Changes in border laws. New screening protocols at airports. Frantic internet searches looking up how far “Africa” was from your house. Whilst much of the world looked at Ebola in an internal fashion, analysing it from the defensive, nationalistic point of view of how this pandemic was going to affect them, some countries are having to deal with the disease is a far more harrowing and tangible way.
With over 6,000 laboratory confirmed cases of the disease, Sierra Leone is arguably the worst hit by the outbreak – if that’s indeed an award that anyone can be proud of. Now a patchwork of quarantine areas, its infrastructure is on its knees, as the disease’s unrelenting ability to infiltrate all aspects of the country continues to stun. Taking down both the weaker and stronger institutions that make up the country, it has also managed to suffocate the Sierra Leone’s unofficial religion - football.
The recent 3-1 defeat to DR Congo at the end of November condemned Sierra Leone to one of their worst qualifying campaigns in recent years, as they sat bottom of their Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2015 qualifying group, racking up just a solitary point. Given the circumstances, although no one could criticise and no one could protest, the story Sierra Leone’s national team since the virus struck is particularly depressing when you realise how well it was going for them before.
In Aug. 2014, after the World Cup, the latest FIFA rankings were announced following the tournament’s conclusion in July. Amongst the usual anguish and confusion from various fans after the announcement, Sierra Leoneans viewed these with exclusively positive emotions. Sitting in 50th place, they had reached their highest ever position in the global game, and were the seventh-best ranked team in Africa. A surprise to many, considering the Leone stars have not qualified for a major tournament since 1996, this was the result of sustained hard work and consistent performance over several years.
Rankings and Ebola
Missing out on AFCON 2012 on goal differences, as Nigeria and South Africa progressed ahead of them; going out on away goals to Tunisia, in the chaotic, hastily-assembled knockout qualification format for AFCON 2013, and one point behind Cape Verde in third during qualification for the 2014 World Cup – it could be said they’d been unlucky. But this gives some idea of why they progressed up world football’s official ladder of footballing superiority, and is certainly an improvement on 172nd – where they were in Sep. 2007.
Now sitting in 84th place – their lowest place since August 2011 – the correlation between their tumble down the rankings and the spread of Ebola is impossible to separate. Ever since being denied entry to the Seychelles for a preliminary qualification game to secure due to fear of spreading the virus, the team has had to endure various health-based sanctions, to further compound the mental stress of what is going on in their homeland.
Banned from hosting games in the country and unable to find a temporary host, they had to relocate all their home games to their opposition’s stadium, meaning they effectively played six away games. Also forced to play an exclusively foreign-based team, many of their team had not been back to Sierra Leone for months – not only having to deal with the distance from their homeland, but the stigma that Ebola was causing for Sierra Leone’s people abroad.
Speaking to the BBC, midfielder Michael Lahoud of MLS side Philadelphia Union discussed his treatment since the start of the pandemic. Refused entry to places, players unwilling to shake hands or swap shirts at the end of the game, Congolese fans chanting “Ebola, Ebola” at the national team whilst they play – all were part of the emotional strain as players endured the appalling discriminatory behaviour based on ill-educated fears of catching the virus. Ebola may not have proved to be the global threat to humanity that people first feared. Rather, the only global aspect of Ebola has been the spread of discriminatory behaviour to inflict on those who are suffering emotionally.
Before the outbreak, Sierra Leone was progressing both in terms of results and on an administrative level. One of only two federations in the world to have a female president, Isha Johansen was elected in 2013, introducing mass restructuring of the SLFA to prevent the typical issues that plague this level of African football – as well as promotion of youth and women’s football. Not immune to the emotional strain however, the SLFA vice-president Brima Mazola Kamara admitted to the psychological burden on players and staff.
Of course, where Sierra Leone sits on the FIFA rankings does not matter when you look at the current predicament they find themselves in. Rather, their recent decline shows just how draining Ebola has been to so many aspects of society in Sierra Leone, managing to topple even the most forward-thinking of national institutions. One can only hope that one day, when all of this is over, we can see the Leone Stars shine once again.