ZURICH, March 12 (Reuters) - In 18 months as president of the Sierra Leone football association (SLFA), Isha Johansen has seen the sport thrown into disarray by the Ebola virus, the national team shunned and has herself nearly been ousted by in-fighting.
Undeterred, the resilient 50-year-old, one of only two women among the world’s 209 national association presidents, vows to battle on.
Her goals include establishing a professional league and follow the lead of Cape Verde, who went from rank outsiders to qualify for two successive African Nations Cup tournaments.
“I thrive on challenges, it’s just that this is who I am,” Johansen told Reuters in an interview. “Everything I have done or created has always been among the firsts, because my nature is we must always thrive to do whatever is unachievable.”
“The more difficult it becomes, the greater my resolve, especially if it is for the benefit of the country.”
Johansen became involved in football administration when she formed her club FC Johansen in 2004. They won plaudits for their performances in international youth competitions over the last four years and she was elected SLFA president in a turbulent election in 2013.
But it is an extraordinarily demanding job.
Having been decimated by civil war between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone was hit by the Ebola virus last year.
Domestic football was suspended while the national side was forced to play competitive international matches outside the country, often in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.
The Seychelles forfeited a home game, and were knocked out of the African Nations Cup qualifiers, rather than allow Sierra Leone’s team to enter the country.
Elsewhere, they were greeted with chants of “ebola” and opponents refused to shake hands.
Despite being forced to play all matches away, Sierra Leone’s performances were initially encouraging.
They held a halftime lead against Ivory Coast in Abidjan, eventually losing 2-1 and held Cameroon to a 0-0 draw.
“I honestly believe that had we been able to play our home matches at home, we would have stood a very good chance of qualifying,” said Johansen, speaking on the sidelines of an event at FIFA to mark international women’s day.
”The travelling, the long hours, the preparations, the build-up, the question of will we play or not, and just that whole process of what they had to endure... it really affected the players psychologically.
“But we participated. This is sport, you rise above the odds, you get in there, you engage and that’s what we did. Despite all the problems, we participated and we fulfilled the last fixture.”
Ebola also brought domestic football to a standstill while Johansen has also had to deal with political in-fighting.
Her problems included a row with Mohamed Kallon, widely regarded as the finest player the country has produced and a rival in the turbulent 2013 SLFA election.
Kallon alleged he was slapped by Johansen at an FA Cup match and she in turn said she was acting in self defence after being pushed.
“It was sorted out a few days later,” she said. “It should never have happened. We’ve moved on, he is a friend.”
She faced another challenge last year when an interim committee, led by Unisa Alim Sesay, tried to take over the SLFA, however FIFA refused to recognise it and backed Johansen.
Johansen hopes the FA Cup tournament will start in May, although the Premier league is unlikely to resume until next year.
Even before the Ebola outbreak, domestic soccer struggled with crumbling infrastructure and financial difficulties.
“They are supposed to be full time footballers but when you look at the salary scale, it’s pittance and I‘m not proud or happy to admit there are some clubs who struggle to pay,” said Johansen.
But she was optimistic that a professional league would eventually be viable.
“It’s all down to sponsorship, we need to get healthy, long standing sponsors,” said Johansen, adding that she wanted the country to do more to develop local talent.
Cape Verde’s rise, which included a quarter-final place at the 2013 Nations Cup, was an inspirational example that small countries could compete with their bigger neighbours, she added.
”We watched these matches and you could imagine they were our players on the pitch. We played Cape Verde in the previous qualifiers and their players are just like us, in fact I can say our boys are even better.
“Look at the match against Ivory Coast in these qualifiers and against Cameroon, watch those matches, watch the way our boys played, and remember that this is a team that was not even training together. So I know, that we will get to that stage.”
”It’s very unfortunate that we have these major calamities. If it isn’t the civil war, it’s now Ebola, so just when we start getting into gear, something happens and it brings us to a grinding halt.
“We have to start all over again but we’ll get there.” (Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Pritha Sarkar)