Coaching Fotbol

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I coached "the beautiful game" (aka fotbol) in Africa from 1963-65. As I watch the World Cup unfold on the dark continent, my thoughts frequently return to those thrilling, enchanting, and exciting days of yesteryear.

I went to Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in 1963, when the Peace Corps was in its infancy. I was assigned as a history teacher to the Schlenker School in Port Loko, Sierra Leone in West Africa. Because of my passion for sports, the Headmaster (principal) asked me to be the Games Master (director of the intramural program and all athletic events). Of course, I eagerly accepted.

I remember the friendliness of the people, their love of life, which was exceeded only by their passion for "the people’s game." My first memories of Port Loko were of little kids playing fotbol in a cloud of dust. I don’t think they even had a ball. As I recall, they were using a tin cup. Port Loko was a poor village. Most of the kids’ families couldn’t afford a ball, let alone shoes. Other times, the "ball" consisted of a bunch of rags rolled into a ball.

In addition to coaching fotbol, I also introduced basketball and baseball and formed teams in these sports. However, the fotbol techniques were omnipresent as I introduced and tried to teach these "Peace Corps" sports and really quite humorous. In baseball, it was not uncommon for an outfielder to get under a fly ball, but he wouldn’t catch it with his hands. He would adroitly trap it with his foot. Then he would pick it up and throw it – usually at the runner.

Another interesting fotbol habit involved ground balls. My shortstop, Baimba Tambadu, would trap the grounder with his foot, do a quick pivot, and kick it to the second baseman. Fortunately, the second baseman, George Nahim, usually remembered to catch the ball with his hands. Interestingly, Baimba was remarkably accurate with this "quick kick" technique.

One day at basketball practice, during a battle for a rebound, Foday Sesay borrowed another fotbol technique and tried to head the ball into the basket. Actually, he came quite close. I almost swallowed my whistle with laughter. They thought it was such a great idea that they actually organized "heading" drills during practice. Foday and Bismarck Kargbo were actually quite good at it. Charles Kalawah, our key defender in fotbol, occasionally tried to clear the ball by kicking it the length of the court. Habits are hard to break.

As the fotbol coach, I knew my role was to be head cheerleader, manager, and organizer. These kids had forgotten more about fotbot then I would ever learn. I was so fortunate to have Charles Kalawah, as the Team Captain. He was as close to a natural leader as I have ever worked with.

The fotbol team played in the Port Loko League. We were the only school team – the rest were club teams of "20 and 30 somethings". I don’t remember the African term, but there were considerable "town-gown" conflicts.

During both of my years we competed for the championship. We were very, very good. Charles led a rock hard physical defense. Abdul Jalloh brought speed down the left side. Salfy Bangura was the "Master of the Dribble". Abu Barkor Saccoh was our lead scorer with rockets from 20-25 yards.

In my second year one of the local teams, led by Alpha Beta Omega, was determined to deprive us of the championship. He imported a bunch of top players from Freetown, the capitol city, for our game. We were so overmatched. We packed in our defense. I was so proud of our players. We hung tough and were only down 1-0 with about three minutes to play.

The other team had been show-boating to the extreme and really hot dogging us. But Charles Kalawah stole the ball, dribbled past mid-field and boomed a long shot. The goalie easily caught it about five yards from the goal. I think that was our only shot. The goalie started show-boating – doing a hand stand with the ball, shuffling it behind his back, balancing it on his head, when suddenly he lost control of the ball and it rolled into the goal. What an ending! The game ended in a 1-1 tie – giving us the championship.

In addition to Alpha’s town-gown problems, he was also quite anti-American. Remember 1963-65 was the height of the Cold War. The Chinese People’s Republic was trying to stir communist revolutions throughout the continent. Russia had the Patrice Lumumba Academy in Moscow where students were trained to return to Africa and promote discontent. In contrast the Peace Corps promoted friendship by interacting with the people.

Also in my second year, our fotbol team traveled to Kamakwie for a key game. We traveled in the back of a PWD (Public Works Department) truck. This game also ended in a 1-1 tie, which cost both teams a shot at the championship. The townsfolk, who had been verbally abusing us during the game, stormed the field throwing rocks and sticks at us. Fortunately, I got the players in the truck and we headed out of town with the mob in hot pursuit. Just as they were catching up, the police arrived and gave us an escort out of town.

Such was life as a PCV, teacher, and coach in West Africa. What an unforgettable experience!

(Charles L. Kennedy is a senior instructor in Political Science and an avid sports fan.)