Thursday, March 7, 2013
Many thanks to Shaun Gisbourne, Atheen Spencer, Rupert Williams and Erika Medene, who are the latest people to kindly donate to More Than a Game's Sierra Leone Appeal. We want to raise £1000 so that we can send 40 Sierra Leonean children to school for a year. They will also get the opportunity to play football for one year in the excellent Craig Bellamy Foundation League.
The running total is now £420. Click here to read more about the appeal and/or to donate.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (Day 41)
I knock out some match reports and an interview for CBF headquarters, post half a dozen blogs and smile as I see that my mum and sister as well as my good friend Neil Mathieson have all donated to my Sierra Leone fund.
They have only gone and double booked the pitch again and so there is to be no send off match for me tonight. I am gutted. I fancied a hat trick tonight and all joking aside it was my chance to say goodbye to two dozen friends most of whom I won't get the chance to see now before I leave tomorrow.
Bob can see I am itching for a game of football on my last night in Makeni and suggests I ask African Minerals if I can join their training session. This is the richest club in the region with big ambitions for the Premier League in coming seasons. I have never had the nerve to ask them if I can join them but as this is my last evening I pluck up the courage.
Five minutes later I am labouring through ten back-to-back shuttle runs from the goal line to the edge of the penalty box. That is basically 360 metres of sprinting. I feel relieved to complete the sprints without having a heart attack or being left two shuttles behind.
"Now sprint as fast as you can between the six yard box and the goal line"
These shuttles seems to go on forever and I feel like my lungs are going to explode.
Only half of the squad is here tonight as the other lads have been excused and are en route to some of the several dozen football cinemas in town for Arsenal v Bayern Munich.
We end up playing an 8-a-side match at the 'stadium of light'. The standard is high and the fitness levels even higher. Football is like an art form with these lads and when I find myself as the last defender against two oncoming forwards I blast the ball up pitch to clear the danger. "Have it!"
"Why you do that?" one lad asks me gesticulating that I could have instead controlled the ball, flicked it over one of the lads, shimmied the other and chipped the ball to him twenty yards away.
The session is hugely enjoyable. "See you tomorrow; the same time" the coach tells me, patting me on the back.
"I'd love to but I'm leaving tomorrow. I fly to England on Friday."
"Well as soon as you get back from your trip home come down here and join us again."
Oh, no. I am gutted. If only I'd asked to train with these lads six weeks ago; I could have played every evening under the lights with this classy outfit.
I grab a team photo with the African Minerals lads and leave Wusum field for the final time, strolling some of the way with John, a young talented footballer who plays in the Craig Bellamy Foundation league. John is one of the best young talents in Makeni but sadly missed out on a place at the academy at Tombo despite being invited to the trials. John is naturally two-footed and has the class and composure of a seasoned veteran. He is also a leader off the pitch: I remember a stirring performance by him in one of the anti-violence community projects in January.
"Just keep playing the way you do with both feet and make sure you continue enjoying your football. I think you are a very talented player John. Just keep believing in yourself.
"Thank you Justin. I hope you return to Makeni one day."
At Yeane's it seems like half of the male population of Makeni is watching Arsenal (the best supported team in the city) stutter and fall apart against Bayern. It is impossible to get inside the bar so I sit on the gravel outside in my football kit, with a cold Star, taking in the scene. It is one of those goose bump moments: witnessing the pleasure that the game of football gives to Africans. There must be fifty of us sat in the street peering in at the TV; many of them little boys who sadly spend their lives hawking groundnuts, cigarettes and packet water instead of going to school; boys who are united and equal with the rest of us for a few minutes in their love of the game of football. Twenty yards further on the scene is the same at Suburban bar. I am going to miss this. Watching Sky Sports down the pub in England is never going to feel quite the same again.
Friday, February 15, 2013 (Day 37)
I cannot wait to see my girlfriend. It will have been 70 days since I last saw her when we meet in Tirana next Saturday. Far too long and one of the reasons I have often felt home sick here, despite hugely enjoying much of my time in Sierra Leone.
We couldn’t get the go ahead from the education ministry in time for today’s homework club at SLMB school so I decide to take advantage of the couple of free hours I didn’t expect to have by beginning my packing and cleaning out my bedroom at the house.
I don’t know why it is the case but today has been shocking for people asking me for money. On the whole kids only occasionally ask you for food. Maybe one kid in an entire day asks you to help them with cash. This Friday I must have been asked by more than a dozen kids as well as three adults. As much as I’d like to slip these kids a few leones it just isn’t appropriate. If I give them money then they might think it is the norm to ask foreigners for financial help and end up begging on a regular basis. This can’t be allowed to happen.
Today I set up my More Than a Game fundraising appeal on GivenGain. The target is to raise £1000; enough to send 40 kids to school for a year and guarantee one under 12s and that same team’s under 14s side football for a whole season. In other words, every person who donates £25 is sponsoring one child for an entire year. I am determined to raise this cash in the next 90 days and I hope some of you who follow this blog will follow the link below and consider donating something to help these Sierra Leonean school kids improve the quality of their lives and give them the education that will enable them to build a future for themselves.
Read about the More Than a Game Sierra Leone Appeal here
Thursday, February 14, 2013 (Day 36)
Over spicy breakfast omelette baguettes Charlie and I discuss what has been achieved during my time in Sierra Leone with the Collective and the CBF. There have been plenty of frustrations but I feel happy overall with what I have achieved here and can leave satisfied.
I will be the last Collective volunteer to work with the CBF. After my departure the CBF will use their own volunteer to fully manage Makeni. The Collective, meanwhile, will continue to place overseas volunteers with NGOs across Sierra Leone who are looking to improve the lives of the people here and to boost the economy and the quality of life in this developing country. They are doing some very very good work here.
I made the mistake of telling too many people about the good quality free Wi-Fi at MJ Motel and increasingly other NGO volunteers pop in here, for the odd hour or two, to get vital work done that they might struggle with on the usual slower connections. Predictably, as a result, the hotel now wants non-guests to pay per hour for Wi-Fi. It works out at about two Star beers per hour in terms of leones. I leave next week so I just thank my lucky stars I had this place all to myself for the last couple of weeks.
It is an absolute scorcher today; the hottest day so far by my reckoning. It feels like it must be 40. Bob and Alex ask me to referee the 4 o’clock match but I purposely swerve them until 4.30 knowing that my body just couldn’t cope with an hour refereeing in this heat. And so instead I find myself broadening my horizons by becoming a linesman for the second inter-school cup match of the day. I have given linesmen a fair bit of stick over the years watching League one and two matches with Northampton Town back in England. Today I have got a bunch of kids giving me hell on the touch line. It is all in good humour but I do sense that linesman karma is coming back to haunt me.
There are a couple of occasions where I am about to flag in one direction or the other for a throw and, for a split second, my mind gets muddled with which way the two teams are kicking. I hope my tenure as a linesman is short lived. I don’t think I am cut out for this.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 (Day 35)
It is a jam-packed day. The CBF HQ people have driven all the way up from Freetown and I get the opportunity to present my report detailing my observations and recommendations from my time with the Craig Bellamy Foundation League in Makeni. All four of the overseas staff read through my report and tell me that they agree with most of my points raised. Let’s hope that the CEO of the CBF in Tombo will now action some of those recommendations, which I believe will lead to the league running even better than it does now.
There is also the opportunity for me to observe the CBF’s coach give an excellent hour-long coaching presentation to a half dozen of the Makeni coaches about ball possession. I believe that you are forever learning as a football coach. There are always new skills and ideas to be picked up from watching other coaches working. I think that applies to somebody like me, with a couple of seasons coaching experience, or even the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, with decades of football at the very highest level.
Afterwards, the coach kindly joins me as the two of us present a refereeing workshop to the local league’s referees. From what I have seen of the guys, they are excellent in general but we just need to brush up on some small interpretations of the game and some of the latest changes to the rules of the game by FIFA over the last year or two. Coloured cones represent attackers, midfielders and defenders as we work through various possible match day scenarios and what the referee should do in each situation.
Thursday, February 7, 2013 (Day 29)
My good friend Graham Foster sent me the scanned copy of the feature about Craig Bellamy you can see above this blog. He spotted it in yesterday’s copy of Metro. Great to see Bellamy getting some acknowledgement but, more importantly, it was more positive media coverage for the CBF league here in Sierra Leone.
The irony of this story is that David Beckham, who is mentioned, has also helped in Sierra Leone and even stayed overnight in Makeni, where I am currently living. I know that many African players who have made it big abroad are trying to ‘give something back’ back home.
Let us hope that more professional footballers follow the examples of the likes of Bellamy and Beckham instead of wasting their riches on gambling and fast cars. Personally, I think super rich and connected FIFA and UEFA should also be doing more to work with projects that encourage education and development through football. More than 2,500 kids are benefiting from the work of the Craig Bellamy Foundation here in Sierra Leone. Imagine how many hundreds of thousands of kids around the world could benefit if FIFA were to mimic this project right across the developing world.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013 (Day 28)
It is like all my Christmases have come at once: a cold Star, a whirling fan above my head, a pub full of football-crazed Africans and two television screens: one showing the African Nations Cup semi-final between Ghana and Burkina Faso; the other broadcasting live action from Wembley of England v Brazil.
Burkina Faso have been the most exciting team of this tournament by a distance. Their front three are superb and the boys Bance and Petroipa a complete revelation. They have thrown everything bar the kitchen sink at Ghana and somehow they cannot score. Worse still a blatant penalty in the final minutes is not given and the referee instead sends off the attacker, Petroipa, for ‘diving’. It is one of the most shocking refereeing decisions you are ever likely to see. But Burkina Faso appear to have a very special spirit and despite everything going against them they manage to win through to Sunday’s final against Nigeria on penalties, sending the bar I am in crazy with celebrations and cheering. I am so engrossed in this exciting African encounter that I only give England v Brazil half of my attention. Well done Joe Hart for that double penalty save. And respect to Frank Lampard for the brilliant winning goal which once again shows he has a part to play in England’s campaign to qualify for Brazil 2014.
As it is late and completely pitch dark, Bob kindly walks me back to the house which is a good mile or more away from Yeane’s, where we watched the match. Strolling through the pot-holed darkness all the chat I can hear from the roadside and from the yards of houses is about the Burkina Faso match and how they were robbed of a penalty: “Such a thing could only happen in Africa!”; “The referee was clearly paid off,” are some of the comments I hear in the darkness.
They really do eat, drink and sleep football in Africa.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013 (Day 28)
I am having most of today ‘off’ so that I can work. Yes, today is the day when I need to proofread the magazine I am editor of back in Latvia: ‘Gateway Riga’.
It is a sign of the times when even in Sierra Leone – ranked 180th (from 187 countries) in the world on the UN’s human development index – I can find a way of working remotely and communicating with my magazine layout designer half way across the world. Truthfully, I am rather fortunate that Makeni has the MJ Motel (photo above is from the reception), otherwise I do not know how the hell I could have downloaded the 20MB pdf file I need for proofreading. It took 30 minutes to download it to my laptop. If I had tried the same thing at the office it might have taken a week.
I was in here at 8.30am this morning just as some Danish and Indian businessmen or engineers or diamond dealers or whatever they are, were having breakfast. The breakfast staff assumed I am staying here as well and brought me over a pot of tea and a fried egg on toast. I was half tempted to play dumb but then felt insanely guilty and told them I was just popping in…for seven hours as it turns out.
I hope Guntis hurries up and makes the final changes to the layout I requested. I have got to go and coach 80 Sierra Leonean kids after an hour and then rush home and scoff my dinner down in time for England v Brazil at the football cinema at 7.30.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013 (Day 27)
This was perhaps the day when I felt like I became assimilated to Sierra Leonean life. By that I mean that I no longer feel like I am simply here working or on holiday…or a combination of the two. No, today I feel like I also live here. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem quite so hot at night as it did (although it is still usually 30 degrees) and having crain Crain for dinner and a ‘rubber parrot’ on my way home just seem…’normal’. It will seem strange not to ‘tok’ to groups of friendly, smiling ‘pekin’ several dozen times per day when I get back to Europe; or not to buy a bag of groundnuts from the roadside and look up to see vultures hovering in the distance. Ar wan two fingerless pleez, I requested earlier today – that was my attempt at asking for two A3 batteries in Krio.
I coached the kids of Junior FC and Sawulia FC today. At one point I was trying to communicate with 40 kids in a dust-ball and had motorbike taxis riding around the pitch at the same time as they were holding a school sports’ day fifty metres away. One of the motorbikes could have done the goalkeeper a serious injury as he rode right through the goal posts.
On our way back from the coaching sessions on the edge of Makeni, Moses took us on a short cut through the gardens of a residential area, where two topless women in the space of a couple of minutes greeted me with: “Oporto!” and smiled as if spotting a white bloke strolling through your yard when you are topless is a perfectly normal and regular occurrence.
Part of me has been homesick from the very moment I flew out here but, as I now begin to feel like this is my ‘temporary home’ and at the same time recognise my time here is drawing to a close, I suddenly get a slight pang of sadness at the thought of leaving.
Time for a quick bucket shower and to rinse half of a football pitch off my arms, face and legs…
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.