Liberia came through November’s first phase of qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ completely unscathed. They did not need to kick a ball after their opponents Mauritius withdrew, allowing the Lone Stars passage into the group stage of the preliminaries.
They now go into a rugged Group J with Angola, Senegal and Uganda and will begin their campaign in June with a difficult away match against the top seeded Senegalese, one of the form teams in African football. It will be a tall task for a side that managed just five points out of 18 possible in the preliminaries for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and has not flirted with qualification to a major tournament since the prodigious abilities of George Weah led them to the 2002 continental championships.
But African football is nothing if not unpredictable, and Liberian captain Anthony Laffor is hoping to lead the side to a place not even the incomparable Weah could manage: the World Cup finals. The striker sees the side's opening contest as vital. “We really need to do something in the first game [at Senegal] and get a win or a draw. That would motivate everybody in our country. We really need to get all the people behind us,” he said.
Liberia have proven themselves decidedly tougher opponents in front of their own supporters, so a result in Dakar would be a spectacular way to kick off the campaign, particularly as the Lone Stars were beaten 3-1 in the corresponding fixture on the road to South Africa 2010. “We have good skills, but what has let us down in the past is a lack of concentration,” explained Laffor. “Senegal has a new side, and the team that beat us before has gone. We too are rebuilding our side, and with the team we have now we can go to Senegal and get a good result. The players should know that we need to work hard, stand up to the pressure and do better than people expect. We must be determined to again put our country on the map.”
The World Cup dream
Currently ranked 123rd in the world, Liberia have naturally struggled to reach the heights that marked the Weah era. But Laffor insists the team are on the right track. “It is true that since [Weah] left the team, we have struggled,” said the 26-year-old striker. “But he has his history, and we now have to make ours. We, the youth, have to make a name for ourselves.”
Laffor, who plays for SuperSport United in South Africa, says there is a strong group of players in their younger 20s looking for high-level experience in the aftermath of Liberia’s bloody civil war. “We have a few guys playing overseas in Denmark. We have Sekou Oliseh at CSKA Moscow and a few playing in Malaysia. It is from the war and when George Weah stopped playing that we don’t have any players at big clubs in Europe that we can count on. But we just have to do it. We are the players who are representing the country right now. We are what the country has got.”
That no-nonsense attitude has made Laffor a natural figure of leadership within the team, although his role as striker also puts pressure on his shoulders. “It’s not an easy thing to be captain, especially with so many young guys. I think my role is to ensure discipline and get some respect for the national team. It was an opportunity given to me and I am willing to work as best I can.”
The players should know that we need to work hard, stand up to the pressure and do better than people expect. We must be determined to again put our country on the map.
Effort is a common theme for the Monrovia native, and he says the team must maintain its concentration on the long road to Brazil 2014 - even while realising what an achievement that alone would be. “Every player dreams to be at the World Cup. It would be a dream come true for me. We are going to work as hard as we can towards it.”
Liberia also are preparing for the first round of qualifying for the 2013 Cup of Nations, and there is a chance that success there can help build momentum for the small west African country. “We have Namibia home and away in the first round and that is a winnable tie. Our people need to support us in this,” he said. “The players are the technicians on the field, but it is an affair for everyone to be involved in.”