On Liberia’s community football pitches, Weah still a starSun, 08 Oct 2023 06:23:29 GMT

Osman Fofana, a 17-year-old student in Liberia’s capital Monrovia, could not contain his excitement as he walked onto a new football field in his slum community of Clara Town.”It’s astonishing”, he said at a recent school gathering at a sports complex supported by President George Weah’s government.”We, the youth, pray that George Weah will be re-elected”.Weah, a former international football star who was born in Clara Town, is seeking a second term as president of the West African nation in Tuesday’s election. Elected to a first term in 2018, he has supported the construction of recreational parks in several disadvantaged parts of the capital.He has promised to build more throughout the country if re-elected. The sports complex in Clara Town is home to a synthetic turf football field, a basketball court and a children’s play area.It stands in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape of makeshift shacks overlooking mud alleys flooded by recent heavy rains. “Before, we only played on tarmac or dirt”, said Wonder Stewar, 16, who was warming up for a match. “I want to become a great footballer, like him — he’s a model for all Liberians”, he said.The sound system blared Afrobeats music as a group of children played basketball with an instructor. A few spectators crowded around the pitch as the football match kicked off. Nearby, a cacophonous parade for a local parliamentary candidate passed along a newly constructed road.”These recreation centres boost the young students’ morale — they’re really happy to come here,” says Jordan David, one of the teachers.- Developing football -Mustapha Raji, president of the Liberia Football Association, said all import duties had been waived for the association.”It’s one of the biggest supports we’ve got from the government, and it paved the way towards the construction of three artificial pitches”, he said. World football’s governing body FIFA also contributed to the construction of the pitches, he added.”Separate from those infrastructure projects, we’ve also had all the equipment coming into the country to support grassroot football development: match balls, referee equipment, uniforms for teams — and the government has been very supportive in that area,” he added.Liberia’s national team is 150th in FIFA’s rankings and has not qualified for an Africa Cup of Nations tournament since 2002, when Weah was still playing.”We have new pitches but we now need to develop coaching to get better results”, said Kaetu Smith, a former national team coach. “The new pitches change a lot of things for training — many players are getting into women’s football — but we need more resources”, said Famatta Dean, the U20 women’s national team coach. – ‘The problems continue’ -At Clara Town, the complex is used for more than just sport. On Thursday afternoon, David Harmon, 41, and Amelia Queen Tarlue, 29, took advantage of a break in the clouds to go out and take photos with their toddler daughter. “Before, this space was always flooded — now, it’s so nice”, Harmon said.”(Weah) has done good with the pitch, but the problems continue — we are invaded by mosquitoes and we should have running water and toilets.”Outside the stadium, a group of children played football barefoot, with two shoes serving as makeshift goal posts.The stadium managers say that admission is free for residents of the slum. For everyone else, the entry fee is $50 for the duration of one football match, an unaffordable price in a country where more than a fifth of the population lives on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.On the road leading to the stadium, a statue has been erected in tribute to President Weah, the only African to win the Ballon d’Or.It depicts three people carrying the president on a pedestal as he raises one hand in the air.Sitting on the guardrail surrounding it is Victor Welleh, a 27-year-old professor, who said he was disappointed by the president’s broken promises.He said corruption and insecurity have been on the rise.”In Clara Town, the educational system has so many challenges”, he said.”Key among them is the drug issue — the majority of students in Clara town have gotten involved with many drugs”.