Stars and Shadows
Liberia, child soldiers, truth, false hope and a complicated charity tour
It’s a freezing Monday evening in September 1999 at the Cliftonhill Stadium, home of Albion Rovers, and Millennium Stars from Liberia are making things hard for Celtic.
50 fans have braved the frosty conditions to watch a four-team tournament featuring the Under-19 sides from the Glasgow giants, the hosts Albion Rovers, Motherwell FC and Millennium Stars – a team apparently made up of former child soldiers and street kids from Liberia, in West Africa, aged between 15 and 19.
We’ve reached the second 20-minute half of the final and the score is still 0-0.
Despite the cold, there’s a sense of possibility about the match as the bright young things of one of the world’s most famous clubs confront the boys from nowhere. One of the young men on the pitch will go on to play for Manchester United.
The Liberians have been inspired by their countryman and soccer legend George Weah. According to the legend, when Weah and the national team played at home during Liberia’s civil war, the guns fell silent. Following his example, Millennium Stars are touring the UK with a message of peace through football.
Millennium Stars are playing compact, possession football, keeping the ball on the ground. Yet Celtic are in no danger of conceding because the Liberians seem unwilling to advance more than two-thirds of the way up the field. The long ball doesn’t come into their thinking.
In the 30-odd months since forming on 17 January 1997, Millennium Stars have done most of their training barefoot, but tonight they’re wearing boots bought specially for the trip and strips they’ve been presented with since arriving in the UK on September 6.
Cliftonhill might be a humble ground in terms of Scottish football, but even with its time-worn home stand and pitch-side greyhound track, it is still light years from the Millennium Stars’ home pitch in Gbangaye1 Town, a slum in Liberia’s capital Monrovia, where the 17 players selected from Millennium Stars’ wider squad of at least 50 have been training for this trip for two years.
Gbangaye Town field consists of sand and dirt rather than grass. There’s a road down one wing and a steep drop down the other. Every year the rainy season storms wash away half the pitch, and teams have to find sand or dirt from elsewhere to bank it up before matches can take place again.
Even then, you’re never sure where the ball will go after it bounces, so it makes sense to learn to control it and flick it on while it’s still in the air.
A wall on one side has “Welcome to Millennium Stars Sports Stadium” daubed on it in white paint.
Back in Coatbridge, the Millennium goalkeeper Nusee Cooper is playing like his life depended on it and, in fact, his physical state does take a crucial hit later on in the game.
The centre-backs Prince Momo, always dour and unsmiling, and Saah Tamba, always smiling and often singing, are defending majestically, out-jumping much taller forwards and spiriting the ball away from them before smuggling it out to the full-backs, Vasco Kaba and Moses Barcon.
The Millennium Stars midfield consists of four stocky players, all fit, quick and composed. In the centre, Togar Thomas and Abraham Clarke make timely tackles and keep possession of the ball till they can move it. On the wings, Morris Kermue and Nostelda Thorpe carry the ball with speed and control as far as they can.
The Millennium forwards, Mulbah Kpaiwolo and Emmett Glassco – the team’s two organisers, and coaches during the tour – are the best players in the squad and also the oldest. Their “football age” is officially 17, but they are more likely to be around 22.
Emmett is particularly good: fast, a great header of the ball and a confident finisher. But both he and Mulbah have dropped back into midfield so there is no one upfield to pass to. And it seems they’re happy with that – content to demonstrate their skills while it remains 0-0.
In contrast, Celtic’s boys look like men as they line up 4-4-2. This team would go on to win the Scottish Premier Under-19s league that season – 1999-2000 – but they can’t break through the Liberians’ defence. They attack in waves, but time after time the Celtic player loses the ball to one of the opposition, who then takes delight in dribbling out of trouble or finding a man with an effortless pass.
Millennium Stars have been in the UK at this point for exactly a week. They’ve already played two full-scale 11-a-side matches and won both, 5-0 and 2-1.
They’ve taken photos with Thierry Henry at Arsenal and played head tennis with Duncan Ferguson at Newcastle United.
They’ve attended, in full African dress, a reception by the Scottish FA at Hampden Park, where guests listened politely to what the organisers thought were traditional Liberian songs, but were actually risqué football ditties with their roots in the war chants of Liberia’s armed factions.
Ahead of them lie two more weeks of matches, visits and media interviews – to Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Reading; to schools, parishes and youth groups; to newspapers and radio stations. By the time they leave the country, they will be exhausted, if they aren’t already.
They will continue to take seriously the duty to tell their stories to whomever they meet in the UK who asks them, revealing again and again the brutality meted out to them and their families during the Liberian civil war and simply the hopelessness of life as a child in one of the world’s poorest countries.
But tonight, Millennium are playing for enjoyment in the most important game of their lives.
Celtic have at least three coaches of varying age and severity wearing a groove up and down the touchline. As the minutes tick by with no score, they get more and more irate as their well-drilled charges fail to break through a bunch of African street footballers.
With about 10 minutes to go, and with the exhortations of the Celtic coaches reaching fever pitch, the green-and-whites force a corner. The Celtic winger curls it in from the right and a herd of Celtic giraffes throngs around Nusee as he tries to grab the moving ball above his head. The crowding and his comparative lack of stature cause him to fumble the cross and the ball falls. With no second thought, he drops onto it, but in the scramble one of the Celtic players bundles it over the line.
As the Celtic players celebrate – more with relief than jubilation, it seems – and the Celtic coaches take a deep breath before they launch again into the litany of “clear your lines, get goal side, mark a man, close him down”, the Millennium players and the officials gather round Nusee. Someone kicked him in the hand as he grabbed the ball and the agony as his finger breaks is what made him let go of it in the stampede.
The referee insists on a substitution. Millennium’s reserve full-back Zayzay Kollie gets off the bench and warms up briefly in a cloud of condensed breath, pulls on the reserve keeper’s shirt and takes his place between the posts, looking even smaller than his predecessor. Nusee and his broken finger are driven off to Accident & Emergency. Millennium’s remaining five substitutes huddle on the bench.
But even without Nusee, Millennium play out the remaining minutes with no further score, mostly in their own half and mostly in possession of the ball.
After the whistle, the Celtic players leave the field looking a bit sheepish about their 1-0 win, especially when the Millennium players come straight across to hug them. At a post-tournament reception, their reticence finally thaws in the glare of the Millennium Stars’ persistent warmth.
Abraham Clarke – the subject only the week before of an intimate documentary by Dutch TV that probed his career as a boy fighter for two of Liberia’s different warring factions – discovers that a shy ginger-haired Celtic player is also called Clarke. With a huge smile, he greets him like a long-lost brother and takes him under his wing for the rest of the night.
Nusee reappears to a hero’s welcome with his finger strapped up. The Celtic player who kicked him is gallant enough to apologise before the assembled crowd, but the bad news from the doctor is that he can’t play football for at least two weeks. The following day, Nusee takes his bandages off to allow one of his teammates to “haul” on the offending digit, giving it the Liberian cure, and within days he’s back in goal.
More than a decade later, the match still holds a key place in the Millennium Stars’ legend. The story they tell is that Liam Miller played for Celtic that night.
Miller was definitely in the Celtic youth ranks at the time. He would go on to make his full league debut for Celtic before the end of that season and play in the Uefa Cup within a year. After 26 games for Celtic, he moved to Manchester United in 2004.
By some measurements, Miller’s career didn’t fulfil its early potential. Nevertheless, as well as playing for two European Cup winners, he also played for Leeds, Sunderland – where he won a Championship medal – Queens Park Rangers and Hibernian. And for the Republic of Ireland. Not bad for an underachiever.
The purpose of the Millennium Stars trip to the UK was to raise awareness of the plight of young people in war-riven Liberia and show how football could help. But inevitably it also raised the mirage of football success to the individual players, themselves representatives of a group of people thirsting for opportunity at any level.
Back home, people knew that what they were telling the Europeans about their involvement in the war was only partially true. While it seemed to be a tactic that worked at first, the story didn’t bring them lasting success, so community respect turned to derision, and they found themselves on their own again.
Football changed their lives, but things didn’t work out for them the way they had hoped. And their story turned out to be far less simple than at first it seemed.
But for a brief period, the stars shone brightly.
In the nineties, the only two things ever mentioned in world news about Liberia were football and war. And the only two names you heard were George Weah and Charles Taylor.
At the same time as Liberia’s civil war brought violence and death to all parts of the country, Liberia’s most famous person George Weah was playing for Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain in France, and then in Italy for AC Milan. His career matched the civil war, which ran from 1989 to 2003, almost year for year.
The only player ever to hold World, African and European Footballer of the Year titles simultaneously, Weah is arguably the greatest African footballer of all time.
Because of the vast contrast between the fortunes of Weah and of the country he came from, because he was almost always asked to comment on matters outside football, and because he answered those questions with intelligence and sensitivity, a particular myth about the power of football to bring peace grew in media reports about him in the first half of the 1990s.
George Weah grew up in Clara Town, a slum in Monrovia, near the mouth of the Mesurado River, made up of densely packed tenements built from plastic, cardboard, wood and the odd piece of corrugated zinc. Weah once described it as “dark and humid”.
It can be difficult for the outsider to distinguish the difference between the day-to-day life of many children in Monrovia and the lives of street children or child combatants. But Weah said, “After my parents split my mother was too poor to raise me. So she gave me away to my grandmother. It was difficult. Despite some stories, I was never in the sort of street gang that uses guns and knives. We just hung round, played cards and did the other stuff young guys do.”
Weah signed for Mighty Barrolle, one of Liberia’s Big Two. He played 10 games and scored seven goals. But the story goes he wasn’t seen as “serious” so they released him.
Weah took himself off for a re-think and began training properly. He came back to the Liberian league the next season at the age of 19 with Invincible Eleven (IE), Barrolle’s arch-rivals, and scored 24 goals in 23 games.
After this one successful season with IE, Weah signed for Tonnerré Yaounde of Cameroon. Some stories say Weah’s potential was spotted by the Cameroonian opposition when the two clubs played each other in the CAF Continental Cup. Others suggest that Cameroon was simply a logical route for any footballer in West Africa, because of its football connections to France.
Again it only took a season for him to make an impression. Arsène Wenger snapped him up for AS Monaco for £60,000 in 1988.
Shortly before Christmas 1989, Weah’s second season, war broke out in Liberia. As the news got worse, Weah and the Liberian entourage Wenger had shrewdly invited to France with him would listen to the radio for nuggets of information from home.
“I didn’t know whether my parents were alive or dead,” Weah said.
But Weah kept his belief in his natural abilities. Apart from natural pace, balance and strength, he brought with him a sense of football pragmatism: how to make the best use of the ball to get as quickly as possible to goal.
By his fourth season in France, 1991-92, Weah was showing his full potential. He played 33 league games and scored 18 goals in domestic games, and added another four goals in nine Cup Winners’ Cup matches.
Wenger began mining the Liberian seam for more talent. In consecutive seasons he signed three Liberians: Mass Saar Jr, James Debbah and Kelvin Sebwe – all members of what would be considered Liberia’s golden football generation. Although none achieved the success Weah did, all of them used the Weah bridgehead to launch successful football careers in Europe and other parts of the world.
At some point around the time he moved to Europe, Weah became a Muslim and a naturalised Frenchman. He dropped both several years later when running to be president of Liberia.
Weah’s success at Monaco, and then Paris St-Germain, led to his transfer to AC Milan in 1995, the year he also achieved a remarkable treble of Player of the Year awards that marked him as the best player in his own continent, in the continent he was playing in and finally across the entire globe.
He received his World Player of the Year Award at a ceremony in January 1996. He barely had time to say thank you before leaving for a flight to Johannesburg. On top of the accolades gained for his club performances, he also managed to lead his war-riven country to its first major tournament, the 1996 African Cup of Nations in South Africa.
Lone Star2 won their first game against Gabon 2-1, with goals from Kelvin Sebwe and Mass Saar, but went out on goal difference.
Weah bankrolled the national side. He would buy the kit, arrange shirt sponsorship and pay for accommodation and airfares, as well as players’ and the team’s and the Liberian Football Association officials’ expenses – all from his own pocket.
An unnamed Liberian Sports Minister of the time demonstrated what Weah meant to Liberia during the war period: “People looked at Liberia as a country of savages, looters, murderers and cannibals. The only positive thing in our recent history is George Weah.”
Millennium’s keeper, Nusee Cooper, said, “At that time, when Liberia qualified for the African Cup of Nations and George Weah started playing well for AC Milan, people would prefer to go and watch the game, even those that were fighting. At some point the guns would fall silent and then people went to watch the football game together. And if you had Lone Star playing, you probably had a crowd made up of all the different ethnic groups. You all get together and support the national team with one voice, and then you had unity. You have peace among everyone during the time of football.”
Liberia, as an institutional entity, was founded by freed slaves. The national motto states that “The love of liberty brought us here” and the national coat of arms is a sailboat approaching the coast of Liberia. Next to a palm tree on the shore are a shovel and a plough representing labour. From 1847, when its constitution was drawn up, to 1980 Liberia, including its original inhabitants, was ruled only by settlers from the USA. Generations of indigenous Liberians have grown up living with the dichotomy of being told that their country is God-given compensation for years of slavery, when in reality their culture, politics and society have been imposed by an external colonising group.
Resentment about discrimination and lack of opportunities grew for 133 years. In 1980, a military coup installed the first indigenous Liberian as president, Samuel Kanyon Doe. Doe was himself overthrown in 1990 during a rebellion led by Charles Taylor, a former minister in Doe’s Government and now leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
Taylor would go on to win the 1997 election, which was deemed free and fair at the time. The evidence now suggests the populace voted for Taylor out of fear, as the election chant of some of his supporters demonstrates: “You killed my ma, you killed my pa; I’ll [still] vote for you.3”
Perhaps the chant remembered the previous year when Liberia experienced the chaos and terror of April 6, “the most destructive explosion of fighting [Monrovia] witnessed in all fourteen years of conflict.4”
On 6 April 1996, at dawn, members of Taylor’s NPFL militia wearing war-paint joined the police in a huge attack on the house of Roosevelt Johnson, one of several warlords vying with Taylor for control of Liberia. Fighters loyal to Johnson fought back. Machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons shattered the calm of residential suburb of Sinkor.
You could hear the noise and even see some of the fighting from nearby Gbangaye Town.“You hear of the guy they call Butt Naked?” asked the Millennium Stars defender Kunta Varnie. “He stripped himself naked and he walked through the street with a gun. Anybody he sees, he ain’t satisfied until he kills you. He killed 50 people every day.”
Despite its name, April 6 went on for several months. In May 1996, an American newspaper interviewed George Weah about the situation in Liberia. He described it as “horrific” and said the United Nations should send in troops and keep them there. When the interview surfaced in Liberia – as everything said or done by their hero did – Charles Taylor pronounced himself “infuriated” and sent militia to Weah's home at 8th Street, Sinkor, to exact retribution on Weah’s family and friends.
When April 6 began to unfold, people fled to any place of safety they could reach. It was arranged that the Millennium Stars striker Christian Neh should go to the safety of George Weah’s beach-front mansion.
“It was the only safe haven we had at that time,” Christian said, “because at least they were in full knowledge of the fact that this was the residence of George Weah and that the majority of the people who lived there were his relatives so nobody would dare venture inside.”
But at about 3 or 4am one night, rebel fighters climbed into Weah's yard and began waving their guns and shouting. They woke everyone in the compound and herded them together in the yard.
“We have been protecting George Weah since the beginning of this war,” their leader said, “and nobody can tell us that we ever molested or intimidated anybody from this compound. But George Weah made a statement that United Nations should come into the country. And that means that our leader Charles Taylor should be removed from the Presidency and forfeit all power and position. So on that basis, we're going to burn the house, we will rape every woman here and we will kill all the men.”
Earlier that year, the team Weah sponsored had won the league and he’d ordered supplies for a celebration. Because of the chaos in the city, the party never took place, so most of the drink, food and gifts were still in the house and word had got round. Looting those items became the focus of the mission.
The soldiers were so intent on their plunder that they didn't see daylight coming. But many of those they had summoned into the yard to be shot began to take advantage of their distraction to sneak out of the compound and escape along the beach, Christian among them.
They hid until 6 or 7am, then made their way back when the house’s grounds were clear. “There was a lot of wailing in the yard, people crying,” Christian said. “The girls, the women, they had raped them. They had looted the entire George Weah house but only set the master bedroom on fire. I felt terrible. It was a sad feeling for me to admit that I had somebody I admired and they were involved in that. She was raped and presently she's experiencing problems.”
Things calmed down in late 1996 and early 1997. The group that would become Millennium Stars were effectively presented with a choice: play football or fight. The atrocity of war was the more recent experience, but if you were playing barefoot on the sandy uneven surface at Gbangaye Town, it felt better to cast your mind back to January 1996 and imagine you were Kelvin Sebwe or Mass Saar Jr. banging in those two goals against Gabon in the Cup of Nations than to picture yourself alongside Milton Blahiyi and the Butt Naked Brigade.
“There were times that the rockets were falling and we could still take our football boots to go and practise,” Nusee said. “Once we were on the field we forgot about our troubles and even if you don’t have food at home to eat, you just feel good on the field. Football is for 90 minutes, so when you play 90 minutes, it feels like a long time.”
The local people were wary; a group of teenage boys getting together for any reason triggered alarm bells. The war had turned society upside down. Children became the aggressors and adults had to do their bidding. If you were a healthy teenage boy, people thought you must have been a fighter, but being seen playing well could change your reputation.
“In 90 minutes you can convince somebody that you are a changed boy,” Nusee said. “If you had some problem in the community, even if you participated in the war, but you had talent, and then you play for 90 minutes and you have great skills, everyone forgets about your past, what you did and didn’t do, and they just think about your football.
“The football rules are structured in such a way that even if the ref gets it wrong you are not supposed to do anything about it. So being polite, you have to leave the field. So if you can undergo such a thing in the football field, I think it will be easy if you enter in your community and someone tries to offend you, you will just let it go and that's it.”
I first heard about Millennium Stars from Father Joe Glackin, a Catholic priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco, on a long car journey from Monrovia to Buchanan in July 1997.
The Salesians specialise in youth work and Father Joe had set up Don Bosco Homes, an NGO named after the order’s founder, to work with street children and former child soldiers.
He told me that some boys he was working with had joined a football team called Power from Heaven in a slum called Gbangaye Town. Father Joe was impressed that the team members came up with the idea by pure instinct to protect themselves from the predatory factions scooping up young men to use as cannon fodder just by doing what they did best.
He said it would be great to publicise the team and what it stood for. I suggested that we could bring them to the UK for a tour.
The three-week tour took place in September 1999, by which time the team had changed its name to Millennium Stars. I visited Liberia in preparation in 1998, but I really got to know Millennium Stars in the UK in 1999.
Between 6,000 and 15,000 children are estimated to have taken up arms in Liberia from 1989 to 19975, many of whom started fighting again along with new recruits when hostilities resumed from 2000-2003. Charles Taylor’s NPFL had a policy of recruiting Small Boy Units6 and Taylor is reputed to have “conscripted, drugged and armed thousands of children7” in advance of his 1992 attack on Monrovia.
There had always been a vagueness about the details of what the Millennium Stars had experienced individually during the fighting in Liberia. We, the tour organisers, had always presumed they had not actually taken part in the war, but had used football as a way to avoid conscription, which was how we originally presented the concept.
But in preparation for the tour we hired a photographer to go to Liberia to film interviews with them and he came back with stories from four of them about how they had fought in the war. The most detailed of the descriptions came from central midfielder Abraham Clarke. The transcript of his interview runs to more than five pages and includes this:
“During the war, it was not my intention to fight. But it was younger soldiers the size of me, or above me a little bit, those were the people that were doing it. But I think to myself I am the same size as them. So the way they started to treat my people made me to feel very bad, so I left and I went across to Bomi Hills8 and I started to fight for ULIMO-K9.
“After they called for a ceasefire, I left there and I came in town10. I heard that my mother, my father, my other family were in Buchanan11, so I left and I went to Buchanan and then war got hot there again and I started fighting for NPFL too.
“One time I was in the market and they saw me and they said, ‘Oh, this man, he’s good to go,’ and just grabbed me and threw me in the truck and said, ‘Let’s go.’
“Myself, I knew that I was an old fighter, so nothing strange to me, so they took arms and gave it to me, and I went on the frontline and decided to fight to come in the city12.
“At that time, I was 12 years old.”
Abraham’s account was articulate, detailed and while he didn’t actually mention killing anyone, the implication was clear.
Scrutinising them now, I can see there are contradictions within and between all four accounts. There is also a ‘truth’ in the stories, but whether it’s a literal truth is another matter. History tells us that these things were happening to real people at those particular times in Liberia, but whether we could say these things definitely happened in exactly that way at exactly that time to exactly these people is another issue.
The tour was a life-changing experience for the 17 members of the squad, as it was also for me. Millennium played six 90-minute 11-a-side games and won them all. The game against Celtic was only 20 minutes each way, so there was a feeling that it didn’t really count. And it was a kind of moral victory anyway.
The tour was covered in print and broadcast media, locally and nationally, more than 60 times in three weeks. The charity won an award presented by Jon Snow at the One World Media Awards, for Best Public Information Campaign by an NGO.
The final success came when every member of the squad lined up with their passports at Heathrow and boarded the plane back to Liberia without any bother. The British Embassy officer in Côte d’Ivoire who had issued the Millennium Stars’ visas told Father Joe she was amazed they had all returned.
Millennium were now celebrities. “Once during the tour we appeared on BBC,” Christian said. “I think there was a short interview that was played on Network Africa. There was a recording of our team chant and a short story on the sports section of Focus on Africa, and people back home listened to it.
“I remember there was a school that took the majority of the squad members who hadn’t finished high school on football scholarships straight away and people used to nickname them Lone Star or the UN.”
Nusee didn’t take up a football scholarship, but was immediately made first-choice goalkeeper for his new school team.
“We had this game and the opposing school was given a penalty,” he said. “You had the supporters standing right behind the goal and I could hear them saying, ‘Oh, this guy is from England and he’s going to save this particular ball. The striker will miss the penalty.’
“So when I stood in the goal, he looked at me and I looked at him. When he moved towards the penalty, I stood and shook my legs and feet. And he kicked the ball way over the crossbar out of fear.”
The travelling squad cemented their ties with the Millennium Stars not fortunate to make the UK trip. “There was a guy called Chico and later he went to Oilers13 just before me,” Christian said. “Although Chico wasn’t part of the delegation to the UK, he had explained entirely almost everything that we went through to the rest of the Oilers squad. So they would say, ‘Oh Chico told us that when you went to the UK, you did this or that,’ and I would agree. So you know, you could not tell the difference between those who went and those who stayed.”
In the UK, the Millennium players ran two coaching sessions with primary school children and came home with the idea of starting and running a football academy of their own.
Before the end of 1999, an embryonic Millennium Stars Academy was housed in a building owned by the Catholic Archdiocese in a picturesque location overlooking the sea and a dozen or so of the players moved in. They shared rooms and allocated space for a dining room, a trophy room and a chapel. There was plenty of space outside in the walled compound to practice.
Sadly, the academy only functioned properly for a year. Money dried up, the players started living hand to mouth and eventually the Archbishop asked for his building back.
I thought the post-tour follow-up in October 2000 would be the last contact I would have with them. Probably for the best, because the visit several of us made to their fledgling academy was a disaster. Things were falling apart, they told us, and it was all our fault for not continuing to support them.
In planning, we had told them the tour for us had an educational objective and stressed over and over that as a charity we didn’t have the contacts that would lead them to signing contracts. We actually put them face-to-face with Bobby Robson, Arsène Wenger and John Barnes at Celtic during the tour and none of them asked to watch Millennium play.
But we were conscious of the huge weight of expectation they were carrying on behalf of themselves, their families and their entire communities because they were working with us and because we were taking them to the UK.
When the academy dissolved, the players returned to their families, but Gbangaye Town was not the welcoming, supportive home it had been before they left.
Anyone who travelled to Europe or North America was expected to come back with money and gifts to spread around, even if it was a charade. The community wanted that, but also wanted to experience glory through their team. They found it hard to take Millennium’s lack of success.
“We left the academy with absolutely nothing,” Moses Barcon said, “came back home to our parents, had to rebuild our lives, so they started mocking us, because each place we go, ‘Oh you allowed these people to make money out of you and you not got nothing. You’ve come back to your same place. You should have run away.’”
“It was just like living in a world full of fantasy,” Nusee said. “When things get tough, you imagine the one month you had in the UK, how things were OK and how you saw the life that young footballers had, the chances they had.
“I went to the video club to watch a football game one day and they said Manchester United transferred a new player from Celtic. I really wanted to go and see who it was. And I went in and saw Liam Miller and Liam Miller was part of that team we played when we went to the UK, so to see him at that level, and to see us in the state we were in at the time, it was difficult for us. Psychologically it was very very tough.”
As Liberia slid back into war in 2003, the players went their separate ways. Father Joe left the country and the players fled to Nigeria, Ghana and other parts of Liberia to avoid the bullets – although they were proud to report afterwards they never returned to fighting.
During the tour, the players would chant as they marched out onto the pitch, on the coach travelling between venues or at public events. The central defender Saah Tamba had a beautiful tenor voice and was regularly found leading the singing.
He was one of the twelve who lived at the academy and took its closure hard. At first, he repaired shoes to eke out a pitiful living. Then he got a job in a petrol station in Gbarnga, Liberia’s second city, but he had lost interest in football.
When his mother died suddenly in 2010 and the relationship with his partner fell apart, he spent increasing amounts of his spare time drinking locally distilled liquor. He died in 2012, leaving two children. He hadn’t played football for several years.
“Saah used to be my roommate whenever we went on camp,” Nusee said. “We were always in the same room. He had a lot of humour and he never got vexed, he was always full of smiles. He was a good guy and his death really hurt me.
“The pain when Saah died was made worse because we had to come together as a team and go round cleaning places to generate funds just to give our friend a befitting burial. And in some of the places we went, they knew our story and we were not received well.”
What I only gathered in recent years was that the child soldier stories were largely made up. One of the staff working with Don Bosco Homes told me that if we’d wanted a team of child soldiers he could have got us one, but Millennium Stars was not that team. We didn’t know, but everyone in Liberia did, which made the mockery of the team’s apparent failure even more intense.
In 1999, at the beginning of the tour, Abraham Clarke repeated the story he’d told us about his life as a child soldier to a documentary team from a Dutch current affairs programme.
In 2013 he told me, “You know, what I stated in the interview, the people went contrary to that. The tour was a programme that we all knew we were going on. It was a child soldier programme. We all knew that, but people started to frame it in a way that we were all ex-combatants, which was not so, so I tried to clear the air on that because, for me, everybody during the 14-year crisis, one way or the other, you are a rebel. You don't have to hold a gun. I never once pointed a gun in my life.”
The system in general in Liberia is to seek the patronage of the most powerful person locally. During the fighting, this would be the warlords and their lieutenants, and sometimes you had no choice but to go with the fighters – carrying arms but perhaps not bearing them.
It’s emerging bit by bit that they agreed among themselves to beef up the details of their stories, hoping the extra attention they would get would make them more likely to secure the football futures they wanted, that we had said we couldn’t provide.
“I think that placed much of a burden on the squad,” Nusee said, “because when we went to the UK, we had people, even the British media, more interested in asking if you blew a man’s head off.”
January 2017 will make it 20 years since Millennium Stars first came together.
Since returning home in 1999, they have continued to feel a duty to pass on the benefits of their experiences to younger players in their community. A version of Millennium Stars in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana in 2003 attracted 60 to 70 members.
Every Saturday morning, around 70 kids aged 6 to 16 gather at Tubman High School on 12th Street, Monrovia, for training – just a short walk from the now unplayable Gbangaye Town field. The hope is that they will learn to be good people as well as good players and build their country in the future.
But secretly, I guess, they’re also hoping for a call from Barcelona.