Liberia looking to enter new era
© AFP

Since the heady days of George Weah, Liberians have been desperately awaiting a rebirth in the fortunes of their national team. Although it has been seven years since democratic elections signalled the end of more than two decades of intense strife for the country, Liberia is still struggling to rebuild almost totally.

The Lone Stars have not escaped that fate, but the success-starved supporters in the Atlantic coast country of four million people have had some positive recent results to buoy their spirit. It has come at an important time for the side as they head into a vital schedule with an interim coaching situation currently guiding the team.

Liberia’s relative progress in the last four years has come under the guidance of three different expatriate coaches. After German Antoine Hey’s team failed to win a match in the preliminaries for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Hungarian Bertalan Bicskei and Italian Roberto Landi were tried with the net effect being another last-placed finish in the qualifying table for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

When Landi was sacked at the start of this year following a 2-0 friendly loss to Nigeria, he was replaced by Thomas Kojo, an ex-international player who has been assisted in running the senior and U-23 teams by a group of other former players including Kelvin Sebwe and Joe Nagbe. Kojo, Sebwe and Nagbe were regulars on the Lone Star team with Weah during the glory period of Liberian football.

Although the chances of another George Weah coming through the pipeline seem small, Liberians hold out hope that they can return to a time when the side challenged the continent’s big boys for spots at the Cup of Nations and even the FIFA World Cup.

Weah, a three-time African Player of the Year and the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year, famously coached and even bankrolled the team himself for a time as the side pushed Nigeria all the way to the brink in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002. A second-ever spot in the continental finals that same year did not take away the pain of missing out on the world’s showpiece event for the ambitious Weah, and in some ways the Liberian national team has yet to recover.

A tactical tip pays off?
Weah, who won 60 caps during his career, has remained a talismanic figure in Liberia, and rumours about him taking up the reins of the national team either on the touchline or in an administrative capacity are never far away. However, the former AC Milan great has been focused more on politics than football, and into the breach have stepped his 2002 team-mates, who are due to be replaced by a full-time figure.

In February’s vital qualifier for the 2013 AFCON against Namibia, Weah did reportedly visit the dressing room and later sent a note with tactical advice to the coaching staff. Scoreless through the first hour, Weah’s observations or inspiration may have made a difference as the Lone Stars fought their way to a 1-0 win.

The all-important goal in that first leg was created by highly-regarded CSKA Moscow winger Sekou Oliseh, who set up Sweden-based forward Dioh Williams for a tap-in finish at a packed Antoinette Tubman Stadium. Not only did the victory boost Liberia for June’s second leg, but it lifted them to 112th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, up from 125th.

Back near their lifetime average ranking of 114th, the climb leaves the dark days of 2010, when they fell to an all-time low of 164th, behind them. Of course they are still quite a way from the Weah-inspired high position of 66th, which came in the summer of 2001. Along with Oliseh, the Liberia-based defensive duo of Nathaniel Sherman and Solomon Wesseh won plaudits against Namibia, as did the side’s captain and standout Anthony Laffor, who nonetheless is suffering a painful goal drought for the national team.

June will be a key time to see if the Lone Stars can continue their positive trend. As well as facing Namibia in the return leg, they will also begin Brazil 2014 qualifying in CAF’s Group J. First up in that campaign they will travel to Senegal on 1 June before hosting Angola a week later, while Uganda is also in the difficult section.

One thing Liberia will need to improve on is their away results. Liberians have to go back to 2001 to find their last away win in a competitive fixture: a 1-0 victory over Sierra Leone in Freetown. The winner on that day was scored by none other than George Weah.