Sierra Leone: FIFA President Urges Sierra Leone to Resolve Football Row

Soccer, football

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) president Gianni Infantino has pleaded with Sierra Leone authorities to work together to resolve a protracted row in the administration of football in the country.

The row between rival factions in the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA), which stemmed from the election of Aisha Johansen as the country's first female Football Association president in 2013, has derailed competitions.

"I think the time has come where we have to move forward and look into the future," Infantino said during a meeting with President Julius Maada Bio on Wednesday.

Mr Infantino was in the country as part of a four-day West Africa tour. He was accompanied by Confederation of African Football (CAF) president, Patrice Motsepe.

The FIFA/CAF delegation had already visited Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, as part of what the bodies say is an effort to promote inter-school championship in Africa.

In Côte d'Ivoire, Mr Motsepe made a landmark announcement of a $10 million donation to the FIFA-CAF Pan-African School Football Championship. According to CAF, the money will be used to initiate and support the development and growth of school football in the six CAF Zones as part of the FIFA-CAF Pan-African School Football Championship recently launched in Kinshasa.

The FIFA/CAF delegation met with the presidents and football stakeholders in the three countries and discussed collaborative initiatives geared toward developing the sport in the region.

In Liberia, Mr Motsepe encouraged a large crowd of students at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium to take football as a career, backed by education.

"We want young boys and girls to take football as a career because you can maintain yourself and make money for yourself and your family. You must also study and have the same passion for both football and education. You must be the best in football and the best in school," Dr Motsepe said.

Liberian President George Weah was unveiled as the first Ambassador of the Pan-African Inter-School Championship.

Mr Weah was chosen because of his landmark achievement in football as the only African player so far to have won football's most prestigious individual award, the Ballon d'Or, according to reports.

The visit to Sierra Leone, the first by any head of the two football institutions, comes as the country's protracted football row enters a new phase, following the cancellation of the planned elective congress of the SLFA.

The congress, which was scheduled for this month, was suddenly postponed by the SLFA which cited lack of preparedness. It's now slated for June 4-5.

It's the fourth time the congress has been cancelled.

Johansen is contesting for a second term, over three years after the expiry of her first term.

Her election to the country's top football position in August 2013, albeit in controversial circumstances, was hailed as landmark. But it soon led to conflict stemming from accusations and counter-accusations of maladministration and corruption. For Johansen and her supporters, she is a victim of male chauvinism that dominates the sport in Sierra Leone.

A group calling itself the Football Stakeholders, is challenging the legitimacy of her leadership. They say she has exploited all illegal tactics to avoid elections.

Several formidable candidates for the presidency have been disqualified thanks to FIFA integrity checks.

Due to the row, most football competitions weren't played in Sierra Leone for most of the years since Johansen's election, until in 2018 when the country's top league resumed.

In between FIFA threatened to sanction Sierra Leone several times due to alleged political interference in the administration of football.

Critics of Johansen accuse FIFA and CAF of backing Johansen despite her alleged disregard for established rules. And the visit by the two football administrators is seen as a further demonstration of this support by some of her critics.

But according to the FIFA president, the world football governing body is only interested in due process.

"FIFA and CAF stand for due process, for integrity, for democracy and to make sure that we can once again put aside all negativities that have tarnished the image of football in the country in the last few years," he said.

CAF President Motsepe told the meeting of plans for CAF and FIFA to help Sierra Leone with the requisite infrastructure to be able to host the African Cup of Nations "in the not-too-distant future."

President Bio told the visitors that while politics had always been a dividing force, football remained one of the uniting forces for the country hence the desire of his administration to see the problems resolved for good.

"We are very polarised when it comes to politics, but when it comes to football you can see the passion, you can see the joy. It is a different Sierra Leone, especially with football," he said.

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