Isha Johansen, the Sierra Leonean FA President, has been speaking to Sports Planet anchorman, TUNDE KOIKI about the Lone Stars’ 2017 AFCON qualifier against Côte d’Ivoire at makeshift home, Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium Port Harcourt on Sunday. The strong woman of Sierra Leonean football touches on an Ebola-induced hardship on her country, Nigeria as a perfect home and how she has weathered the storm in a male dominated vocation. Excerpts…
Sports Planet: Isha Johansen, thank you for talking to us.
Isha Johansen: Thank you.
SP: Could you give us a summary of who Isha Johansen is?
Isha: I am the president of the Sierra Leone Football Association. I came into football administration 12 years ago, starting off with a humanitarian project just after the civil war, looking up to boys, women and orphans and offering them a little bit of help here and there. But these young kids decided they wanted to form a team called FC Johansen (which I don’t know why they chose the name) and they did. And we started putting them into local leagues, U-10, U-12 and also took them abroad. I’ve taken them to Sweden, America and Real Madrid where they played series of games. We then came back to Sierra Leone, groomed them and they started playing football proper from second division to first division; they are now in the Premier League.
Beyond that, my father is a co-founder of one of the biggest and most established clubs in Sierra Leone. I’m from a very famous Tejan-Cole family with plenty of affinity with Nigerians. My name is Abiodun and Iyatunde, my father calls me Remilekun while Dele Momodu is my mentor. Being the president of the FA is what I’ve always loved to throw my heart in. And it was simply because I saw that those that have done it before I’ve messed things up (I don’t see this as arrogance), that is just the reality. The structure and discipline is lacking in their administration. So, I came into the race; this made me the second woman in the world to head a national football association (along with Lydia Nsekera, the president of the Burundi Football Association) and also because I’ve managed a club before. It’s been an experience, very challenging.
SP: How challenging has this position been for you especially in male dominated society like Africa?
Isha: It’s been very challenging. And I’m not happy at the level of sexism we encountered in terms of leadership position nowadays. But I don’t mind because I learn. And I also realize that sometimes this attack is not just because I’m a woman but because I’m trying to bring in a new structure and bad news that people are scared of because of their bad agenda like match fixing. So, it’s not a fun time for me and them too but at the end of the day, I stay in the game. I do what I love doing most. We are just building. We are in Nigeria to play against perhaps the strongest team in Africa and it’s going to be an exciting match. I must admit, it has been challenging.
SP: The tragedy of Ebola Virus has struck Sierra Leone. How difficult has this been especially for football in Sierra Leone?
Isha: It’s been extremely difficult, more difficult that you can ever imagine not just for football but everything else. I think what made it scary is that Nigeria had a little taste of the disease. We lost many lives, neigbours, lot of players and families to the players. The boys had no means of support financially because football is their only means of survival. They couldn’t play football and they couldn’t go to stadium to watch either. But slowly, we began to pick up. Initially, we were not encouraged to participate in the AFCON qualifier but eventually we were allowed but not with our local players but with only foreign based players. But as the fight against Ebola progressed, we were allowed four to five home grown players towards the end of the last qualifiers. We actually participated with home based players when we played in Cameroun, Algeria, Ivory Coast and now we are playing here in Nigeria. It’s been a very difficult time psychologically and physically for the boys.
SP: Why did you choose Nigeria as the venue for your match against Ivory Coast?
Isha? I chose Nigeria because Nigeria is home to me and Nigeria is home to many Sierra Leoneans. I think there is a special bond between Nigeria and Sierra Leone. And I think coming to play here is just as good as playing at home. On Sunday, Nigeria but not Sierra Leone is going to be playing Ivory Coast.
SP: You are in a group that has Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire and Gabon. To be honest, it’s going to be very difficult for you to qualify from the group. But looking forward, how do you expect to grow Sierra Leoneans football to the level where you have Mohammed Kallon and other great footballers in Sierra Leone.
Isha: You see, it’s a waiting game; we just have to win it. And I think it is about time Sierra Leoneans understand that for us to get to that stage, we have to prepare. There must be structure, discipline and preparation in place to compete at the highest level before we actually think of winning. So, we engage in the sport and get the boys into the habit of learning. In five years time, I’ll like to see us compete at the highest level but for now, I can only say we are there to participate.
SP: What words of encouragement do you have for women, to see you as a role model who aspires to be in the position of authority like you?
Isha: First of all, I’m humbled if that is the case. But I’ll say to them that you have to chase your dream before you believe in your dream. Being a woman in today’s world trying to be something that people perceived to be difficult, you have to keep the result and prepare to face challenges that come your way. I’m where I am now simply because of my result. So, keep the result and face the challenges; do not relent.
SP: Isha, thank you so much for you time.
Isha: Thank you very much.
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