The opposition goalie had the ball in his hands and was about to kick it, but I ran forward and blocked his path. I had seen players doing this on the telly so I presumed it was right. When he got round me and booted the ball, I stuck my leg out to block the kick. The ref blew the whistle, stomped over and shouted at me. I remember he had a beard and he leant over to put his face right in mine when he told me that he was giving a free kick.
I can’t remember his words exactly, but what I do remember is his anger at me was not so much about dangerous play as about copying the big stars, players with no discipline, who thought they were above the rules.
Since then, I swear I’ve made a point not to copy anything I see any footballer do unless I know categorically that it’s in the official rules of the game. So that rules out tons of things – bling, expensive cars, trophy girlfriends; and fouling, handling the ball or sinking my teeth into an opponent, among others.
Millennium Stars FC in Liberia is a voluntary grassroots sports organisation set up to tackle poverty and bring social cohesion through sport. They coach young footballers aged 6 to 15 years old. To join in, each player has to agree to a code of conduct. It’s positive stuff, like playing by the rules, respecting opponents and team-mates and the referee, listening to the coaches and leading a good life off the pitch as well as on it. If any kid transgresses one of these rules, they are dropped from the team and banned from training. No-one has ever misbehaved twice.
Any kid anywhere in the world can watch games from any of the leagues around the world. They learn that in spite of the difference in styles, there are 17 rules and players must behave with discipline and follow those 17 rules or everything falls apart.
When Liverpool FC’s Luis Suárez bit Branislav Ivanović in a match against Chelsea on April 21, the world was watching. On the one hand (pun intended) he got a ten-match ban. On the other, the bite wasn’t spotted during the game, so Suárez was still on the pitch to score an important equaliser for Liverpool with seconds to go. So it was OK to bite, because in the game he got away with it and scored a valuable goal.
Let’s test that logic in the real world. If you – an ordinary person – went into work and bit someone, you would be sacked. End of story. You would probably face criminal charges. You couldn’t expect to argue about it. “Well, it was a tense meeting, with a lot at stake, and the pressure of the moment got to me and I just lost my head. But at least the meeting’s Chair didn’t spot it, so I was still able to negotiate a few major concessions before the meeting ended – so what if I left my mark on a couple of colleagues into the bargain?”
OK. That’s all right then. You’re a highly paid professional and you’re one of the best in the world at what you do. We’ll just make sure all your colleagues are inoculated against rabies.
Nusee Cooper, one of the Millennium Stars organisers in Liberia, says they’ve never had a player bite another player in the 15 years the club has been together. He says the whole point of what they do is based on their codes of conduct:
“We know that if you don’t learn at this level, you never will. It’s not all about playing football; good behaviour is the key. Sport is a mental game – the mind controls the body, so you have to be smart to play. If you misbehave on the field – rough tackles or handling the ball – then you lack discipline and this affects the team and your team-mates. It can really cost your team in the short-term, but it can also cost your relationship with the other players and the coaches in the long-term.”
Millennium Stars work with kids in the Gbangaye Town, Fiamah and 12th Street communities of the Liberian capital Monrovia, and the codes of conduct in the club are understood to be applicable in the wider community as well. Millennium Stars insist that the young players are serious about their schoolwork and their household chores. Failing to be disciplined off the pitch can also lead to suspension.
Nusee said: “We observe them and how they behave. The coaches know them well, because they are all from the same community. We take any misbehaviour very seriously. It’s straightforward: if you misbehave, you are out.”
Just back to Suárez for a moment. He was also sent off in the last World Cup while playing for Uruguay. He handled the ball on the line to stop a certain goal. He was sent off and a penalty was given to the opposing team – Ghana – but the pressure was too much for the Ghanaian striker and he missed, and Uruguay went on to win the match and qualify for the semi-finals. Cameras picked out Suárez lurking in the tunnel, celebrating when Ghana missed the penalty.
Millennium Stars organiser Nusee Cooper once had to drop his own son, Marvellous, after the nine-year-old committed a deliberate handball during a game. Nusee says: “As soon as he heard he was to be dropped, he started crying. We explained that what he had done wasn’t good for himself or the team. But he has learnt from it. All he wanted to do was to say sorry, so that he could play again.”
But Nusee is aware that it is difficult to maintain standards when the boys they train are regularly exposed to examples of indiscipline and misbehaviour from the game’s global stars.
He said: “Undoubtedly, they will try to copy it. In the English Premier League, you see players shouting at the ref all the time. If you try that in Liberia, you will be sent off. In our national league and right down through the divisions, the refs won’t entertain much backchat. But it is difficult to maintain those standards when the players who are supposed to be the best give such bad examples.”
So Millennium Stars put aside a small amount from the meagre resources to reward the best players – sometimes with new boots or football gear, but often with a pen or copybook to use in school. And at the end of the season they will even offer a year’s scholarship at one of the community schools for Top Scorer, Most Improved Player, or even Most Disciplined Player.