Sierra Leone has been pillaged for its national resources for many years. In football terms, there are diamonds waiting to be discovered. Finding them will be easier said then done. Welcome to IBWM, Josh Clarke.
Imagine a Premier League where the threats of Mancunian or Liverpudlian teams were nothing more than a pitiful laugh to London's finest. Or a La Liga where the geographical and ideological rivalry at the heart of El Classico was null and void.
Yet, for the Sierra Leone National Premier League, this is the way things have always and quite probably will always be.
Indeed the dominance of two clubs in particular closely mirrors the Glasgowphilic outlook of the SPL title race. You have to stretch your mind back to 1983-84 and 84-85 to remember a team outside of the Old Firm to win the league (Sir Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen), yet for the SLNPL such rural intrusion in the scrap at the top is unheard of. Since the league's inception in 1967, two clubs have undeniably ran the show and they have only ever been joined at the apex of the league by other sides from Freetown, the nation's capital.
The East End Lions and the wonderfully named Mighty Blackpool FC (renamed in a show of admiration for Wizard of the Wing Stanley Matthews) have finished top dogs in 21 out of 32 seasons. The one team who look like breaking the stranglehold asserted by these two is Kallon FC – the brainchild of Sierra Leone's most successful footballing export Mohamed Kallon. The former Inter and Monaco player bought the club – previously known as Sierra Fisheries - for a paltry $30k and installed himself as chairman, whilst continuing his playing career in China. As you do.
What is clear, whether it be the Lions, Blackpool or Kallon FC who come up trumps this time round, is that the power within Sierra Leonean football lies within a very limited sphere. This centralisation of influence has recently come under fire from the Minister of Mines and Natural Resources, Alpha Kanu.
Speaking after a promotion game between Bai Bureh Warriors and Victory Evangelist Ministry earlier this week, where a place in the SLNPL was at stake, the minister bemoaned the structure of Sierra Leonean football, claiming that both the number of Premier League teams and the field of interest shown by the FA need to be expanded in order to allow clubs outside of Freetown to develop. This argument was backed up by the hyperbolic claim that there might be a 'Pele in the provinces' who could potentially be spotted, should some friendly games at least be played in those areas. Perhaps not a Pele, but as 5/6's of the Sierra Leonean populace live outside Freetown, a quick bit of algebra suggests that there may be some talent forlornly having a kick-about going totally unnoticed.
It may seem somewhat bizarre that a Governmental minster has got himself embroiled in a debate that is abundantly an issue for the Sierra Leone Football Association. However, the lines between the two seem confusingly blurred. Kanu's comment is indicative of a breakdown in communications between the two organisations, a fire further stoked by the seemingly altruistic Craig Bellamy, which ultimately provides a serious threat to the development of Sierra Leonean football.
The Craig Bellamy Foundation announced earlier this year, thrusts a third party into the debate. The professional football academy, in which Bellamy invested $1,000,000 of his own money, seems on the surface to be the ideal example of the investment required within Sierra Leone's football infrastructure. The programme aims to take boys on a five-year scholarship, combining high-level football coaching with an educational system also in place. Unsurprisingly, the CBF is based just outside of Freetown, in a Tombo village.
Bellamy, though, was himself accused of being disrespectful by SLFA president Nahim Kahdi, who claimed: "I welcome anybody that is coming to develop football in Sierra Leone. But out of principle, Craig Bellamy has never spoken to me. I cannot go to England and say I want to do something without contacting the English FA. I think that's a bit disrespectful." Of course, to gain permission for his project, Bellamy would have had to toe the correct Governmental lines, so the very fact that he is there and seems reluctant to align his project with the SLFA indicates a further fissure in the relationship between the government and leading football body.
With the Sierra Leonean government and FA posturing, the Craig Bellamy Foundation will find it hard to become a sustainable programme. The project is at least a step in the right direction in terms of developing youth, a concept which seems totally alien to the Sierra Leone FA. The CBF is wholly disparate from national structures and leagues, meaning that although it will certainly give hope to gifted youths, without SLFA support it will struggle to create and sustain a strong youth system for the country.