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.
Sunday, January 28, 2013 (Day 18)
Craig Bellamy Foundation Academy, Tombo
The Craig Bellamy Foundation Football Academy is located in some bare foothills overlooking the busy fishing town of Tombo and Yawri Bay. This is where the cream of Sierra Leone's child footballers are invited to live, study and be coached by Western professionals. For the moment, the boys live in one small white-washed barracks-style dormitory with classrooms adjacent to this, a communal dining area and the staff offices. New dormitories, bedrooms and classrooms are being built a few yards away. The first of the boys I meet introduces himself as Barry and is polite to the point of charming. Close by is Tom, an Englishman, who is head of coaching here and also writes for the BBC and South Africa's Super Sport.
I have been invited here to see the facilities, meet the boys, discuss the future direction of the CBF league and to join in the CBF staff & academy boys' football match. Currently they have one well-maintained grass pitch here with longer term plans to install a 3G artificial surface. The pitch would put many African professionally-tended playing surfaces to shame; the grass is long and half-green, half-brown in patches. This surface needs to be watered every single day in order to keep in up to the required standard. Around ten of the academy boys join us for a kick about, with all of the CBF staff, including the two resident females, mixed up into two 8-a-side teams. It is fairly apparent that the left winger, Suliaman Samura, has something that most coaches would fancy. Here is a boy in his early teens who already has the physique of a twenty-something man as well as pace, footballing skill and self-assured arrogance that he can take on any full back and beat him for fun. This lad is cumbersome to the point of clumsy which makes his body language almost impossible to read. The best way to mark this boy (who, by the way, has already had a summer session at Liverpool) is to sit off him and hope he makes an error rather than jumping in and being made to look like a clown. The majority of the boys are clearly talented individuals but let's say it isn't the most fun game of football I've ever participated in. When the right winger has already ran forty yards and beaten two players with ease, you just know that he is going to try and put the ball in the near post top corner instead of squaring it to you for what is a certain tap in from two yards out.
One thing I have noticed in all of the matches I have played in or witnessed thus far in Sierra Leone is that the back four always loves keeping possession among themselves. They play a bit like the Dutch except instead of eleven players making thirty consecutive passes without the opposition touching the ball, here it is the back four and goalkeeper that keep the ball between themselves for five minutes at a time. Press them with at least two forwards or you might as well retreat to the centre circle and have a cup of tea while you wait. Several of these boys will be given the opportunity to train with Cardiff; one or two with Liverpool, and another couple of them are set to move to the United States in the coming months.
More Than a Game joined The Collective and the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone for a seven-week voluntary placement in January 2013.