Sierra Leone’s Isha Johansen blazes trail amid tragedy and infighting

One of only two female FA presidents in the world on dealing with Ebola, fractious internal politics and sexism while building on a passion for the game

Isha Johansen

Isha Johansen remembers the first time she heard about Ebola. One Sunday morning in Freetown, the president of the Sierra Leone Football Association – one of only two female FA presidents in the world – was looking through the newspapers when her husband read aloud a story about an outbreak of a virus in neighbouring Guinea. It had ravaged the population of a rural area. “These things you hear about, you think: ‘That’s so sad, I hope it sorts itself out,’” says the 50-year-old. But what felt like a remote problem soon came closer to home.

A few weeks later, in early April 2014, Sierra Leone were due to cross the border and play Guinea in an African Under-20 Championship qualifier. Johansen was worried. “A week before leaving I had talks with our competitions manager and the general secretary of the FA. I said: ‘Maybe this is because I’m a mother, I know how I would feel if my child had to go to Guinea and there’s an outbreak there. I’m not sure I want our boys to go. Why don’t we contact the World Health Organisation and find out more?’ I was told not to make a fuss.”

Sitting in a flat in Chelsea, a base when visiting family in London, Johansen sighs. She folds her arms on her tiny lap and shrugs. Johansen has grown used to football’s incessant politicking. Soon Ebola started creeping into Sierra Leone. “It hit major towns but still the Premier League kept playing. I remember getting very jittery. I said: ‘I don’t like this. It’s real. Ebola is real. People are dropping down dead.’”

Football, Johansen feared, was the perfect breeding ground for the virus. Sweat, blood and bodily fluids on the pitch, large crowds with poor sanitation in the stands. “I said we could be responsible for spreading that disease like wildfire, among supporters and players themselves. Again not much attention was paid to that. I can’t go into the politics.”

Johansen chose to boycott fixtures, making her own personal protest. Later, in August, football was suspended altogether in Sierra Leone. Since then more than 3,100 people have died from the disease in the country, including two Premier League players. With no matches, the game was left in disarray. Most clubs stopped paying players’ wages.

The national team, then led by Johnny McKinstry, a 28-year-old from Northern Ireland whose efforts had enabled Sierra Leone to break into Fifa’s top 50 rankings, above Senegal and Cameroon, were treated as pariahs as they attempted to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. The Seychelles chose to forfeit their qualifier altogether rather than host Sierra Leone, and even when neutral countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo offered to provide the venue for “home” matches the team were subjected to chants of “Ebola” from the stands. Opposition players refused to shake hands with Sierra Leone’s players, or even exchange shirts after the match. The team were quarantined as the only guests in a hotel and struggled to make travel arrangements. The treatment was hurtful. “I’m a Sierra Leonean, not a virus,” tweeted the Notts County defender Mustapha Dumbuya.

In the end it proved too much: Sierra Leone failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations. Johansen looks sorrowful. “As Africans we need to be more supportive of each other in times of need. We all like to think that Africans unite but sometimes we fall short of that.”

A decade earlier Sierra Leone had been torn apart by a long and bloody civil war that left 50,000 dead. Just as the nation was getting back on its feet, Ebola struck. “Sierra Leoneans are used to mass pandemonium,” Johansen says. “They are used to destruction, we had the war. But you could see the rebels coming. For an invisible alien like Ebola you can’t see it coming and that’s what made it frightening. Psychologically, that’s what destabilised people. It was that not knowing. Are we all going to die?” The disease “ripped through basic humanity”, says Johansen, as mothers were told not to hold their dying children, wives separated from their husbands, families unable to bury their dead.

Johansen grew up in Sierra Leone and England, moving between the two countries as she completed her education – at a convent school in Freetown, at a boarding school in Yeovil, studying in England. Having grown up in a football-obsessed household – her father cofounded one of Sierra Leone’s most famous clubs, East End Lions FC – Johansen played football with her brothers. In her 20s she launched a socialist magazine called Rapture and recalls sharing a desk in Euston with the Mobo awards founder Kanya King when both were starting out. Returning to Sierra Leone, she was moved to found a football club, FC Johansen, after seeing boys who had nowhere else to go playing football in the street. In exchange for their promise to attend school, she provided them with football kit and food. The team was to become a success story when, in 2008, they won the Under-16s Swiss Cup, beating Liverpool in the final.

“There’s an image I’ll never forget,” she says, describing their first overseas trip to a tournament in Sweden. “These kids came up to the boys and they said: ‘You! Pap pap pap!’ [she gestures shooting a gun] My boys looked at me like what? ‘You! Your mama! Pap pap pap!’ They meant did you shoot your mother? Are you a child soldier? Because the European kids, even at that age, understood that these African kids had come from war. It was a gripping moment.”

FC Johansen grew and became a Premier League club. Some of their players have gone on to have trials at European clubs. Most recently George Davies signed for the second-tier Bundesliga side Greuther Fürth. Johansen’s experiences of youth football, of seeing how the sport could change the lives of a generation whose innocence was stolen by war, encouraged her to stand for the role of association president. “People said I would come up against a lot of problems: ‘A woman? In Africa? That’s going to be something.’ But I was used to it, that was the least of my problems, what men would think. So I threw my hat in barely two weeks before the elections.”

The election itself proved controversial, as two well-known figures in the game – the businessman Rodney Michael and the former Internazionale striker Mohamed Kallon – were ruled ineligible candidates. In the end Johansen stood unopposed. The event left a bitter taste in the mouths of her rivals that still lingers. “There was a lot of animosity,” Johansen says, shaking her head sadly. “They called themselves ‘the aggrieved party’. They wanted a stake in the football. I said: “OK, fine, let’s work together. We tried to bury the hatchet. But it didn’t work.”

As news of Ebola broke in Guinea, Johansen and Kallon were involved in an altercation that rocked Sierra Leonean football. Kallon accused the diminutive president of striking him on the face; a photograph of the alleged injury appeared online. Johansen lifts up her hands. “First of all, look at these fingers,” she says, tiny hands turning over for inspection. “I looked at that picture as well. I did that? How?” She sighs. “This is the first time I’m speaking about that incident publicly.”

At a local game, Johansen says an argument broke out between Kallon and a rival club owner. The exchange escalated and she worried that, with their groups of supporters looking on, there could be a riot. Johansen called the police. They did not come. In the end she entreated Kallon, a long-time friend, to call off his supporters and leave the stadium. He refused. As she turned to leave he grabbed her arm. She says she instinctively hit out in self-defence. The two have since made up but the infighting within domestic football continues.

In December an interim body, seeking to overturn Johansen’s presidency, announced to Fifa that it would be taking over the SLFA. A letter from the Fifa general secretary, Jérôme Valcke, refused to formally recognise the collective. For Johansen the time has come for an ultimatum: “Either they stay within the football family and work towards a better football or they have to bow out.”

The fighting has led to fallouts: a boycott of the league, sponsors withdrawing, allegations of match-fixing and ultimately the sacking of McKinstry, which Johansen says had nothing to do with her. She speaks fondly of the Northern Irishman, who is now working as a pundit on ITV’s Africa Cup of Nations coverage, describing him as “passionate and genuine”, but suggests he may have got caught up in the politics between the ministry for sport and the SLFA, prompting his downfall.

Johansen has enough of her own problems to worry about. “I used to think that some of the attacks that I had was because of my zero tolerance on corruption,” says Johansen, who believes too many individuals involved in Sierra Leonean football view the national game as “a milking cow”. “But I’m beginning to realise it is because I am a woman.

“In my quiet moments I want to say: ‘Oh gosh, poor me, why are they putting me through the grinder like this?’ There are times it gets to me, yes. I’ve been called a prostitute on the radio by one of these guys who calls himself a stakeholder [in football]. A journalist recently said I was a disgrace to womanhood. I’m still trying to figure it out. How?” She laughs. “I guess because I’m in a position of power. During the run-up to the elections some very hurtful things were being said. There was a time that I thought Sierra Leone was ready for women in leadership but I’m beginning to think it will take a little longer.”

Johansen’s background in youth football informs her view of what the game should be focusing on in Sierra Leone: the next generation. She wants young footballers to be better equipped with life skills and education, whether they end up overseas with a professional contract or start a new vocation altogether. Alongside FC Johansen sits another international name: the Craig Bellamy Foundation, founded in 2009 and run by McKinstry before he was appointed to coach the national side. Johansen welcomes the Bellamy academy, though it runs independently of the SLFA, but says she has reservations about its links with the gambling firm Mercury International, whose logo is on the CBF website.

“We are talking about an academy where the boys are under 18. Where do we draw the line of what is legally acceptable? I stand to be corrected if I have misunderstood but I am very against minors being exposed or associated in any way whatsoever to gambling, whether through sponsorship or otherwise.”

With the news that Ebola is receding in Sierra Leone, there are plans for schools to reopen in March. Football, though, will have to wait. The rains come in the summer and the league still needs a sponsor.

“I’m resigned to the fact that my four years of office, of which I’ve done 18 months now, will not be a ceremonial, enjoyable ride. It’s a battle axe, it’s the shovel. But it’s all good because somebody’s got to do it, and if it means that four years on another president comes in and has a much more stable level to work from then I’ll be extremely proud.”

Johansen pauses. “I can see you’re thinking: ‘She’s mad.’” She laughs. “Had I known what I know now, this African football, the whole web, the deceit, the malfunctioning and everything, would I have gone into it? I ask myself those questions sometimes.” She smiles. “But I am a very determined woman, I like a challenge. Yes, I probably still would have.”