Dehkontee Sayon shakes her head slowly, side to side, listening. She does not argue with what is being said, but she is saddened by it. A captain and defender on the Liberian women’s national soccer team, she is seated at a restaurant in Monrovia, the capital of the small, West African country, discussing the team she loves but cannot seem to lead to any meaningful victories.
Her coach, Lucretius Togba, is similarly without answers. Seated next to Sayon, he speaks.
“We wait until there is competition before we start preparing, and it’s wrong,” says Togba. “We don’t have a specific style that would make it difficult for teams to counter us. We blend our individual skills; we play more individual football than team football.”
This is where Sayon drops her gaze to the table.
“The weakness of my national team is we are not together,” she says. “We are not training together as a team. The only time we get together to train is when we have an international match.”
Liberia, situated on the Atlantic and squeezed between the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, has an especially troubled history in a part of the world renowned for troubled histories. Founded by freed American slaves in 1820, the country is best known for the rule of Charles Taylor, who came to power in a civil war that left over 200,000 Liberians dead and lasted, on and off, for 14 years. The country is still rebuilding, but it is nearly impossible to have a conversation about its potential without mention of soccer player George Weah, a native Liberian who was the World FIFA Player of the Year in 1995 with AC Milan. Weah is proof enough to many Liberians that the country is capable of greatness. So integral is soccer to the country’s identity that Weah finished second in the Liberia’s first free elections in 2005 based almost entirely on his reputation as an athlete.
But thus far success in the sport has been elusive.
The Liberian women’s national team is only provisionally ranked in the FIFA world rankings due to general inactivity; they join teams like Qatar and Afghanistan – infamous for their societies’ marginalization of women – with this distinction. Their only games on record this season were two against Ghana. They lost both by a combined score of eleven goals to none.
For the past few years, the world – and the rest of Africa especially – has been wondering what West Africa, a region home to competitive national programs like Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast, has been doing to experience its recent soccer success. Liberian women’s soccer faces an altogether different question: What in the world is going so wrong?
The young boys all laughed together.
“Girls?” the ringleader scoffed as his buddies pulled on socks and cleats amidst the laughter, “I don’t have time for girls!”
The boy and his random little assortment of fellow muscled teens suited up just off Tubman Boulevard, the main road running through Monrovia. The group slipped on jerseys from international clubs (Champions League winners Barcelona is a current favorite), pulled their socks up straight and proper, and laced cleats borrowed, handed down, and gifted to feet itching for the ball; they tore out onto the sand pit they use as a field and began the day’s games. What the boy has time for, of course – what everyone in this small, West African nation, seems to have time for – is soccer.
Yet amidst the soccer hysteria, the country’s female players remain all but invisible. Even in the minds of the sport’s most passionate followers, the women’s game is almost entirely overlooked. Wleh Bedell, the senior editor of liberiansoccer.com, the country’s most prominent fan site, puts it bluntly.
“We generally believe,” he says of his compatriots, “that football is a man’s game.”
It’s a scene that replays itself almost non-stop throughout Monrovia, at all hours of the day, every day of the week: boys of all ages playing pickup games of soccer, aiming between sticks in the sand or two trash cans or anything, really, that can serve as a goal. Across the city, too, there is a shared feeling about this game. Eight years after the end of the war, the country is eager, if as yet unable, to take its rightful place among the West African elite. The men’s national team is still fairly awful, with a FIFA ranking hovering well above 100, but sponsors and the Liberian Football Association are both dedicated to changing this, financially and organizationally.The man on the street speaks in so many words about the shared optimism about the game.
“We are coming from war,” the sentiment goes. “Give us time. We are on our way.”
There is optimism, yes. There are also very few signs that such optimism is directed toward the country’s female players.
So, the problem with women’s soccer in Liberia?
There are perhaps more theories about this than there are female players in the country, but among them are several that are most often repeated.
Foremost amongst them is the fact that women in Liberia generally do not begin playing soccer until their late-teens, an impossibly late age to begin a sport that relies so heavily on fundamentals honed over years and years of unstructured play. There is a reason for this, and it can probably be traced no further than one sport, despised by all associated with soccer in Liberia: kickball.
The Liberian government hosts annual school and county championships in various sports each year, and while boys play football, girls play kickball, a game brought to the region by Christian missionaries and patterned after baseball. Its influence is pervasive.
“This is a sport that allowed the young ladies to kick the football without actually having to run around,” says Marbue Richards, the deputy minister for sport in Liberia’s Ministry for Youth and Sports. Those in the soccer world don’t share his feelings about kickball’s validity.
Lucretius Togba, the coach of the women’s national team, doesn’t think long when he is asked for the key to developing football at the youth levels.
“Get away from this kickball in Liberia,” he spits.
“Liberians have one system: they believe what they know best,” says Murvee Gray, the assistant minister for sports in the Ministry. “In the past, in the 80s, in the 70s, there were fewer women in sports. It had been the men’s world.”
In order to play football, young girls must be coaxed away from kickball by club football coaches, or take initiative themselves, which often means playing with boys and amidst social stigma. So few are the girls willing to make the jump that even the national team essentially holds open tryouts for spots on the squad. In the most recent international match against Ghana – a 7-0 drubbing – 15-year-old Kanties Sayee took the field for the senior Lone Star team at striker.
And of course there is the problem of organization in a country less than a decade removed from civil war.
That the sport suffers from a lack of funding is no surprise in a country where the per capita GDP is less than $500 by most estimates. But that there is no system of promotion of players moving through the ranks, no standards in place, say, for moving a player from the younger ranks to the senior level, does separate Liberia from other West African countries who are more successful in the sport, and more organized with developmental leagues, despite battling similar financial woes. Far from not having an organized method of advancement through levels of the game, in fact, the problem is even more systemic: there are not even levels in place through which to advance at all. All Liberian women who hope to play soccer play in the single club league, open to all players and all ages. Payment, for players lucky enough to receive it, is sporadic. Sometimes it does not come at all.
Wallace Weiah is an executive committee member for the Liberian Football Association, and he is tasked with representing women’s football on the 18-person committee. He, like Togba, summarizes his interpretation of the issue quickly.
“The problem for our game in Liberia,” he says, “is lack of programs, no standards, [and] lack of support.”
Bedell, who has been covering soccer in Liberia since 1991, has a
“Liberian football is blessed with a huge reservoir of talent, but a lack of organization is impeding its growth,” he says.
That’s not to suggest, though, that money isn’t an issue. Richards says soccer might be able to be included in the county games in the future, but with current budget concerns, he says adding a new sport now would be impossible. Others are less convinced that this can happen – and would advocate a straight swap of kickball for soccer in any case – but the call for greater financial support is universal.
Balls, shoes, and the assorted equipment needed for proper practices and games are luxuries. Club teams can usually only manage to train twice a week or so due to the transportation costs players face when trying to get to practice. Even the national team, which must pay for travel and accommodations when convening players prior to an international match, often cannot afford to pay for the preferred two-a-day practice schedule leading into a game. Sponsorship, on which the Liberian Football Association must rely for all funding, has been successful on the men’s side, with cell phone giant Cellcom stepping in. The women’s team, meanwhile, has yet to attract any serious donors, and lack even a deal for uniform kits. Against Ghana, the Black Stars sported clean, white kits from their sponsor, Puma. The Lone Star made do with label-less, baggy uniforms that featured a different shade of blue on jerseys than on the shorts.
In 2002, Lani Fortier walked on to the University of Connecticut soccer team and played with the Huskies for three seasons, culminating in a Big East championship her senior year and ending only with a loss in the NCAA tournament to eventual national champion Notre Dame. The young American assumed her soccer days were over. After graduation, she volunteered for Mercy Ships, which provide surgery and medical supplies to port cities in developing countries. But her travels landed her in Liberia, where one day a local coach spotted her kicking a ball around with friends. She was immediately recruited to join Liberia’s professional league, and though her soccer career was cut short by a fluke injury, the experience exposed Fortier to an entirely new breed of soccer. She spent a season playing in Liberia with the Pro Anchors, based near the port where Mercy Ship was docked.
“I would say I spent most of my career as a Lady Pro Anchor pretty confused,” Fortier says. “A bus would show up and be like, ‘We have a game today.’ Really? It’s 2 o’clock on a Wednesday, but okay.”
While American soccer is generally regarded for its heavy emphasis on fitness and athleticism, Fortier found that the Liberian game was even more focused on these traits as a result of the lack of organized skills development at the younger ages.
“These girls could literally run circles around me,” Fortier says. “They were strong, and they were fit. It was odd to come from a background where you learn very tactical, team-mentality soccer, and then you’re just like, literally, if you can’t run the other team into the ground, you’re going to lose.”
Yet Fortier struggles to come up with a simple solution for how to most quickly escalate women’s football in the country. In the end, she settles on an all-too-familiar refrain.
“I don’t know how long we can keep playing the war card, but there is an entire generation of people who didn’t go to school. They weren’t playing soccer, aside from kicking it around with their friends. There is not really a feeder system, and it takes years to develop that.”
On the other side of Fortier is Cherie Sayon. Sayon played her soccer in Liberia for the Earth Angels, by far the most dominant team in the women’s league. T.O. Totty, the then-coach at Clayton State University in Georgia, is himself Nigerian and would periodically recruit from West Africa. As the standout player on the country’s best club team, Sayon was able to travel across the Atlantic to play for the Lakers. She played two seasons, in the process earning third-team honors on the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s All-Southeast-Region team at the Division II level.
It was an opportunity Sayon says she wishes more Liberian women had.
“I am positive right now: most of them want to leave,” she says of the players in Liberia.
Coming to the United States exposed Sayon to an elevated level of play. She figures her college squad could easily beat the national team back home, and that just as the Liberian Football Association recently decided to remove “premier league” from the label of the country’s top clubs, citing the discrepancy between its level of play and the level of play in other countries, the Liberian women’s national team is an international club in name only.
“Liberia doesn’t have a national team,” she says. “I love my country, but it’s reality.”
Still, Sayon has benefited from the exposure to a higher level of training and play, and few would doubt the raw talent walking around in a place as untapped as Liberia; it figures that a few young women could follow in her steps and form the core of a national team. But scholarships to American universities do not come easily. If the Lone Star is to develop into a competitive team internationally, it will almost certainly need to do it with players developed in country.
On a Thursday afternoon in early August, Dehkontee Sayon brings a few
of her Lone Star teammates together for an informal practice. Three of the senior players – Sayon, 15-year-old Sayee, and goalkeeper Mamie Kamara – work with a few more inexperienced girls on a sandy field outside Sayon’s home in New Georgia, a small community roughly 30 minutes outside Monrovia.
The field is dirt, bounded on all sides by trees and simple concrete homes, and two goals are stuck into the ground at each end. The field functions also as a kind of town square, and over the course of the hour-long practice, more than a few motorbikes ferrying passengers – the unofficial public transportation system in Liberia – tear through the girls’ game. Improbably, a crowd forms, a few curious boys at first, and then more, until twenty or more line the sideline. (Or where the sideline would be, rather, were there one.)
Kamara posts herself in front of the net. Again and again, she reacts to shots from range, comfortable, if raw, in goal. She leaves her feet easily and moves well. Her willingness to get dirty and her athleticism are immediately evident, and with some training the 18-year-old could easily develop into a solid player.
But Kamara also allows some mediocre shots to slide by her when she loses focus, and has moments of indecision that result in easy goals. They are the kinds of mistakes that cannot happen at the sport’s highest levels, though Liberia, without other options, must throw Kamara into the fire against teams like Nigeria or Ghana, whose players are fully capable of capitalizing on an opposing keeper’s lack of experience.
Sayon, too, is unpolished, but earns her status as captain with vocal leadership and a steady presence. She gently chides the younger players when they go the wrong way during a shooting drill, and demonstrates the correct version herself. Moments later, a wayward ball squirms away from the girls, behind the row of boys watching, and Sayon sprints after it. The crowd turns around to face the ball just as Sayon squares to it and hits a cross at head level that sends the entire assembly ducking and diving to the dirt.
Sayon takes a moment to smile as the boys climb to their feet before
jogging to rejoin the scrimmage. For the first time, one has to wonder if it might just be possible to string together enough moments of inspiration like
this one to win some matches.
Sayon has managed to corral two new balls from a clinic she recently
attended, and Kamara keeps one ready to be rotated in as the girls
practice. But midway through practice, Sayon connects from in front of the goal and sends a shot screaming past Kamara. The ball hits what used to be a support post for the goal (and is now merely a rusted protrusion, broken off halfway) and explodes with violent force. The girls are unmoved. Sayon will say later that such occurrences are unavoidable due to the
quality of the fields on which they play. She accepts with a shrug that her team must finish practice with only one ball.
Though women’s soccer has been relegated to this rural, undeveloped clearing, their little crowd remains for the duration of the practice. The young population’s appetite for football has not been filled by the men’s teams; their interest in football – in whatever form the game may take – clearly trumps Liberians’ espoused gender attitudes.
Just as clearly, passion for the sport has proved insufficient for developing a women’s program.
After the practice the girls all head their separate ways. They do not have plans for when to practice next, and no games are scheduled.
Paul Coover regularly contributes to Running Times Magazine. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Journalism and works in Oakland, California as a high school athletic director.