Canada and the World

CANADA'S TEAM

A soccer squad honours a mysterious Canadian who aided an African town

LINDA POLMAN July 9 2001
Canada and the World

CANADA'S TEAM

A soccer squad honours a mysterious Canadian who aided an African town

LINDA POLMAN July 9 2001

CANADA'S TEAM

Canada and the World

A soccer squad honours a mysterious Canadian who aided an African town

LINDA POLMAN

The hot West African sun is baking the Sierra Leone village of Kenema. A man bathed in sweat and carrying a bullhorn pedals around town on his bicycle, urging villagers to attend a midafternoon soccer match between the home-town Black Stars and the visiting Nepean Stars from Bo, about 85 km away. In a dusty courtyard, while they wait for the game to begin, Nepean coach Roxy Coombar, 35, is trying to explain why his team came to be

named after the former Ottawa suburb.

It was 1991, Coombar recalls, when “a white man came to Bo with funds to help develop the town. He built us a market, for one thing. I can still see his face and his posture: tall and lanky. He was from Canada and his name was Mr. Nepean. Or his village was called Nepean, I am not sure. However, in those days, we changed the club’s name from the Bo All Stars to Nepean Stars. We hoped Mr. Nepean would appreciate this and help our club develop a little.”

That hope evaporated a few months later when war broke out and the Canadian left the country. In their fight against the government, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front looted and burned villages, raped women and randomly cut off the arms and legs of children to further terrorize the population. In 1997, the rebels captured Bo. Coombar says all the inhabitants, including the Nepean Stars, ran into the bush to seek the protection of the Kamajors, a warrior tribe believed to possess magical powers that make them invincible, and thus feared by the rebels.

Eventually, the Kamajors joined forces with Nigerian UN peacekeepers and chased the rebels out of Bo. After a week, the people returned to their homes, grateful for the presence of the Kamajors who remain in charge of Bo’s security. UN troops have since driven the rebels north and reopened Sierra Leone’s only highway, ending Bo’s virtual isolation from much of the nation. And although the rebels still control three-quarters of the country, soccer supporters are organizing so-called national competitions.

Many clubs did not survive the war. Some gave up when their players were either killed or scattered through refugee camps all over West Africa. But even during the darkest days,

Coombar says, the Nepean Stars kept playing, under a banner bearing a handpainted Canadian flag.

“Even if Mr. Nepean never came back, we hold on to his name,” the coach says. “We like it, even if few here know how to spell it correcdy.” The team has kept its place among the First Division teams; players dream of advancing to the Premier League or perhaps being discovered by a scout for a European team. “It is very important that they have this dream.” says Coombar. “In a country like Sierra Leone, it is even dangerous not to dream because it is reality that drives boys into the claws of the rebels.”

To keep the dreams alive, the Stars usually train for four hours a day on a barren playing field on the outskirts of Bo. In sun-bleached, well-worn shirts, they run for eight kilometres around the field, stirring up dust clouds as admiring children watch. The team has no goalposts or nets, just bamboo poles, and only two practice balls that lose a little bit of leather each time they’re kicked. A few of the players own cheap sandals or threadbare sneakers, but most practise in bare feet. “We have to save our boots for matches,” Coombar says. “We have 11 pairs and no spares.”

On the day of the drive to Kenema,

Coombar discovers one of the pairs of boots has lost its last stud. He canvasses Bo for a secondhand pair, but no one can help. Coombar has raised money to feed the team before the game, but has to spend it on gas for the Land Rover they’ve borrowed for the journey. “We often go without food,” says a midfielder whose name is Confidence. “We then save energy by sleeping a lot.”

All 18 players chosen for the Kenema match try to pile into the Land Rover, but

there isn’t enough room and some are dispatched to the roof. (Of the team’s 30 registered members, eight are still in school, a few have jobs, selling biscuits or underwear in Bo’s market, and the rest are unemployed). Finally, their Canadian-flag banner draped across the front of the vehicle, they set off. The journey takes them through Sierra Leone’s richest diamond fields, which the rebels have plundered to buy weapons. The area is heavily patrolled. Every few miles, the team passes through a roadblock, manned by soldiers, police, UN troops or the Kamajors. At each one, the travellers are stopped and questioned; the Nepean Stars are the same age—16 to 23—as most of the rebels.

Coombar says it’s not difficult to understand the RUF’s success in recruiting warriors. “Those rebel boys are like my boys, but without the dream,” he says. “They are not dumb, but young and strong and frustrated in every single thing they have tried to achieve in their lives. Then one day,

someone offers them a job, to be a fighting force. They accept, because they’ve nothing decent to do.” His job, Coombar says, is to help the boys nourish their hopes. “They are rebel fodder,” he says. “I must make them proud of themselves, so they don’t feel the need to hurt others.” If he can raise money from time to time, Coombar, a former First Division player himself, gives the players allowances to help pay school fees. “But mind you, the Nepean Stars is not an aid organization,” he insists. “It’s a professional soccer team fighting for a place in the Premier League, and we have no place for losers. Only the very talented make it through the selection.”

Before the game, the Nepean Stars gather in the heat of the Kenema courtyard. Children and chickens are swept aside to make room for the team’s equipment, which is shaken from an old bag onto the ground. There are no personal outfits—players pick through the pile for shirts, shorts and boots. Pieces of cardboard are stuck into socks—“We’re saving up for shin protectors,” explains the goalkeeper.

The teams march onto the field two hours before sunset. By now, it’s cool enough for players and spectators (admission fee: 40 cents) to avoid being roasted by the sun, but still early enough for the game to finish before dark— which it must because the lights don’t work. The Nepean Stars win 1-0. After paying the referees, the gatekeepers and security personnel, the players pocket a small profit. The Stars arrive back in Bo minutes before the midnight curfew. “Seven o’clock tomorrow morning, gentlemen,” Coombar says before he goes home to his wife and three children.

And so they continue to practise, four hours a day, under the West African sun. But a week later, there is bad news. The Nepean Stars failed to raise enough money to cover their travel expenses, and so could not qualify for the Premier League. “Some of the boys are so disappointed, they are considering giving up,” Coombar says. “With the grace of God, it would be very lovely if I could convince them to hang in » there. We will make it, you know. Next | year, we will make the Canadian flag fly ? over the national stadium.” In honour of ¡ the mystery man named Nepean—or £ from the town named Nepean. GIS ë