By Danesius Marteh
Women’s football made a historic entry in the 2018/2019 national county sports meet. The month-long annual tournament, which began in 1956, is Liberia’s biggest sporting event, featuring football, basketball, athletics and kickball (Liberian version of American football).
This year’s festivity was bigger than past editions with customized tickets, jerseys, match balls and a raffle draw, with a trip to the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Egypt as the biggest prize.
Female footballers were grouped into Lofa, Nimba, Bomi and Margibi counties.
The athletes were able to display their dribbling skills, decoy runs and defensive abilities in exciting matches.
Lofa beat Margibi 4-0 on 6 January and Nimba beat Bomi 4-0 on 9 January at the Samuel Kanyon Doe (SKD) sports complex in Paynesville respectively.
It was a tightly contested grand-final in which Nimba beat Lofa 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw following regulation and extra time at the SKD on 13 January.
The Liberia Football Association (LFA) spent US$10,641 on the teams’ preparation, sets of jerseys, shin guards, footballs, pairs of boots, per diems for technical staff and players and cash prizes, medals and awards for the runner-up, most valuable player, highest goalscorer, best goalkeeper and best defender.
LFA President Mustapha Raji also made a personal contribution of L$100,000 for the victorious team. In the build-up to the presidential elections and during the debate last April, Raji made women’s football one of his campaign pillars.
And Raji is looking forward to an exciting female league after more than eight years of dormancy.
“As part of our own agenda, you saw that women’s football for the first time in the history of Liberia took part in the county meet.
“We are going to do more for women’s football because we want it to be the number one priority sport for women in Liberia,” said Raji at his first news conference on 18 January.
Raji, in partnership with the Inter Schools Sports Association (ISSA), intends to take football to the schools with the support of the LFA technical department.
“We have not partnered with the school system for a long time. We are now collaborating with ISSA. Few months ago, they conducted training for over 40 coaches.
“We are going to do more with ISSA by helping them restructure the format of the league. We are also working the Catholic school system in promoting grassroots football,” said Raji.
Agatha Nimene of Nimba earned a piece of history by scoring the first hat-trick against Bomi.
She finished as the highest goalscorer with four goals and also won the most valuable player award.
Agatha, who has encountered a series of discrimination in her community, dedicated the awards to her ailing mother.
“I want to dedicate this award to my mother, Theresa Nimene.
She continues to support me. She would have loved to be here but she can’t walk because she is seriously sick,” said Agatha, a 2017/2018 graduate of the Trinity United Methodist High School in New Kru Town.
Agatha, who wants to play professional football, thanked the LFA for the big exposure.
“I want to thank Mr. Raji and the LFA for the big encouragement. So many people have seen us. This will encourage so many young girls out there as we prepare for the league. Now I hope the new league will present an opportunity for me to play professional football,” she added.
Lofa’s Margaret Stewart finished as the best defender while Nimba’s Patricia Klon was the best goalkeeper.
Patricia played a pivotal role during the tournament, including during the penalties, where she saved the last kick.
She had not played football for five years due to a lack of encouragement.
“This is my third game after five years because I received so many negative thoughts that I won’t make it. Some say football will make me not to born [bear child/children].
“Despite the discouraging words, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to play in the county meet. I enjoy playing football. So let them just leave me,” she retorted.
Nimba head coach Hamilton Johnson, who commended the LFA and sports ministry, is eyeing a widow of opportunities.
“Women’s football should be included in every county meet going forward. And I am calling on the government to help the LFA develop women’s football.
“These girls have talents. We need to rally around the LFA to improve their talents. They need education and financial assistance to develop their skills.
“I want to say a very big thank you to the president of the Liberia Football Association Mustapha Raji for encouraging these girls and giving them the platform to showcase their talents. We hope to see more,” said an optimistic Johnson.
Lofa head coach Sengbeh Doe is an old hand in women’s football, having coached two of the biggest female clubs – Earth Angels and Tito United.
Doe, who won last season’s double with Angels, believes the media can balance the efforts of the LFA.
“The media need to talk about women’s football. Everything is about the men. I don’t hear commentary on radio about women’s football.
“Sometimes I come on the field and the media are talking about the men. Let them talk about the girls and you will see the difference. The new LFA leadership also needs to put money in the game, to develop all aspect of women’s football,” Doe stressed.
In a more beautiful historic scene, Fifa-badged center referee Sylvina Garnett won admiration from the spectators, along with Irene Notee, Ruth Townsend and Grace Yoko as a perfect team of match officials.
All eyes will be fixed on the Antoinette Tubman Stadium and other venues, to see what kind of league the new LFA leadership will organize, especially for women’s football in February.
Raji and his team will be aiming to chart a new course, with Liberia having not had a functioning women’s league in eight years.
As always, only time will tell.