Football fans watching a recent training session of the Liberian Lone Stars in the country's capital of Monrovia could well be excused for mistaking the session for a legends kick-about.
Almost an entire team of men, ten of them (James Debbah, Christopher Wreh, Joe Nagbe, Varmah Kpoto, George Gebro, Kelvin Sebwe, Oliver Makor, Jonah Sarwieh, Thomas Kojo and Janjay Jacobs), all members of the so-called golden generation of Liberian football, part of the side built around the immensely talented George Weah, who not only became the FIFA World Footballer of the Year in 1995 but in 2001 led the team to within a point of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. The Lone Stars were denied their first World Cup appearance only by a home slip-up to Ghana in their penultimate game.
But Debbah, Sebwe and the others have not assembled at the training ground for a kick-about, they are there on business. At the end of last year the Liberian Football Association (LFA) announced that Debbah had been entrusted with the senior national team with Sebwe his assistant. Kojo and Jacobs are in charge of the U-23 team. Wreh and Markor were made coach and assistant respectively of the U-20 side, while Nagbe and Gebro are in charge of the U-17 team, and Kpoto and Sarwieh coach the U-14 side.
“We felt that not only we could give something back to the country, we could also help Liberian football,” Sebwe told FIFA.com. The former midfielder, who played professionally in France, Belgium, Greece and the United Arab Emirates, admitted that Liberian football had struggled in the post-Weah era. “But most of our generation has returned to Liberia to live, and we wanted to bring our experience and help transform the teams.”
Sebwe explains that it was important that several of their team were given coaching positions. “We worked well together as a team when we played, which is why we had success. And now we work well together as coaches. Even though we are all responsible for different teams, we constantly work together. It is not unusual that many of the coaches come to the training session of a single team. George Weah also gives us some input now and then.”
When the appointments were made, LFA president Musa Hassan Bility said that the influx of former internationals could have a major impact. “Football in Liberia has come through tough times, and it was logical, after many trials with overseas managers, to turn to those in Liberia. And we considered these past national team players as the only examples of success in the country’s football history.”
Sebwe though warns that success will not be automatic and will take some time. “It is a process and we need to give it some time. Our first goal is to overcome Guinea-Bissau to get into the next round of the World Cup qualifiers. We then are looking towards the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.”
Moving up in the rankings
If the FIFA/Coca-Cola Ranking is any indication of how things are progressing, then Sebwe and Debbah certainly are on the right track. When they were appointed to the national team, Liberia were ranked 125th in the world. Defeats against Togo in a qualifier for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and a draw and a defeat in the CHAN – the competition open only to locally-based players – qualifier against Guinea saw the Lone Stars slip down to 161 in the Ranking. That position was just three places off their worst placing, which was 164 in October 2010.
Although there was some pressure on Debbah and his team, the LFA stood firm in their resolve to entrust the former national team stars with steering the team into calmer waters and the coaching staff repaid their officials as best they can: With results. “We always said that there is no recipe for instant success. We want to improve, but we have to build to improve and I think our game against Tunisia showed that we are improving,” Sebwe explains.
The Lone Stars faced Tunisia, ranked 33rd in the world, in early September in their second AFCON qualifier and their fans in the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia could not believe the change in their side. Not overwhelmed by their much higher-ranked opponents, the Lone Stars took the game to Tunisia and were rewarded ten minutes from the end when Malaysian-based Francis Grandpa Doe headed home to give his side the 1-0 victory, which keeps their hopes of qualifying for Gabon 2017 alive.
The victory against Tunisia saw Liberia move an astonishing 65 places to 95th in the world – their best position since April 2003, when they were ranked 94th. “I think the result showed us quite clearly that we are on the right track. It is wrong to expect miracles now, but I think that our experience will continue to help our country,” says Sebwe.