It’s another match day in the Sierra Leone Premier League, FC Kallon are playing East End Lions. The stadium is literally packed to the roof. A stadium that is supposed to accommodate around 35,000 people cannot accommodate anyone, anymore.
Those who have been around for a while said no football match has ever had such a turn out in the history of the league. This was the Sierra Leone Premier League reloaded, after a four-and half-year break. The turnout, though dangerous for safety, showed how much passion Sierra Leoneans have for football.
FC Kallon officially announced ticket sales for that match to be over Le 400 million. The league itself generated more than Le3billion in revenue for clubs and created at least 500 temporal and permanent jobs.
So, in short, 2019 has been a great year for local football.
On the backdrop of the success of that league, talents were spotted. The recent display by the Shooting Stars at the just concluded WAFU U-20 Championship in Guinea highlighted how important last season’s league was for footballers in Sierra Leone.
President of the Sierra Leone Football Association, Isha Johansen, took time to congratulate the former Premier League Board (PLB) Chairman, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, during the just concluded FA congress in Port Loko.
In Abdulai’s place comes Allieu Vandy Koroma. Knowing full well what he is up against, the PLB under Koroma’s leadership has invested massively in branding the league. This is the most sophisticated branding campaign any PLB has undertaken in the history of the league.
All this shows how much attention football gets and how much interest the game has revived, despite moribund international performances from the national team.
Football is perhaps second only to religion in Sierra Leone in terms of the importance people attached to it. It is by far the biggest sport in the country and it always gets the lion share of allocation from the Ministry of Sports.
The government has spent over Le10 billion on football alone in 2019. This support has sometimes come at the detriment of other sports.
Swimming alone for glory
Like many other sports, Swimming has struggled for funding whiles football gets it. This year Swimming became the first sport discipline in Sierra Leone to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
They have done most of this on their own. Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Swimming Water Polo and Diving Association, Mohamed Abdul Turay, told Politico: “We are not getting any cent from government, even though we present our budget and calendar of activities every year.”
Turay said with the support of local coaches they had forged a solid team on the back of “merit and discipline”.
To raise money for themselves, the association writes to the world governing body to fund some projects, they organize swimming lessons for people and get support from corporate houses, among many innovative ideas.
In 2020, Turay said they would need just Le1billion for their local programs. The sum is just a tiny fraction of what football gets. Swimming have done it all by themselves, with a little support from government, they will only get better.
Boxing their way through
Another success story this year has been boxing. For the first time ever, the association succeeded in hosting an international friendly with its counterpart from Liberia. On the backdrop of this success the team performed brilliantly in the All African Games in Morocco this year.
“For the very first time, we won a fight and the other boxers lost their fights under controversial circumstances,” Alhaji Komba, Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Boxing Association, said.
The team also travelled with female boxers, for the first time in its history. Canadian-Sierra Leonean born boxer, Deedra Chestnut, was among the delegation.
Back home in Sierra Leone, boxers now have a new boxing rim and a refurbished gym. The technical capacity within the game has also increased. Sierra Leone now has a certified boxing coach that coached for the first time in the rim at the All African Games.
“In previous competitions, we had to hire coaches from other countries in the competition to coach our boxers for the duration of the fight,” Komba said.
This year the Sierra Leone Cricket Association (SLCA) was able to attract one of the biggest cricket clubs in the world, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) to Sierra Leone, for the first time since 2005 when they last visited.
Their tour is a big boost to profile of Cricket in the country.
But apart from this, the Public Relations Officer of SLCA, Bockarie Allieu, said they had invested in raising the standard of some ovals in the country.
“We have upgraded the grounds at Prince of Wales. We have built a pavilion, a dugout, dressing room for the players and shower facility,” Allieu said.
On the international scene, the female cricket team is ranked 30th in the world, out of 105 countries. And Sierra Leone cricket teams in all categories are ranked in the top division of the game, globally.
Comparatively to football, Leone Stars is ranked 118th in the world.
The difference cannot be starker. Alleiu said they had done all of this with very little support from the government.
What the Ministry has done?
Meet Ibrahim Nyelenkeh, Sierra Leone’s sport minister. On his watch this year, sports like Cricket, Athletics, Chess and Judo have all won numerous trophies.
Nyelenkeh said the Ministry’s greatest success has been to set up proper structure within the different sporting disciplines which has led to greater successes.
“One of the biggest successes we have achieved here at the ministry is to help the various sporting disciplines to properly establish structures. Before now people ran sporting disciplines individually, they embezzled funds and did whatever they wanted. With the help of my team, we have set standards and now we have 36 sporting disciplines in the country that met these requirements,” he said.
Responding to claims about the lack of support for some sport disciplines, he said: “Every discipline has what has been allocated to it. We will not reduce it or add it, at least until the policy changes.”
There are many other sports that also had a brilliant year. What all these games need is just a little more funding from the Ministry of Sport. If these sports were competing with football on merit basis for government funding, then they will clearly outdo football.
For example, the last time Leone Stars played in an international tournament was 1996. Since then Swimming has appeared in two Olympics and they have qualified for the third. Cricket has played and won numerous international trophies. Even beach Volleyball has been more successful.
Nyelenkeh recognize concerns about the huge support given to football over other sports. He said it was difficult for other sports to compete with the popularity of football in the country.
He is right on this front. It is almost impossible to switch Sierra Leone’s attention off football to another sport. The stature of the game in the country means it is always going to get more support.
However, in 2020, a little more attention should be given to sports that are already working miracles with the little they have. We can diversify our economy through revenue from sports.
In the United States, the sports industry is worth up to US$73 billion in 2019. The average salary of professional athletes starts from US$50, 000 annually to as high as millions.
Nyelenkeh said Sierra Leone can get there with more support in the New Year.
“When I came here (Ministry of Sports) we were only getting Le2.5billion. Last year I fought very hard, so we got Le9 billion. This year we have tried, and the government is about to give us over Le21 billion.”
He added: “2020 will have a brighter future for sport, all sports not only football. And the future will be brighter with more support, motivation and many other good things.”
Sierra Leone is struggling with a very high youth unemployment rate. Sports can be the new frontier for job creation in this country, with the large untapped pool of talents waiting to be supported. But this will have to be preceded with major investment across the board.