What a piece of work is a man?

Most of us (chaps? blokes? guys? fellas?) are not at the pinnacle of global finance or international relations, so who are we? We’re not the achievers, providers and bread-winners any more. And we’re not expected to be. We’re supposed to be sensitive and caring, and in touch with our feminine side. But that doesn’t feel right, so we plough on trying to be bluff and manly, when it’s completely inappropriate. And we don’t even know how to talk about the problem. So instead we talk about sport.

Guardian writer, Ally Fogg, puts it like this:

“Men are not becoming obsolete in the home and the workplace, but a significant proportion, especially of working class and poorer young men, are being left behind on pretty much any measure of success and wellbeing. Discussions of masculinity need to acknowledge that a significant minority of men do very well out of the current norms, and they are likely to be the ones who attain wealth, influence and power. As for the others, if they feel unsure as to what their role is meant to be, it may be because the wider culture doesn’t really know either. They are no longer needed as a mass workforce or as providers for families.”

So, the question is: how do men get a role that makes them happy in themselves and their lives and in their contribution to the world? (And, of course, without spoiling it for anyone else along the way…)

In Liberia 16 years ago, in early January 1997, some ex-child soldiers and some non-fighters worried they would get dragged into the fighting formed Millennium Stars football club.

It was their way of showing what they could do to re-build their society. It put a bit of normality into their lives, and helped them distance themselves from violence and chaos. They were all around 13 years old at the time.

They toured the UK in 1999 and went home heroes.

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On their UK tour, they played seven matches and won them all, scoring a mountain of goals. They also told their stories time and again because they understood their role was to be ambassadors for Liberia. One had joined a warring faction after rival fighters set fire to his house and burned his mother and sisters to death. Another said one militia singled out his father and uncles for public beatings so he’d joined an opposing faction to get revenge.

When they returned home, hundreds of people would turn up to watch them play school matches. When they settled into an empty house – dubbed The Millennium Stars Academy – people in the local area sought them out to ask if they could improve policing in the area, and even to mediate in local conflict.

Finally, when the civil war re-started, the ultimate proof of the success of Millennium Stars was that none of them – neither the 17 players who took part in the UK tour nor the 40 or so more who formed part of the wider squad – went back to fighting.

Most of them played for teams in Liberia’s top division, so Millennium Stars became the place they would train younger players who could learn from their experiences and example – as footballers and people. For the first time in Liberia’s history, it seemed possible that young men of ethnic background could shape the future of their country and the image its people projected to the rest of the world.

The conflict in Liberia began on Boxing Day, 1989, which makes it the first post-Cold War conflict after the Berlin Wall opened on November 9, 1989. I got it into my head that Millennium Stars provided the perfect template for masculinity in the modern day. They were using something they were good at both to build community and for personal development. War came and made them fight, but football made them peaceful and productive: child soldiers in; community-builders out.

But there was a nagging feeling that this simple equation was too simple.

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Last year, one of them – Saah Tamba – died in Monrovia of an unknown stomach complaint, possibly brought on by drink or ‘country’ medication. He was 27 with two kids and he hadn’t played football for years.

Another said that none in the touring squad had actually been fighters. The only ones to fight were three peripheral members of the wider squad. Their reasoning for saying they did was: “War was all around us and we were part of it. If we didn’t fight, there was someone like each one of us who did, and it was only luck that kept us out of it.”

As time progressed, they seemed disgruntled that they were still struggling to make ends meet through football. Not only were they failing to become international soccer stars, but they were becoming a target of mockery at home. They had had it all – visits to Old Trafford, meetings with top players at Arsenal, Celtic, Newcastle United, and friendship and hospitality in the UK – and it had come to nothing.

And then there was Saah Tamba, a classy central defender with a sweet tenor voice and a big smile, who stopped playing football years ago, was working in a petrol station after giving up his trade as a cobbler, and spent his spare time getting high.

The Millennium Stars embody the frustrations of modern man: confusion about role in life, frustration that the old ways don’t help you succeed, and lack of clarity about what direction to take, never mind the lack of maps to navigate the route.

Studies about sport and men’s health, unrelated to child soldiers in Liberia, show that playing or following sport builds up a sense of male camaraderie not unlike being in the army. It also creates a macho hierarchy with the best members of the team at the centre and the peripheral players or non-participants on the outside.

A recent study on former child soldiers in Mozambique shows that many were not forced to fight: for some of them, war was an opportunity for social advancement. Maybe it hadn’t succeeded, but many were now functioning in society as fathers and husbands and bread-winners.

Maybe turning from fighting to football was just swapping one dead-end masculine cliché for another?

But there’s always a new chapter. In the last two months, Millennium Stars have embarked on a new incarnation as entrepreneurs with a brand new motorbike-taxi and a sparkling business plan aimed at funding their philanthropic activities. Who knows what they will become now?

Photography by Richard Wainwright, Tim Hetherington and Millennium Stars. Inspiration from PROEXPOSURE.

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