Only If Doe Were Still President...!
By Omari Jackson
There is no argument that the late president showed a remarkable interest in the national soccer team. In fact being a soccer player himself, he took over the Liberia Football Association as its chairman and Mr. Willis Knuckles came in as its vice chairman, along with Mr. Harry Attoh. At the time Liberian soccer began to make itself felt in the leeward counties. Also supporting the idea was Mr. Assa-Mady Kaba, known by many as "Chairman" since his Central Monrovia organized one of the first Sub-Committees of the Liberia Football Association.
Sub-committees and associations began to spring up and I remember traveling with the late Rosa Doe, (he was murdered during the war), to Greenville, Sinoe County, since of course I was a member of the Working Committee. Later when Mr. Cletus S. Wotorson, then head of the Liberia Basketball Federation was sent to the LFA after Mr. Knuckles resigned his position at the LFA due to what he termed "policy differences” with President Doe's method of providing support to developing the game.
Until this time, organized football or association football centered in Monrovia. Little wonder then that the Antoinette Tubman Stadium came under enough pressure and suffered, causing journalists to describe it as, "Baldheaded Antoinette Tubman Stadium."
Already, President Tolbert had negotiated with Communist China to build a modern stadium for Liberia, and so when April 12, 1980 coup changed the destiny of Liberia, the new leader, Samuel Doe kept the promise and with the support of the Chinese the Stadium was completed and the honor naturally went to Samuel Doe.
The Liberia Football Association was organized in 1936 and fifty years later in 1986, it became necessary to celebrate its founding. Several teams were invited from across West Africa and Tonnerre Klara of Yaounde, Cameroon plus teams from Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire came for the celebration. It was in this tournament that a lanky player, living in the slums of Clara Town, Monrovia, a gifted master dribbler, known as George Oppong Weah proved that soccer was in his blood. At the same time, James Salinsa Debah had convinced soccer fans that he was the best in Liberia, and correctly, sports writers fondly recognized his talents and described him as "The Nation's Celebrated Player."
This was a period in Liberian soccer, after the Golden Years of the '60s
and 70s, when names like Mama Musa, Kofi Bruce, Santos Maria, Sipley
Wiah, Sam Sumo, Emmett Trinity, Ansu Sirleaf, Anthony Gray, Isaiah
Lincoln (Polo), among others, were household names. Sadly, education and
other pursuits sent many of the emerging stars to seek glory in the
comfort of the United States, leaving the game at the mercy of the
younger generation. It was a period that Josiah N. Johnson would shout
himself hoarse, saying, "Football, Football, Football." Josiah himself
had been a national star, and today he is fondly credited with the
saying that "Football is like biscuit," an opinion that has been held
true again and again.
Josiah or JNJ, as he is known, served as a coach of the national team for almost 15 years. Though there are painful memories in those periods, the Lone Star then existed at the mercy of the politicians. JNJ knows football when he sees it. Dealing and fraternizing with his counterparts in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, he can today hold any soccer fan's attention for many hours explaining the rudiments of the game that he played and coached. Anytime you meet him, ask him to explain what "Tao-tao” means. It is reported that one time there was a match between Liberia and its traditional rivals, Sierra Leone, and the game was set in Freetown, Sierra Leone. As important as the game was, the officials decided for the national soccer team to drive to Freetown, and amusingly but seriously, the officials arrived in Freetown by air. Oh Liberia, why do you treat your heroes like this! Wonderful football whose disciples are treated as heroes elsewhere are considered the worst on earth in Liberia!
But alas, with Samuel Doe now in power and brimming with expectation, supported by Willis Knuckles and others, Liberian soccer had a new life. Liberian players exploded on the local scene, and with James Debah leading the Barrolle group while George Weah held on to the IE group. At the same time foreign coaches made their appearance in Liberia. Ben Amarfio led Barrolle to several incredible soccer victories and when the late Sithole Mohammed Fernando Invincible Eleven fought brilliantly for recognition. Even the one time Nation's best, goalkeeper, Pewou Bestman was exposed of his failure to travel to Germany that he assaulted photo-journalist, Mozart Dennis at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium and damaged his camera. Though Barrolle until this time had been made a team of the moment, with songs like Kanya Pepper and Mighty Barrolle Moni Champion by Robert Toe, (he was murdered by rebels just when the war was over in Monrovia), soccer had gained considerable power over Liberians that what was needed was sub-regional and international exposures.
So when Samuel Doe came and realized that soccer was a unifying force among Liberians, he picked on it from there and ran with it.
Seeking for victory at any cost, though Liberia had lost the finals of
the Zone 3 to Ghana's Black Stars, Liberia could not be stopped. In
World Cup qualifying series, the Lone Star cut soccer giants down one
after another. What I remember well was how an Egyptian businessman,
losing to Lone Star, broke down and wept calling on the gods of Egypt to
save the Pharoahs. All effort to console did not help. In fact he told
me he would deny himself food for some weeks to appease what was wrong
A training trip to Brazil by the national team, a training trip to Morocco by Defense Invaders, the Army team, the material support by the management of LPRC, all contributed to making Liberian soccer a force to reckon with.
Then the war came.
Then the downward trend came.
But if Doe were president....! This is where the narrative gets tricky. With rebels on his back, with his military generals and commanders only "telling" him what he wanted to hear, there was no way that President Doe could live long enough to lead the Lone Star. Hence, we should leave the sentimental journeys out, and get down to brass tack. The fact is, Samuel Doe served as a father to the players, and as George Weah told me some time ago, it was Samuel Doe who made him, and would always remember that. With a broken league system, and a new leader, (Hassan Musa Bility) is willing to salvage it; time for the real work is NOW. The real point of this article is that the success of Lone Star came from many places. Liberia was at peace with itself, and the country was stable.
Now that we are at the crossroad of another milestone, we should set long term goals and hope that after say 4 years, Lone Star would rise again. We do not have to worry about those countries who are going for 2010 World Cup, but we must wait for our time, that is if we are determined to succeed.
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Note: the author is a sports writer, and was active in the years when Liberian players began to seek honor abroad and therefore can write with authority. He is part of a committee set up in Liberia to write the history of Liberian soccer. The 17-man committee is headed by Mr. George Tubman with Mr. Willis D. Knuckles, Arthur Wisseh, Mr. Burgess Carter (journalist), Hassan Kiawu, (Broadcaster) , and others as members.