Footballers against Ebola Stigma

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It was described as one of the greatest soccer games since the era of George Weah XI and many soccer analysts admitted at the end of the grueling 90 minutes that it was a game that could not have happened at anytime in Liberia’s history.

The two teams, Ebola Survivors FC and United against Ebola Stigma FC were determined to settle the question as to who was superior in the declining period of the Ebola virus disease and how to welcome survivors into their communities without discrimination.

The game, held at the national stadium brought thousands of spectators to the field. Several of those that attended the game admitted that they had not visited a local stadium for many years, and what they witnessed was one of the greatest local soccer games in living memory.

Supported by the Liberia Football Association and the Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation, (SDC), the match, a week before the game, created so much excitement in the city that there were reports of confusion among a segment of soccer fans whose expectation had built so high.

So it was no surprise that the local stadium was divided between the two teams for their moral support. There were several side attractions, notably the Small Town International Cultural Troupe, blasting several revolutionary songs.

The stadium erupted into thunderous cheers, when the cultural troupe rendered two popular songs: the ‘Ebola U Cannot Divide Us,’ and ‘All Ebola Survivors Are Welcome home,’ where several fans, particularly the women, began to dance and shake their ‘wukus’ to thunderous cheers.

The two teams arrived on the field and went through official inspections, with LFA vice president for administration, Musa Shannon introduced to the two teams. On his entourage were former midfield maestro, Kelvin Sebwe, Chris Wreh, Oliver Makor, LFA scribe Alphonso Armah, amputee soccer boss Cooper M. Gotteh, Survivors Network boss Patrick Farley and Darciba Christian of SDC.

“What is at stake is the No Ebola Stigma Trophy,” Shannon told the two captains, “we are here to unite all our people, including those who have survived the Ebola virus disease.” Both captains nodded their heads in appreciation.

Four match officials from the Liberia Referees Association, (LIFRA), held a brief conference with both teams and explained that “No player will be allowed to engage in any form of discrimination, particularly since many players here have survived the Ebola virus disease.” The two teams took their respective positions thereafter and the linesman number one signaled that all was well for the go.

Meanwhile, both fans increased their volume of songs encouraging their players singing when the center referee whistled for proceedings to begin. And like a see-saw battle the ball moved from one player to the other, and someone was heard saying, “Just like Barca and Real Madrid.” It was also the reminiscent of the days of James Salinsa Debbah, Kelvin Sebwe, Dionysius Sebwe, Oliver Makor, Chris Wreh and soccer legend George Oppong Weah when local soccer was attracted to thousands of followers.

“When will this day come back,” was a question a broadcast journalists wondered, during the commentary, and a colleague simply shook his head in regret. “Maybe one day,” he said, with a smile. The next forty five minutes brought so much excitement to the fans that they could not stop cheering. Each of the team had leading players whose handling of the ball forced the crowd to yell for, “Goal,” each time the ball was outside the goal-area.

Both teams came close to securing needed goals but each goalkeeper could not be intimidated to let the ball beat him into the net, which heightened tension in the game. But most of the memorable actions came in the final minutes of the second half, when Survivors’ George Weah, (real name Aaron Jones), pounced on a loose ball outside the 18-yard to dribble two on-rushing United defenders to slot the ball home for goal number one.

With pressure still mounting and the game ticking to a close, a miss-directed pass from a Survivors’ defender fell before United’s strongman, inside left Salinsa, (real name Solomon Tah). United’s Salinsa forced his way into Survivors’ danger zone, and with a powerful shot pulled the equalizer in the 90th minute.

And so when the game ended 1-1 and soccer fans rushed out of the stadium it was like Lone Star’s 2-0 victory over Ghana’s Black Stars, (in the 80s) when fans sang, “Oppong opened it,” and others replied, “Salinsa Closed it,” to end a match that brought all Liberians together to break the barrier that had initially barred Ebola survivors from mingling with others.

“It was a wonderful match,” commented LFA’s Musa Shannon, “it means that the stigma against Ebola survivors can be won.” Radio commentators and television broadcasters carried the message that while Ebola is still real its numerous survivors should not be ostracized but must welcomed and reintegrated into the various communities.

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