The Home of FIFA welcomed a special visitor on Wednesday 28 August when Isha Johansen stopped in at the governing body’s headquarters for the first time. The visit came just over three weeks after her election as president of the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA), a landmark achievement about which she spoke to FIFA.com.
Johansen also looked back further, to a time in 2004 when her various roles - parent, partner, entrepreneur - left her with very little free time. It was at this critical point that things close to her heart – sorrow for those suffering in her native Sierra Leone and a deep love of football – prompted the soft-spoken, hard-acting pioneer to sacrifice more of it and make a difference.
“Sierra Leone went through a very brutal civil war, which lasted 12 years, and it left a lot of orphaned kids floating all over the place,” she explained. “And because football is such a main ingredient in our society, there were these young kids in my neighbourhood who’d be playing football the whole day – literally for a good 18 hours.
“It occurred to me that these boys had nowhere to live; certainly food was lacking. So I stopped, had a chat with them, and struck a deal: if you promise to allow me to put you through education, I will get you some balls and encourage you to play this sport that I happen to love very much. Before you knew it they came to my doorstep and said they’d formed a team and it was called FC Johansen, which was not to my liking. I told them they had to come up with another name but they insisted it was FC Johansen.
“These were young boys, aged ten to 12, and we put them through junior leagues. It just grew from there. Before you knew it I was taking them out to represent Sierra Leone in international junior tournaments in Sweden, Norway. And in 2011 we went to the Swiss U-16 Cup and became champions by beating Liverpool.
“These young boys, they symbolise a lot for the youth in Sierra Leone: that you can actually dream, realise that dream, and go places. So now we’re a [Sierra Leone National] Premier League side – a very young Premier League side – and they’re doing quite well. But I’m not allowed to talk too much about FC Johansen anymore!”
Why? Because Johansen wasn’t satisfied being a pioneer for children and Sierra Leoneans; she also wanted to be a pathfinder for women worldwide – and the 48-year-old succeeded earlier this month. That is when Johansen was elected SLAFA president, making her only the second active female FA president on the planet alongside Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera.
“It’s a massive achievement,” she said. “For my family also, it’s huge – I go down in history. But I’ve always said this achievement, this award, is in honour of all women. So me being president of the Sierra Leone Football Association, I dedicate it for all the women of Sierra Leone.”
Johansen nevertheless faces an uphill challenge to turn around the fortunes of Sierra Leonean football. The men’s national team are 80th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, while the women’s side are 120th. Moreover, quality pitches are few and far between in the country, and a minority of children are afforded the luxury of playing with proper equipment like those involved with FC Johansen. The new SLAFA President nevertheless exudes infectious enthusiasm when discussing her priorities.
“Restructuring,” she began. “It’s been fraught with problems in the past and the problems have been the result of poor administration. So what we’re in the process of now is to totally, completely restructure the administration, after which we’ll be focusing on youth development. In terms of infrastructure, FIFA has kindly fast-tracked the presentation of a Goal project for the Development Committee that will enable us to rehabilitate the existing technical institution, our academy, which is in a very poor state.
“Every football association, every president, would be looking to showcase their national team on a world platform. But long-term would be to see that youth football grows to a decent level. I came into football through youth football development, with my own team that I had. I would like to leave Sierra Leone football with that legacy of having known that we’ve promoted and developed youth football to a very decent state.
“Female football is also something that will be a major focus. I don’t think the women of Sierra Leone will ever forgive me if I leave that office and I’ve done nothing to promote female football. I would like to see a situation long-term where we have a female football academy, we have our young ladies being taught to play football combined with education
“So long-term these are the goals: to see female football grow to a very decent level to see and youth football appreciated. Education is going to be a big part of our learning – football and education combined. And who knows, we might just be seeing Sierra Leone on the global centre stage?”