Significant transformations have taken place in the country’s footballing sector following the election of a new breed of leaders and more than three years since the Liberia Football Association (LFA) held its last elective congress.
These changes within the Liberian football league wouldn’t have taken place without a visionary leader who believes in transformational leadership, although not everyone may agree. This is the beauty of individuals having the freedom to hold their own opinions relative to contentious issues.
The very definition of transformational leadership is a theory whereby a leader works with teams or followers beyond their immediate self-interests – to inspire others, to identify needed change, to create a vision of guidance through influence, and to execute this in tandem with committed members of a group.
Mustapha Raji is such a transformational leader, and it would be unjust to allow the achievements made so far under his leadership to go unnoticed until the next elective congress of the LFA.
Born June 22, 1974, in Grand Cape Mount County to a naturalized Liberian father who migrated from Nigeria, Raji has spent a little over 27 years into football administration. Although he didn’t have the opportunity to play football while growing up (his parents’ focus was on academics) his passion for the game has kept him into football administration throughout his life.
A telecommunication expert by trade, he currently serves as Radio Access and Network (RAN) Manager at Orange Liberia, a position he has served for the past 15 years.
At 21, while earning US$25 as his salary at Beever Communications in Monrovia, he founded his own club called Barcelona FC-Liberia, now LISCR FC.
“Coming to football is about helping to develop young people. This is why I am with the football family today in Liberia,” he said. “Today, after years of proving that we are able administrators of the game, I am now the President of the LFA. I am thankful that I am here to serve.”
“Over the years, with my love for football, I developed more love and passion for the game. I love all the chills, the excitement that comes with the game, mainly when you are supporting a winning team. When your team is defeated, you feel angry and sad, but after a few days, you come back to yourself and begin to support the same team.”
“Football brings a special feeling. I love the joy and the many different issues about it. I am committed to it. This is why I am at where I am today,” Raji added.
After years of individually running his team and seeking sponsorship, Raji sealed a connection with the Liberian International Shipping & Corporate Registry (LISCR) in 1999.
LISCR FC has become a household name in Liberian football with several players benefiting from opportunities to travel the world to seek greener pastures, and to develop themselves through their career of footballing.
“We have developed players over the years, the likes of Murphy Nagbe who came from Barcelona, now LISCR and he played for the National Team and other club teams, Dominic Wesseh, Anthony Laffor and Henry Gobah are among the many good players we produced through our club team. Gizzie Dorbor, George Baysah, the late Patrick Doeplah all travelled abroad, secured contracts and have built back home.”
“We are glad that we have got the opportunity to help young Liberians feed their families by using their legs and their heads,” he said. “I have no regrets. I keep doing it even today and will continue to do it whenever I have the chance and means to do it. I feel so proud when I see the guys coming home with smiles on their faces and their parents or families are equally happy.”
Taking over as a leader of an institution is challenging, but more challenging in the case of Raji, thanks to Musa Shannon, who withdrew from the runoff election to pave the way for Raji to win on a white ballot.
"Becoming head of LFA, I felt good but it is not just an easy thing. It was tough. First and foremost, the LFA was in a financial situation,” Raji told the Daily Observer. "When I took over in 2018, there were no sponsorships. The LFA was in debt. Match officials were not paid; employees’ salaries were not forthcoming. There was only one functional vehicle at the LFA, a pickup. The environment was terrible.”
Raji’s administration incurred a debt of more than US$500,000 United States dollars, ranging from employees' salaries, cash prizes for clubs, and arrears for former national team coaches among others.
The biggest hurdle among the inherited problems was the financial sanction placed on the football association by FIFA, restricting funding from the world football governing body to the LFA. A little over 60 percent of LFA’s income is received from FIFA, according to the football house’s budget analysis.
With this, Raji could not kick off his vision to improve the footballing sector of the country. Instead, he had to begin “correcting the wrongs” before moving any further. Fortunately, the biggest stumbling block was removed a year later, in 2019, when FIFA lifted the financial sanction on the LFA.
“The first thing we did was to bring everyone on board and keep our heads high up. We reengaged Orange to reactivate the sponsorship. They came in and in the first phase they gave L$100,000,” he said. “We realigned with FIFA and committed ourselves to putting in place specific processes so that we could count on the guidelines of FIFA for getting funds. They lifted the sanction on us based on our work and the collective support from the executive committee members and the clubs.”
“We cleared the payrolls, balanced the issues so the match officials’ pay comes in constantly and also addressed the liabilities of not just the employees but also vendors.”
“During the outbreak of Ebola, unfortunately, I don’t know why, salaries of employees were deducted. It was challenging but we saw it fitting to clear those debts. We also had to clear the debts with the former national team players.”
“This is why we took over to correct the wrongs and put in place the corrective measures so that our country can be on par with other countries that are doing well. We have all of the policies and ideas in place to avoid going back to financial restrictions,” Raji explained.
Fast forward to after setting up the necessary structures at the administrative arm of the football house to run the daily operations of Liberian football, and Raji then had the chance to jumpstart his vision to transform football in Liberia.
Reviving Liberia Football: Women’s Football
It should be no surprise to readers who follow my reporting to see me begin with women’s football, relative to the transformations of the leagues, as more attention has been given to this league than before. Women’s football has long existed in Liberia with a little support and little interest from women and girls to play football.
Additionally, the competition existed only among a few clubs for the championship cash prize, yet there was no competition for maintaining status in the league as there were nine clubs competing in a single league with no relegation or promotion.
Following the climax of the 2018 league season, a league that was considered a pilot phase for the Raji administration, came new innovations all aimed at “making women’s football the number one priority sports for women and girls in Liberia.”
The FA, under the leadership of Raji in 2019, introduced the Women’s Lower Division League – comprising 10 teams with a new breed of players – a majority of whom have never played in the Liberian women’s league. The introduction of this league was meant to bring more competition as promotion and relegation has now been included in the women’s division.
“Nine teams have been playing in the women’s division league. We are here to increase the number of teams and increase competition for value of money. We have two leagues, one is promotion and the other is relegation,” he said.
Not just this, but the FA, through its executive committee, has already approved the introduction of the women’s community league, tested through the non-promotional women’s league in Lofa, Grand Gedeh and Maryland Counties with 22 participating teams.
This is a significant increase in the number of women's football clubs and players. The competition and interest in women's football continues to grow, and Raji and his team continue to add more flavor to the league.
For the first time in Liberia’s history, and particularly after the climax of the 2020/21 league season, the MVP in the women’s division was rewarded with a car plus L$300,000. This was awarded to Angeline Kieh, a long-time outstanding player in the women’s division, at long last benefited more from her dedication and passion for women’s football.
Prior to the 2020/21 league season, football leagues around the world went into disarray due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to the nullification of the 2019/20 league season, but also created more opportunities for women's football.
The FA, with support from FIFA and CAF through a COVID-19 relief fund, provided each of the nine women’s football teams in the upper division US$11,666 and US$7,000 to the nine clubs in the lower division.
This was followed by the distribution of: pieces of office equipment including laptops and printers to all 18 women’s football clubs; the purchasing of two 35-seater coaster buses to be used by the women’s national teams; and women’s grassroots football clubs. The impact of funding distribution shouldn’t be overlooked. It was a challenging test for Raji and his team of executive committee members.
In 2019, FIFA banned former LFA president Musa Bility for 10 years and fined him $500,000 for the misappropriation of FIFA funds granted under the global body’s “11 Against Ebola” campaign as part of its financial assistance program.
Thankfully, Raji and his team have been cleared of all financial misappropriations and related suspicions following FIFA’s forensic audit on the first payment of US$1.3 million relief funds received from FIFA.
The success of the league hugely depends on the performance of the champion teams in continental competitions, something that Liberia continues to struggle with. However, the clubs have a significant role to play in achieving that success, as the FA continues to play its part by providing a playable environment, capacity building and financial contribution to clubs.
“We introduced the subvention payment to clubs because there is no money directly coming from the LFA for clubs,” he said. “In 2019, we introduced the payment of US$2,000 for first and second clubs in our first major league. That amount was increased to US$4,200 in 2020 and now in 2021, the amount has been increased to US$5,000.”
Additionally, the cash prize for winners of the first division league has been increased from L$1.6 million during the previous season to US$20,000.
From Papers to Digital System
As the situation evolves, the FA is doing all it can to be on par with projected progress.
“Today, for the first time, we have launched an online registration platform,” he said. “We are now leaving from paper to digital. Clubs are now registering their players electronically, something I feel good about. It is going to advance over the period and become far better and we will be on par with other countries in Europe. It might be difficult but it will benefit all of us in the future.”
Approved by FIFA congress in 2009, and made mandatory in 2010, the mandatory usage of the FIFA connect system in the Liberian league was eased due to lack of capacity building for clubs. However, the FA since 2019 has continued to provide capacity building training for clubs from the top tier league to the community league, the fourth tier of Liberian football with every club now using the system.
The FIFA Connect Program helps MAs register all their stakeholders in a systematic way and keep track of players, coaches and referees – wherever they are in the world.
The visible aspect of the achievements made under the Raji leadership can clearly be seen and do not require a longer explanation. After several years of using the Antoinette Tubman Stadium as the FA’s main venue for crucial league games, the FA now has a refurbished Tusa Field in Gardnersville, Doris Williams Stadium in Grand Bassa, Technical Centre in Careysburg and a new SKD mini-stadium in Paynesville to host league matches. All thanks to the FIFA Forward 2.0 funds that have been used for the intended purpose.
Players and fans now don’t only have the opportunity to play and watch games at a better facility, but the FA is now generating more revenue from gate intakes with the recent league match between LPRC oilers and LISCR FC generating L$319,600 from gate intake, the highest so far in the ongoing league season.
Aside from mini stadiums, the FA also moved its headquarters from Benson Street “where we were paying US$25,000 annually to the ATS,” he said. “The official headquarters is also under construction and is valued around 1.5 million United States Dollars. There are also other projects that have been approved. The Gonpa Stadium, the Willie Knuckles stadium, in Maryland, Grand Gedeh, Voinjama among others will be worked on.”
Vision Turns into Action
With the level of work done so far, Raji still has a vision to do more if only given the chance, meaning he will be seeking reelection in April, 2022.
“We may not achieve all of our goals in this term, but with what we have so far done, we will be seeking the mandate from our people so we can roll out the next face of developments,” Raji said. “We are doing our best to rebrand Liberian football so we can get on par with other countries that are doing well.”
“We have to go and sustain our international presence. We need to improve our FIFA ranking; we will have to improve our participation in competitions at the international levels.”
One of the main strategies by Raji and his team to achieve these goals is the reactivation of various youth national teams in both male and female categories.
“For those who want to be like me, you have to be patient. You will not always win but you have to trust and believe in yourself that you can make it. Focus on the work you do. It speaks for you. The good works you do confuses your critics and they may not have anything else to criticize you about. They will begin to look outside of your works for faults against you, but in everything be honest. Be positive and work for the good of society.”