stars from Monrovia.

I have been involved in Sport for Development and Peace in Liberia and elsewhere for 20 years, but often on a theoretical level. This was a chance to put some theories into action.

A very good experienced Liberian football coach moved to the community. He took over the day-to-day training, encouraging teamwork through pass and support.

Education is the most important thing.

I drafted a code of conduct to address some behaviour issues that kept coming up and to try to shift the focus from winning matches at any cost to the value of participation. From both our perspectives, the coach and I saw the value of discipline – on the field, at home and in school. We tell all the Lions FC players that education is the most important thing. At the end of the school year, many of them brought their report cards to show us. There were some outstanding grades, and some who were equally proud just to have passed.

Meet the parents

The coach and I spent a couple of long Sunday afternoons touring the community, talking to parents and introducing ourselves, and saying what we were doing. We wanted to stress that we were not there to take the children away from their family’s sphere of authority, but to complement it. All bar one family reacted warmly to our visit. The one mother who didn’t complained that her son was not listening to her, was not going to school, refused to go to church, and spent all his time playing football or out in the bush.
He acknowledged this behaviour in our presence and agreed to change, under threat of suspension from the club. We put him on probation and agreed to monitor his behaviour. Since then, we have visited his home again and heard that he has made significant improvements at home and at school.

Lions FC Girls roaring

Lions FC Girls practice session

Best feet forward – Lions FC Girls practise with gusto, even when it’s barefoot.

The most amazing thing for me though has been Lions FC Girls, who just formed in the last month. A friend back in the UK contacted me about collecting football gear for the team. He asked me if there was a girls’ team they could also support. I said I had never even seen girls playing football. But I asked the Lions FC coach about girls’ football and he said his twin daughters (aged 12) had been pestering him to start a team. So we agreed they should put the word out among their friends. The next day, 21 turned up for the first practice. They were there all the time, but invisible to me.

Girls tend to be seen only as miniature trainee housewives.

Not being taken seriously by adults is even more acute for the girls. They tend to be seen only in the role of miniature trainee housewives. They have more household chores and responsibilities than boys. Before a recent public holiday, football practice for the girls was cancelled for a week because they were all expected to be out selling bits and pieces to make something for the family to spend during the holiday.
Lions FC Girls, as they named themselves, are astonishingly eager. And fearless. Kickball has already taught them how to clout the ball great distances, even barefoot. The coach is working on getting them to understand the idea of teamwork through pass and support. I can see small changes already after only a month.

The future

The focus for even junior teams here is always on winning. And the second big pressure is to use football as a career. Our emphasis is on participation, inclusion and education – and enjoyment. I hope we are creating players who can be good people off the field as well as on it.

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