Wanibo Toe: ‘Great Football Wizard’ 52 Years Later

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The late Liberian football legend, Wanibo Toe

By William Ezra Allen, Ph.D. Professor of History, University of Liberia

January 2019 marks the 52nd anniversary of the death of Liberian football legend Wanibo Toe.  The Liberian Age newspaper of January 13, 1967 carried the sad news under the caption “Great Football Wizard Dies.” Toe’s death shocked football fans across the nation.  An illustration of the public reaction is the six-stanza poem entitled “A Lament to Wanibo Toe” published 1/17/67 of the same newspaper. Excerpts read “Who knew Toe would ever give way to death At so early an age of twenty-five . . . Wanibo Toe the Great . . . control the ball with your brilliance and show. . . Toe who could surpass the fame of Pele of Brazil . . . Oh! Oh! Wonderboy Wanibo Toe is gone forever!”

A picture of mourners at Toe’s funeral was published 1/17/67 also in that newspaper. The caption stated: “With casket held high and the streets crowded with mourners and avid football fans, the throng marched to the graveyard.”  The crowd “was nearly 35 thousand.” The newspaper recounted the story of an “innocent bystander” in the crowd who wondered if the “large procession” was a “State funeral.” He got a sharp rebuttal: “Why don’t you know? . . .” This was “no ordinary player”; he was “the king of dribblers. . . You think we will ever get another like him? Never!” The innocent bystander responded that the last time he witnessed such a throng was during the “Queen’s visit,” a reference most likely to British Queen Elizabeth’s 1962 presence in Liberia for the Independence Day celebration.  A YouTube of that visit shows swarms of Liberians along the streets singing, cheering, and chasing the open car carrying the British monarch and President William V. S. Tubman.

Toe was indeed “no ordinary footballer”.  According to the newspaper, he was buried at “Palm Grove Cemetery”.  Today the largely neglected Palm Grove with desecrated graves belies the fact that it is the nation’s oldest, recognized burial grounds. One tombstone at Palm Grove belongs to Joseph J. Roberts.  So, one of Toe’s grave-mates is Liberia’s first president!

But who was this Wanibo Toe that shares graveyard with dignitaries including a president and whose mourners are compared in size to the crowd that welcomed royalty?  Barely three months prior to Toe’s demise, the October 13, 1966 Daily Listener newspaper printed a letter from a Toe’s admirer.  The writer praised the newspaper for “picturing Wanibo Toe in your paper” because Toe is the “symbol of sports news” and his “name is more popular than any of our Lone Star players.” This was no small compliment: the Lone Star had talent.  Take the following players (all deceased): The bulky about 6 feet forward Garretson Sackor, nicknamed “Bulldozer” by fans who admired his tendency to physically overpower defenders and score; George, his highly skillful ball-handling brother known for his dribble and hence dubbed “Stanley Matthews” after the English football legend; the naturalized Gambian-Liberian center forward Mass Sarr, called “18 yards”; his signature play was to flip the ball over his head with his heel while running and volley it thunderously past the goalie; and Jackson Weah, known as “32” for his memorable bicycle-kick goals. (Real Madrid fans say Ronaldo’s 2018 bicycle-kick goal against Juventus was the greatest; they didn’t see Weah’s 32!)  Notwithstanding their individual talent, Toe was recognized as the best.

Dribbling was Toe’s wizardry, and scoring was his game; he played almost effortlessly with poise and finesse. Accounts from this period are scarce.  Fortunately, onetime Lone Star player Benedict “Mama Musa” Wisseh gave me The Daily Listener of 7/28/65 which described Toe’s goal against Gambia on 7/26/65: “The ball went out for a corner kick for Lone Star. Davies took the shot . . . and Toe ran in for the shot, quickly released a perfect grounder that kissed the net for Liberia’s lead.” In spite of Toe’s popularity, he was modest. His calm demeanor, at a time when fighting during games and aggressive plays, or “eating bone,” were common, made Toe more likable. A line in the aforementioned poem described Toe thus: “Easy-going, humble, tactful, lovely …” And the President of Liberia Football Association, Mr. Leonard DeShield, referred to Toe as “a devoted football star, a keen sportsman” in The Liberian Age newspaper of 1/13/67.

But death cut short Toe’s incredible career; he died in his early- to mid-twenties. Born in Ghana to Liberian parents of Kru/Grebo descent, Toe was among the Liberian footballers in the West African Diaspora who returned reportedly around the 1960s; another was the “32” Jackson Weah.  It is said that in Ghana Toe played for the Premier League side Real Republicans, though I do not know whether he was a member when the team won the 1962/63 title. In any case, Toe is clearly identified in the iconic photo of Lone Star believed to have been taken in 1964 during the epic game with Ghana Black Star.  Though Lone Star lost 4-5, the team was praised for its stellar performance against the Black Star, then the reigning African Cup of Nations champion. Thus, when Toe died he had played in Liberia for six years at most or as fewer as three years.

Details of Toe’s death are scant. The Liberian Age of January 13, 1967 noted only that Toe passed away at the Catholic Hospital of “kidney troubles.” A detailed and more popular account was recounted by Toe’s team mate, Josiah “JNJ” Johnson. In 1967 Toe was hospitalized after sustaining an injury to the rib in a game between Barrolle and a Ghanaian team. (Toe had initially joined Invincible Eleven, IE, and later Mighty Barrolle.)  The injured Toe was taken to the Government Hospital on Front Street. But during the decisive Game 5 of the UTA tournament between IE and Barrolle (and the latter trailing 0-1), the ailing Toe sneaked out of the Hospital, went to the Antoinette Stadium, and was included in the game. Though injured, the “King of Dribbler” heroically dismantled IE’s defense and threaded a perfect pass to teammate Mass Sarr (18 yards) who hammered in the goal to tie the game. Toe collapsed afterwards and was taken back to the Hospital. It turned out that he had gravely aggravated his injury. President Tubman intervened and Toe was to be flown to Britain. Unfortunately, the “Great Football Wizard” died about a day or so before the flight.

Wanibo Toe would have been in his 70s this month. Liberia must not forget Toe: he “was a Great Hero” as eulogized in a song.  Happy anniversary, Waniboe Toe, the “Great Football Wizard”!

Let me thank the two Liberian Football icons, Mr. Josiah “JNJ” Johnson and Mr. Benedict “Mama Musa” Wisseh for sharing material on Wanibo Toe.  My appreciation also goes to Mr. Charles Freeman, 2017 history graduate of the University of Liberia, for identifying sources.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Wanibo Toe, may his soul rest in peace. As a kid those day, l remembered in Sasstown Grand Kru County we sang the Wanibo Toe song almost on every football field and in the community.

    Given the current market value for a talented football player today, Wanibo Toe, Jackson Weah and others would have been Liberia’s first millionaires before George Weah.

  2. Peace to his bones!!
    I still remember the Bassa song we so affectionately sang to the memory of Wanibo Toe in the early 70’s: “Wanibo Toe wan Barrolle qwen oo. Oh Waylee oo…..”. Indeed, Liberia has had great footballers.

    I hereby suggest to LFA to create a “Hall of Fame” for the nation’s great footballers, including write out on their exploits in the game.

  3. Great story. Oh yes l met the sackor brothers in Newark, New Jersey, in the 80s. We were young men who would come to see and listen to the legendary brothers. Garrison was still in great physical shape. Brother George, not so, at the time. On days, we would visit the legends at the home of Mr. Joe Julu’s. Oh yes it was great knowing these great men. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to have read a magnificent story about this wonderful athlete who gave his life for the sport he so ever loved. Thanks for our historian, Mr. Benedict Wesseh for the education. Hopefully a shrine can be built to the great To. WE NEED A HALL OF FAME.

  4. Peace be to the soul of Wanibo Toe, and thanks to the author of this piece.

    The story is truly amazing, epic, and I could imagine a true sports hero, a man of legendary qualities. It’s really important for us to keep and promote such important records; I heard a lot about Wanibo Toe and have been looking for something to authentic his true existence. I know JNJ but didn’t know he was Toe’s comrade. I remember reading a post of man challenging the existence of Toe due to the lack of information. He contended that it was mere hearsay and that if Toe’s story were true, people should provide some kind of evidence. I’m happy this is evidence, and I wish I could find that poster and share this delightful story.

    In short, thank you William for putting this piece together, and most importantly may the soul of Toe Rest In Peace!

  5. A story of Wanibo Toe that brought happiness and tears running down my cheeks, I will archive myself. Because of his love for the game of football, Wanibo Toe left his hospital bed Against Medical Advice (AMA) just to bring proud to his fellow Teammates, the Mighty Barrolle made him the best Liberian Football Player ever! Rest In Perfect Peace Uncle Wanibo Toe!

  6. Wow!!!

    Thank you for putting together this great piece, Doc. I could not believe what I was hearing, I have thought that the ‘Wanibo Toe’ story was some kinda made-up legend of some super-football guy. I grew up with that thought, and I have even asked many older folks to explain to me… some have said yes, but others were not sure and it had me in doubt more.

    I now have a written account now.

    Thanks again Doc.

  7. Many thanks to the writer of this piece…but I still have a little quest about Wanibo Toe.
    1. DOES HE HAVE ANY RELATIVES THAT ARE STILL ALIVE?
    2. which county is he from?
    3. what’s his tribe?

    • He certainly must have some relatives, both here in Liberia and in Ghana where he was born.
      He was born in Ghana to Liberian parentage from the Grebo/Kru ethnic group.
      No doubt, he existed, and played football for Barrolle and Lone Star.

  8. Thanks for a great piece on Liberia’s soccer. Growing up we heard people in the community talk about “Wani Botoe” (that is how it was pronounced), how great he was at football and how he died. Thanks to your well-cited article, I have learned that his last name is “Toe” and his first name is “Wanibo”.

    • The contemporary records, when Toe was alive, spelled his name “Wanibo Toe”. See the newspapers that were cited. The “Great Wizard” himself (and the LFA) obviously used this spelling. Historians follow the original records. If there is proof of a different spelling from Toe’s days then bring it forward.

  9. Yes, Wanibo Toe has relatives living today. Wanibo Toe mother is from Grand Kru especially from Po River. The father is from the Grebo ethnic group of Maryland county. During his days in Ghana, Wanibo Toe played for Sekondi Hasaacas before switching to the president of Ghana that time, Kwame Nkrumah, Real Republicans. He was part the Real Republicans team that won the Africa Unity Cup, when they beat Kumasi Asante Kotoko at Accra Sports Stadium. Wanibo Toe team mates were then; Goalkeeper Dodoo Ankrah. Obitey, Addo Odametey, Aggrey Feyn, Edward Acquah Joe Adjei. For details on his football sojourn in Ghana, Liberia football association can or must contact Ghana Football Association for more write up of this brother.

  10. There has been no dribbler on the Lone Star team as good and skillful as the Great Wanibo Toe. I saw him play at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium. It was he for the very first time who introduced “body works” in football. He dribbled using his body in the process. He would wiggle his body in such a way that would force his opponent to move in a certain direction and then skillfully meander his way to the opposite direction to the applause of spectators of the entire stadium. Dribbling the ball was Toe’s forte and he did it with such expertise that amazed spectators who dubbed him “the master dribbler.” Whenever the Lone Star was leading, spectators would call out to “pass the ball to Toe”. Then it was “show time.” The master dribbler Waniboe Toe would immediately begin demonstrating his dribbling skills making fool of other players, some falling in the process and unable to get the ball from him. Since his death, there has been no Liberian footballer to match his dribbling skills. We need a monument to his honor. He was the “Master Dribbler” footballer of all times. Rest in peace, Wanibo Toe, we love you and will always remember you as the greatest.

  11. Yes, kids, Wanibo Toe was a real Liberian soccer sensation of his era. He is now a true legend of soccer (football) in Liberia and perhaps in Ghana where he was born to Liberian parents and began playing the sport. This story by Dr. Allen and contributed to by two of Liberia’s soccer greats, Josiah Johnson and Benedict Wesseh, is well written and very informative.

    Those were the days when Nkrumah’s Ghana Black Stars was reigning in African Football (Soccer). Like Wanibo Toe’s parents, many Liberians went to the then Gold Coast – Now Ghana – to seek better jobs and education opportunities (some of them for their children) when that country was still under British rule. The Tubman government, at the time, realized that Liberian kids born in British Colonies had similar talents as players, say, on Ghana’s Black Stars National Team, Sierra Leone’s Leone Stars, or the Nigerian Green Eagles, etc.

    This fueled the recruitment of those young Liberians back to their ancestry home country of Liberia. For instance, the late Philip Robinson whose parents were Kru in Freetown, Sierra Leone, came home to Liberia and eventually became captain of the Liberian Lone Star Team. But still, others were kids from neighboring West African Countries like: Legendary Goal Keeper David Momoh had some Sierra Leonean ancestry; Striker Maar Saar. from the Gambia; Gladstone Ofori, from Ghana, were also recruited to play for the Lone Star. While here they also played for club teams, like Invincible Eleven (IE) and Mighty Barrolle, etc.

    Unfortunately, the Liberian soccer players and sports in general were not given any sustainable prominent national support. Players were only called to training camp just as a major game against other countries was anticipated and immediately disbanded after the game.

    We hope the Liberian Archives will do a lot to honor Liberian Heritage, past and present, in all spheres of our national history.

  12. My God! It is so fascinating to read such soul moving accounts of such a great hero that sacrificed so much for his nation to the point of his life. What a country that does not remember and recognize its heroes and heroines? Many thanks to Professor Allen for researching this story and lifting it to the national platform.

    When we were growing up, a scanty account existed about this superb footballer to the extent that others apparently doubted his existence. Then along the way, I had an opportunity to sit in several gatherings at the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana in the early 1990s to listen to veteran footballer Josiah N. Johnson (JNJ) talk about this great player to the amazement of his audience.

    Unfortunately, Wanibo Toe and others including those that are still alive like JNJ and many others have not been given any national reorganization for their contributions. It is time we do that!

  13. Yes, reading this powerful HUMAN INTEREST NEWS, multitudes of memories keep pouring through both the material faculties (heart, brains, etc.) and immaterial faculties ( intellect, sensibility, will, and conscience ) of my being!!!

    The grief which struck the Liberian nation when the news of Wani Botoe’s death in January 1967 reverberated across Liberia, surpassed the July 1971 death news of President Tubman!

    Make no mistake about that: In the psyche of populations where soccer/football is the major sport, football is the language spoken by all, and to nearly all, a religion!!!

  14. Wanibo Toe was a great hero! Wanibo Toe takes a shot; its a goal! Its a goal! Wanibo Toe was a great hero!!! Rest in eternal radiance super-wonderful soul! May life perpetual shine upon you from life-time to life-time!!

  15. This is one of the great attributes of the Daily Observer and Kenneth Best. You always get a good bit of history and research when you read this paper.

  16. A wise person once said, “Patriotism is collective responsibility.”

    Yes indeed, Wanibo Toe was a patriot. He was a football legend considering his unique style of playing. However, I will be remiss if we do not honor other legendary football pioneers: patriots of the 60s and 70s eras listed below who made ultimate sacrifices for Liberia due to their love for football.

    These legendary footballers and patriots put Liberia’s national team the “Lone Stars” on the forefront of international Football completions despite hardships and last minute preparations they endured for their upcoming matches.

    I hope President Goerge Weah, a football legend himself, will do the honorable thing by constructing a football museum, to honor past, present and future football legends of Liberia into a National Football House of Fame.

    This National Football House of Fame could enlighten young generation minds about the historical contributions these football legends (patriots) made to Liberia.

    Some past legends in the 60s include Alexander Peal, , Garretson Sackor, George Sackor, Charles Woeful aka Babe Ray, Patrick Teah, Lawson Teah, (brothers played for Mano River Team in the 60s), Jardeh Williams, Josiah Johnson aka JNJ, Monkey Browne, David Momoh, Tarpeh Robert, Jackson Weah, Marr Sarr Sr., Santos Maria, Varney Dempster, and those who names I can’t remember.

    Also, these legendary players of the 70s should be included: Anthony Gray, Solomon Siply (misspelling), Waka Herron, Sarkpa Myer, Frank Nagbe, Sekou Gomez, Joseph Forkay Nepay, and many more that played during the late seventies before I left Liberia after the infamous rice riot of April 14,1979. Not to forget those legendary players who came in the 80s & 90s along with George Weah, now President.

    On a side note: Liberian football enthusiasts can find a historical piece of the 60s Lone Stars entitled: “Liberia Lone Stars’ First Victory over Ghana Black Stars” written by Benedict N. Wesseh, in The Perspective.org (Magazine) dated Jan. 29, 2015.

    p/s: During those days and even now, no one cares if Liberians were born or Naturalized in a foreign country, yet they could play for Liberia.

    Today, if you’re a Liberian born or naturalized in a foreign country, you cannot hold high government posts (unless you renounce your foreign citizenship) due to lack of dual citizenship in Liberia. Is this not double standard?

    • 2nd Paragraph correction:These legendary footballers and patriots put Liberia’s national team the “Lone Stars” on the forefront of international Football (competitions) despite hardships and last minute preparations they endured for their upcoming matches.

      Correction: National Football Hall of Fame (Not National Football House of Fame).

  17. When I was much younger, I remembered the song being sang during community football games… And it goes like this:
    “Oooo- Oo- Oo-oo Woni botoo…
    “…Oooo- Oo- Oo- Oo Woni botoo…”
    But nowadays Liberian football fans sing European sport songs… Sad..

  18. I am so happy that this great footballer story could be told for our young and older people who do not know who he was

  19. I am getting to believe this Toe guy story. Some older guys used to shared story like this to us in Liberia about Wanibo Toe. I am convinced he existed because Mass Sarr Sr, is involved, JNJ, too. Thanks for this piece.

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