Musa Shannon, vice president of the Liberian Football Association (Photo: Jonathan P. Hicks/BET)
REPORTING FROM MONROVIA, LIBERIA
After a 14-year civil war, a number of highly competitive political elections and struggles getting a national economy on its feet, there is one thing that seems to unite the people of Liberia as never before: football.
The sport — known to Americans as soccer — has become increasingly popular in this small West African country. The national team, nicknamed the Lone Stars, has enjoyed a surge in its following and attendance. And the dozens of local teams throughout the country under the umbrella of the Liberian Football Association last year saw an increase in attendance of about 40 percent compared with four years ago.
Of course, the sport has always been popular. Indeed, it enjoyed some degree of worldwide attention as a result of Liberia’s biggest star ever, George Weah, whose heyday was in the 1990s. Weah won the title of African Footballer of the year three times and was named one of the top 125 greatest living football players by FIFA, the international football association. He has since run unsuccessfully for president and vice president of Liberia.
But the current outpouring of support is far more widespread, officials of the sport here say, with youngsters gaining new interest throughout the various counties of this country.
“We’re in a very interesting time,” said Musa Shannon, a former player who is vice president of the Liberian Football Association, in an interview with BET.com. “We’ve been able to bring some excitement back since the days of George Weah.”
For one thing, Shannon said, companies are supporting the sport in significant ways, pumping money into prizes for winning teams. Other major corporations have signed sponsorship contracts that have enhanced the level of organization and professionalism of the teams in the league.
Cellcom Liberia, the large cellular provider, recently signed a $125,000 sponsorship contract to support local teams around the country, a huge sum in Liberia’s economic scenario. It comes at a critical time. The sponsorship is making participation in the sport more attractive to young men, who suffer from stubbornly high unemployment in Liberia’s challenging economy.
Shannon said it is deeply fulfilling to see Liberia’s football landscape improve. Shannon played professionally in the United States, Portugal and China and also competed at the international level.
What’s more, Shannon says, “it brings a lot of hope and spirit into the game. Nothing can do what football does in this country. Political opponents, competitors, people with issues with each other are all on one accord when they support the game. It’s exactly what we need in this country.”
Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan
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