Wleh Bedell is the founder of the Liberia Football Players Association (LIFOPA), an analyst, pundit, and writer who is currently writing his first book on Liberian football. Mr. Bedell is described by some as a critic, the walking encyclopedia of Liberian football for his in-depth knowledge of the country’s football. Bedell worked as a reporter and editor of www.liberiansoccer.com, also, as Assistant Secretary General of the Sports Writers association of Liberia (SWAL), and Public Relations Officer at the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC). As a commentator, over the years he has worked for several newspapers and online magazines. The football analyst is also a certificated Coach and has for the past 13 years promoted more Liberian players to clubs outside the country, besides George Weah. His critical stance on the Lone Stars, Liberia’s national football team, and his write-ups on the way forward for the country’s football development program hence, his respect and advocacy for players’ welfare has won him many admirers in and out of the country.
1. You were recently in Laos with some young Liberian players, in what was expected would have been a highly appraised program to sharpen the talents of those young footballers you took with you both from Ghana and Liberia. What went wrong?
Well, I took with me from Liberia 22 young footballers, 21 of whom were minors under the banner of the Rising Stars Football Club. Also, there were additional nine players taken from Ghana, six of whom were Liberians, a Ghanaian, Guinean and Sierra Leonean, but all of them were above 18 years. We were invited by Idsea Champasak Asia, Africa Football Academy. Three times capped Liberian international Alex Beyam Karmo, if you may, was the facilitator in what can be termed as a fiasco arrangement. On February 5, Karmo left Ghana with a 25 man delegation and four days later I also left with nine players due to flight arrangements. Simply, the whole set up was aimed at going to the academy where the lads would have harnessed their skills, but that was not to be. The players were sleeping under a dilapidated Champasak stadium, where flies, mosquitoes and cock roach were common place. There were times when the food was prepared in the bathroom of the stadium and at one point in time, Karmo called in more than 20 heavily armed soldiers to invade the players’ facility on grounds that five of them were gossiping about him. The academy had no coach and medic. There were lots of problems and the major one was when a bogus six-year professional contract was offered to each player with nothing like salary, and to make matter worse, Karmo a player and captain of the senior team, Idsea Champasak United, put himself forward as manager on the contract sheet and also the contract had nothing like witnesses. Furthermore, instead it was the documents/letterheads of Idsea Champasak Asia, Africa Academy; it was the senior team document, Idsea Champasak United. When I asked why the senior team documents were being used and not the academy documents, they told me that the academy was not recognized by anyone in Laos or anywhere else in the world because it was not registered. I kicked against the bogus contracts, on grounds that it contravened FIFA statute on Players Transfer and Regulation with Article 19 specifically indicating that minors don’t sign professional contracts except where their parents were present and consent given. Besides, I frowned on Karmo as a player serving as manager, and the issue of no witnesses to attest to the so-called contracts. I described the decision as absurd and out of order and was only intended to ruin the budding careers of the young players. Karmo and his cohorts saw me as an “enemy” as they noted “we brought you to work with us, but you are now in favor of the players”. I told them I was playing by the rules and that there was no way, I as guardian of the lads would mislead them to sign such worthless contracts. Thus, I asked that we be allowed to leave with the players who were predominantly minors. They were earlier hesitant insisting that I leave alone. I therefore informed and reported the matter to the Liberia Football Association (LFA) and the Federation of International Football Professionals (FIFPro). This paid dividends as we able to leave Laos returning to Ghana and then Liberia.
2. How did this program come about?
Alex Karmo was the mastermind of the program. In December, 2014, he phoned me from his base in Laos, saying he had a breakthrough with his club president, Phoneavanh Khiou Lavong, who was keen to run an academy where 30 young players were needed from Africa. He asked me to gather the players and that they would transport the players to Laos. I requested an official invitation from the club, something that was sent in January, 2015, with copies submitted to the LFA which led them to write the Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs to enable us complete our traveling documents at our own expense. Though we were earlier promised tickets would be provided from Liberia to Laos, Karmo later said we had to transport ourselves from Liberia to Ghana after which they would take care. Indeed, they took care of the air tickets from Ghana to Laos. In short, Karmo was everything: he was the communications director, coach, chief of logistics, and you name it.
3. Football academies are springing up all over Africa, why is Liberia an exception? The LFA has not helped the situation and Liberian football some say is dying.
The challenges as far as the development or running the game in Liberia remain a herculean task. It remains a paradox however that Liberia, a country that has the envious reputation of producing Africa’s greatest footballer in the legendary George Manneh Weah is still without any recognized academy. But, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. The LFA according to reports has begun the process of building a technical training centers in each of the 15 counties in the country in the name of the legendary Weah, something that FIFA is funding. According to the FA, the first one is expected to be completed in rural Montserrado very soon, but one major challenge I think would be the need to gather the right coaches to train these lads so that they get the rudiments of modern football, if the right people are not hired the facilities could become white elephants. Football academies are the bedrock for football development and there is a serious need for Liberia to invest there, if Liberian football must rise. It is an undeniable fact that Liberia has a huge reservoir of talents, but with the country’s football program not on track especially the youth set up, much is still to be desired. The initiative of the LFA to start to build what will be called the George Weah Technical Training Centers must be hailed, but there must however be cautious optimism until the completion point comes to the limelight. These facilities could be run by foreign international experts who will train thee local coaches at a point going forward, when the locals would be allowed to take over. Succession and planning must now start to be looked at critically if we are to excel.
4. What’s happening to the Liberian Football Association, under Musa Bility and his pledge to “commercialize Liberian Football,” which he promised when he ran for the FA top post? His critics say despite major cellular companies paying huge sums to support the league nothing has come his plans thus far, fair to say?
Without a doubt, it is very difficult to captivate fans or woo the relevant stakeholders or various corporate bodies to the game in Liberia mostly due to its lack of attraction. To bring in investors or sponsors at a large scale, the issue of attraction is needed. But in fairness, Bility’s huge promise especially on the issue of commercialization is a fair criticism from his critics, and a lot more needs to be done. Musa Bility campaign promise to “commercialize Liberian football” is yet to come to fruition and it is indeed disappointing. There is a need for marketing strategies to be reassessed and to be improved. Bility and company must put in place the requisite frameworks by going back to the drawing board to attract the relevant investments to the game.
5. Bility recently appointed a set of coaches, with former Lone Stars’ players and especially James Salinsa Debbah, now the head coach. The appointments were met with criticisms in some quarters, but others are saying wait a minute, former players have turned out to be successful coaches.
Quite frankly, Debbah’s appointment was a huge surprise and one that saw a lot of talking points. With no coaching experience at all, Debbah is entering into a very difficult terrain. I wonder where the issue of experience was that Debbah and others cried about over the past years, when younger players were been brought to the senior national team. Remember the famous quote “You use the old mat to plait new mat”? Anyway, like any coach, Debbah is not coming in with a magic wand and will need the support of everyone to make things work. He and his colleagues appointed must also be tolerant and be able to accept criticisms because criticisms will come. Though we hope these differences would be constructive. There are former players who turned out to be successful coaches though, but there are former players turned coaches too who became flops. The likes of Guardiola, Dunga, Rijkaard, Keshi, etc. have all been successful after leaving the playing field for the dugout, but mine you; these guys did not just jump from the parks to the dugouts without any prior experience in coaching. There are also great players like Maradona, Mido, etc. that struggled at coaching. We must consider that. The case with Debbah is quite different, and hence a hurriedly arranged coaching course has since been completed, I would like to congratulate him. However, as far as his appointment goes, I will be keen to know or see how he settles into such mammoth role. The issue of selection, tactics, key decisions, etc. will be looked at meticulously .I wish him and the rest of the former players recently appointed to the various national teams all the best.
6. Kwesi James Appiah, now coaches in the Sudan for Al Khartoum, reports have said he signed for less than 15, 000 dollars. Given that Liberia and Ghana played similar footballs, and also since he is a world cup tested coach, some football pundits believed he should netted the prestigious Lone Stars position? What’s your take on this, and the other coaches that were overlooked?
The powers that be [FA] have all the decisions to make as far as who handles the Lone Stars. On so many occasions many coaches who are top notched have been ignored to handle the Lone Stars. In previous years, the likes of Samson Siasia were ignored and those who run the game should know what is best for the team. Another thing is whether the reported #U.S.15, 000. Coach Appiah earns would have been affordable. No disrespect, but in times past, other coaches, both local and expatriates have struggled in getting their salaries regularly paid by the LFA and why said amount should be inexpensive, the commitment in making sure the Lone Stars succeed by motivating the team in getting their bonuses, per diams, coaches’ salaries regularly coupled with other basic needs for the team has always been a problem for Liberian football and the FA. No disrespect also to the indigenous coaches, but the authorities mostly prefer them because they are underpaid and come cheap.
7. Of all the kids you took to Laos, which ones were the most promising? 7a Liberia has been paired with Tunisia, Togo and Djibouti in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, can Liberia come out of this group?
The kids I took to Laos were promising. They were real gems and it would be somewhat unfair to name any particular one or pair. But, if you push me, I tell you to just watch out for the following names: Kesselly Kamara, Jr. a teenage supporting striker who is very skillful and lethal in front of the goal mouth. He is nicknamed Kaka by some for his pace, trickery and marauding runs. Seibo “the dribbler” Toe, alias the “Liberian Hazard”. He creates a screen in front his opponents’ defense, Marvin koko Blapoh, an industrious holding midfielder who is nicknamed “the new Vieira”, Prince “World best” Balde, a very intelligent and technically gifted center back who is a class in the defensive third. Boakai Molu, a very lively offensive oriented left full back who is lethal during the attack and accurate under pressure. Box to box midfielder, Fred Brooks, simple passer, Exodus Caine, Gasimu Kweateh, the defensively versatile youngster, Abdoulaye Coulaibaly, a save pair of hands that should one day stand between the sticks of the senior national team of Liberia the Lone Stars, and the nimble footed winger William Freeman. Indeed, these are fabulous talents, and you see you have put me in trouble because I cannot name everyone due to time (laughs). 7a. The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia are the firm favorites to book the automatic ticket in the group. The Sparrow Hawks of Togo could pose a challenge but will not go to the end. Djibouti’s Shoremen of the Red Sea like the Liberian Lone Star would be the pushovers. Mine you the Lone Stars have been at the basement of their groups in the last six qualifiers, but in this one, I think they will be slightly above Djibouti. The Lone Stars are poor travellers. They are not defiant at home and the players’ selection, coupled with other technical and administrative factors will continue to elude the team, unless James Debbah and his team have creative solutions, to the LOne Stars’ continue troubles. No need to think on the two runners-up spots from any of the other groups as the likes of: Nigeria, Egypt and Cameroun, South Africa should book the two runners-up slots.
8. What must be done to improve Liberian Football, and bring it on par with other African Teams?
A whole lot needs to be done. Firstly there is a need to reorganize our game. There is a need to start from the grassroots, religiously invest in youth football; we also need more passionate people who are technocrats in running the game. There is a need for a well-structured program and the national government must also invest in the game to the fullest. The national league needs great support from the private sector also, clubs must be empowered. No hard feelings, but there is too much attention now being given to the County Meet in the name of unending unity or reconciliation while the national league that runs for months and serves as feeder to the various national teams is struggling due to poor support. Much emphasis must be placed on the national league as it would do more for us as a people and country in terms of developing our game than the National County Meet. We need to be realistic and set our priorities as far as developing our game.
9. What support do local players on the Lone Stars are receiving in the country?
Not much. Local based players on the various national teams must be given monthly salaries that must come regularly. Also, they need to be supported where their football must be blended with education. Players must be given scholarships to go to various institutions to learn as in the words of ex-Ghanaian international Anthony Baffoe, “Football is a powerful weapon, but when blended with education it is a more powerful weapon”. Also, the various sub-committees and sub-associations must be greatly supported by the FA as that is where the stars of tomorrow will launch their careers. And finally, resources and policy must be infused into football academies for more talents to be harnessed.
10. Wleh Bedell is such a busy man what do you do for leisure?
Wow. Except when I am having a quiet time like praying or reading the Bible or when am deep asleep which is of a rarity, I then stop doing something relating to football. But leisure or no leisure, it is football. I have become addicted to the beautiful game and I love every moment; I am involved with it. I am very passionate about football and I am always willing to learn new things, relate to people as far as the game is concerned, in an effort to help develop our football. Together I believe we will get there.
11. Any final thoughts Mr. Bedell?
Well, there is a need to improve our football over all. We must all work collectively in transforming our game; it is not on the right trajectory, right now. The senior national team is a minnow on the continent, youth football is not exciting, the national league remains unattractive, the game is at the lowest ebb and a lot must be done to lift it. There is a need for a well detailed football conference in the country where all stakeholders must be brought to the table as they put forth their views to move football in the country forward. Finally, let me use this medium to urge Senator George Manneh Weah to once more get involved with the game in Liberia. His absence from the country’s game has been conspicuous and with the high level of respect he commands within football circles around the world, coupled with his innumerable contacts and influences, his presence or contribution is greatly needed at this time. Senator Weah must go beyond the issue of just recommending coaches for the Lone Star, he must link our players, mostly the younger ones to clubs overseas, link the kids to academies in Europe as just a telephone call can change things. Senator Weah is quite aware that the youths who make up a chunk of the country’s population were the ones who led the way in voting him into office and are the ones involved with the game. These young people see Senator Weah as a beacon of hope; like him, they dream of been professional footballers, millionaires and reputable people in society. It is about time, the African and World Football Great see reason, and hence play a key role in helping to transform our football and start working with the relevant football or sporting authorities in making these young people dream turn to reality.
We at the Liberian Listener thank you for the opportunity sir.
Thank you ever so much and I look forward to future engagements