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Sierra Leone football: John Sisay and the million-dollar project

By Isaac Massaquoi

I applaud John Sisay for being so thoughtful. I also applaud him for starting what is easily the biggest  private sector initiative ever put forward for football development in Sierra Leone. If properly managed, this project has great potentials to restore some pride to the long-suffering football fans of Sierra Leone by ending the national disgrace that we have come to expect every time our boys take to the field both at home and abroad.

Announcing the project is the easiest part of Sisay's idea. The devil, they say, is in the detail. So I am waiting for those details to be made public. I am sure many other people are looking forward to those details after all the media blitz accompanying the announcement.

Be that as it may, I feel compelled to throw in some perspectives about the million dollar project.  And I base those thoughts on the public announcement itself, a few interviews with some members of our notoriously unstable and raucous so-called football stakeholder community and my own views about football development in Sierra Leone. Sisay and the other institutions that would put money into this initiative are free to ask me to go to hell.

As far as I am concerned, Sisay must properly manage expectation of what this initiative can achieve and within what time frame. For what it's worth, my view is that this should not be considered a silver bullet. In fact, Sisay should take a long view of what needs to be done about the most popular game in this country.

I've been shown comments on social media dismissing Sisay's effort as the launch pad for a political career. My response to that is this: we are living in Sierra Leone where we have allowed politics to consume everything we do. Even one's choice of soft drink is now used for political stereotyping. So that's something to expect. But I make bold to ask, what's really wrong with somebody seeking public office starting out with a project as long awaited as this? For me, politics or not, this is a good project and we must give it a try.

Let me return to my suggestion that we take a long view rather than having a short-term fix that will only land us in Morocco for a few days before we revert to becoming the whipping boys of African football. Even Sao Tome and Principe poured misery on Sierra Leone recently.

Given the present state of football administration in this country, and the general attitude to the game, even Jose Mourinho will be unable to turn things around in ten years. The point is, our training facilities are bad, the educational level of our players and coaches is regrettably below average. And I don't mean to be rude and I apologise if I came across as such. Our coaches have been recycled all over the place - they are far advanced in age and their grasp of recent developments and technology is tenuous.

So Sisay has a choice to make. He could get a quick fix - assemble what is left of an ageing Leone Stars team, give them a few weeks training camp experience in Europe, and set them a huge amount as prize money for qualifying for Morocco. I am absolutely sure they will qualify, even if it means being thrown out of the tournament in the first round. It's the kind of feel good scenario that some people expect this million dollar project to achieve. Or he could take a much more structured approach to the game and produce a result that will keep us smiling for a long time. The Ghanaians may not have won the World Cup, but no nation will ever take them for granted on the field of play. At their lowest point, Sierra Leone humiliated Ghana in Freetown and Accra a few times. Ghanaians were very patient and organised and they have produced the result on the field. That's the school I belong to.

I apologise again that I am writing even before the details of what the million dollar project will achieve is released but I dare say that the whole initiative will be ruined if it's not insulated from the clutches of the administrative Tower of Babel that is the SLFA secretariat. This will be difficult, I know, because the SLFA is in charge of Football in Sierra Leone but in terms of budget and operations, the SLFA must be kept at arm's length. They must surely have an oversight role in whatever management structure that will emerge, but a body that is wracked by point-scoring and unnecessary squabbling must never be allowed to oversee a project that is result-oriented.

So here's what I think Sisay and friends should do: Put in place a credible management board with a strategic plan to deliver on - a strategic plan put together with the active participation of all those interested in football - administrators, players, including those now retired, fans and the government. That board will appoint a project manager with considerable experience in such matters and a small staff. They should be based outside and far away from the SLFA secretariat at Kingtom.

Again, at the risk of being accused of jumping the gun, the strategic plan should consider recruiting two of the brightest among our former footballers and work with the government to get them trained in some of the elite schools abroad. The current arrangement involving Johnny Mckinstry of the Craig Bellamy Foundation can remain in place until the new coaches return home. In the meantime, we should scrap the national team and require all players to fight for their places. We must end the practice of influential players forcing their square peg friends into the round holes of our team.

This present team has lost the plot and until the power brokers in it are convinced their game is over, this one million dollar project is bound to fail. That's why I think Morocco should only be an aspiration, not a definite target. Time is too short and the urge to qualify could encourage rogue tactics like registering foreigners in our national team and bribing referees. I don't think John Sisay should ever be associated with such tricks. Examples abound in Africa and some people in Sierra Leone football have suggested that to me. One such suggestion is this: that there are many decent Nigerian footballers who can't break into the Super Eagles squad but would be more than willing to make the short journey to Freetown to be christened at Lumley Beach and play for Sierra Leone. What nonsense!

Essentially, we need a new squad. There will be a role for the old guard, but they must merit positions on the field.

To get the nation firmly behind this project, I think, sports reporting particularly around this project must not follow the path on which it is now. It must never lose its critical edge but the current crass cynicism and partisanship in some sections of the media must be avoided. It's difficult to get this kind of consensus in media circles anywhere in the world...well...excluding North Korea. but the project managers must try hard.

Support for football at the local level in Africa has suffered badly because even policy makers find it strange sometimes to go to the stadium to watch a scrappy local game, even when it's Fulham versus Norwich in England. A good many of our newspapers are clear culprits in this crime of publishing all sorts of football rumours and speculations from any web page to the total exclusion of the local game. It's a situation that we should roll back now. We are not the only Africans watching the English Premier League.

I end on this note: at stake now is the personality of John Sisay - a normally quiet professional working behind the scenes. He has thrown himself right into the choppy waters of Sierra Leone Football, an arena of infighting, intemperate language and actual combat. There are recent examples to back what I have just said. So, John will surely hear more noise around him now than the occasional political attacks he gets over the operation of his company, Sierra Rutile.

I have met him only once through our common friend, informally. The meeting lasted less than ten minutes but I left the place convinced he came across as a true professional from a school many Sierra Leoneans are yet to visit. Our appointment was on time, the points were short and to the point and he had a good grasp of the issues we talked about.

The people who will manage the one million dollar project must come straight out of that same school. Otherwise, we are doomed, again.

(C) Politico 03/04/14