By Thomas Kwenaite
Isha Johansen is a pocket dynamo, petite and physically looks vulnerable when you meet her for the first time. But it is when you encounter her and engage her in a conversation that you discover her intelligence, but above all, an unwavering stance on principles.
She is hard working, a visionary and a dreamer. She never leaves a task unfinished and will tug at whatever she set out to achieve like a terrier and is not satisfied by mediocrity. Some of her colleagues are loathe describing her as a slave driver, rather a hard taskmaster.
Last month, thousands of her compatriots took to the streets of Freetown to celebrate; some even danced as news filtered through that the World Health Organization (WHO) had officially declared Sierra Leone Ebola free. Not for Johansen though, as she feels the virus has left far too much devastation to even start celebrating.
In an interview from Freetown, Johansen revealed that she was involved in a health programme that has been endorsed by both the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and FIFA called Power Play, which she hopes, will be launched across the continent very soon.
“Throughout my career, I have become acutely aware of the extent to which our continent’s vulnerability to disease and disaster combined with poverty and lack of access to health care, employment and education disproportionately affect the women of Africa,” says Johansen.
“That is why I am involved in projects that use football to help reduce the marginalization of African women both in their immediate societies and globally. We call it Power Play. It resonates with another programme that is very close to my heart launched recently in my country.
“It is called FIFA XI for Health. It is part of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Legacy and it has already been established in 14 other African countries. The programme teaches children how to lead healthy lifestyles and avoid major threats such as HIV/AIDS, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
“To make it more appealing to a wider audience, each health message or the launch is spearheaded by prominent footballers like Christiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto, Neymar, Falcao and Marta who are fronting the campaign.”
“But there is a lot more happening right now in Freetown mainly to try and get our dysfunctional Football Association on its feet again,” said Johansen. “Ebola affected us greatly as a country and the fact that we could not stage football matches at home was a huge blow for the development of Sierra Leone football.”
When CAF took a decision to suspend matches featuring Sierra Leone and Guinea, the Seychelles decided to forfeit their match against Sierra Leone rather than host them.
“I fought tooth and nail to have Sierra Leone accepted. I literally pleaded with CAF President Issa Hayatou. At one stage I think I was crying openly as I felt that at the end of the day we did not ask for the Ebola.
Sierra Leone has bravely fought its way into the group stages of the 2017 African Nations Cup qualifiers. They narrowly lost 1-0 to Sudan in Khartoum and held the defending champions Ivory Coast to a goalless draw in Abidjan to ignite hope that they could qualify for the biennial showpiece in two years.
However, the 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign to Russia has ended. They narrowly lost 1-0 to Chad in Ndjamena but rallied to win 2-1 in the second leg match played in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. But the 2-2 aggregate score meant Chad progressed to the next round on the away goal rule.
“Elimination from Russia 2018 was particularly painful. We now need to find a way to continue fighting. I take this opportunity to thank the Algerian FA who waived aside our costs when we played in their country.
“The Ghanaian and Nigerian authorities for accommodating us when things were difficult as well as sponsors Leocem Portland Cement who stood shoulder to shoulder with us during difficult times.
“As if that was not enough, we experienced a situation where the Minister of Sport felt he needed to take control of the game; to pick the team; to select the coach; the players, but we just couldn’t allow him to usurp the functions of the Federation. He then reacted by stopping the funding of all football activities.
“We were so vulnerable but it is history that through our resolve, we somehow managed to honor sixteen international fixtures and all of them away from home. What warms my heart is that we participated in both CAF and FIFA activities without fail and with pride and honor and I find that very remarkable, almost miraculous.”
Johansen reveals they are knocking on corporate houses and the private sector to see how they can assist in reviving the Premier Soccer League. They are also planning for the inauguration of a cup competition for women, the first in the history of Sierra Leone football history.
“The truth is we have completely run out of funds. But we just cannot throw our hands in the air complaining about our misfortune. We must find a way to continue. Ebola was horrible, heartbreaking and traveling was quite a challenge but we overcame those difficulties.”
A decade earlier, Sierra Leone had been torn apart by an internecine civil war that left more than 50 000 dead. And just as the nation was getting back to its feet, Ebola struck, to which Johansen remarked: “Sierra Leoneans are used to mass pandemonium.
“They are used to destruction. We had the war, but at least you could see the rebels coming. But for an invincible enemy like Ebola, you could not see it coming and that’s what made it frightening.
“I guess that’s what destabilized people. Psychologically, it was that “not knowing” that ripped through the basic humanity. That helplessness one witnessed in the eyes of mothers holding their dying children, wives separated from their husbands and families unable to bury their dead.”
Born Isha Tejan-Cole in Freetown, she was raised in a religious Muslim family. She is a member of the respected Tejan-Cole family and is married to Norwegian Arne Birger Johansen, a diplomat whose last name she adopted.
She was raised in Freetown and London where she completed her studies. Johansen grew up playing football with her brothers and in her early 20’s, entrepreneurial skills by launching a Socialist magazine called Rapture.
Her involvement in football started when she saw a group of children playing on a dusty patch outside her house back in 2003 and she gave them food and entered into an agreement with them.
They had to promise her to go to school and she in turn would pay for their school fees and purchase playing kit as well as training equipment for them. The deal was sealed and hundreds of them turned up at her doorstep the next day. FC Johansen was founded in 2004.
It was started with the primary objective of giving hope to a group of children, using football as a means of channeling their energy into a positive direction.
The team affiliated to the amateur region of the SLFA and worked their way up the divisions. When they were in the U-17 league, they toured Sweden where they won their section in the annual Gothia Cup. They received countless invitations afterward and back home they eventually won promotion to the Premier League.
Since becoming president of the SLFA, the second woman FA President after Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera, life has been one struggle after another. She had to fight a growing influence in the game by the gambling syndicates in her native country and constantly ward off attacks from stakeholders.
“I wanted to introduce change. The FA has got to have a foundation of integrity to grow, but it is an uphill struggle. We now have to finalize this match fixing enquiry and clean up the game from the influence of betting syndicates.”
Johansen dropped a bombshell when she announced that although FIFA is mired in their own problems brought following the widening corruption scandal, it has nonetheless provided her with evidence that countless matches by the Sierra Leone national team including one match against South Africa were fixed!
“Match fixing undermines sports integrity, alienates fans, reduces opportunities for legitimate funding and ends promising careers. It attracts criminal activities, money laundering, drug smuggling, extortion and violence. If we do not destroy the scourge, it will destroy our growing industry, our young player’s hopes and our country’ reputation.
“The enquiry will be headed by Major Palo Conteh. The stakeholders are suddenly making a lot of noise; some of them are sadly implicated in this match-fixing thing. The enquiry will start with an AFCON qualifier against Bafana Bafana in South Africa.
“We will communicate and hand the South African Football Association (SAFA) the evidence we have received from FIFA and urge them to also probe the matter.
“The evidence has been gathered from confessions by Perumal. He spoke to the police and made statements. I figured that with the evidence we have at our disposal, we are not just going ahead with hearsay. I do not have time for that.
“We are forging ahead with hard, strong evidence; sworn statements from players, from the police, from Interpol and Europol. This is what we are focusing on. This (probe) is what will break the influence of the betting syndicates in our game.
“We have to clean up the game. And we got to get it right and break the backs of the cartel that is holding the game to ransom. If we allow unscrupulous people to control the game, we deprive our children of the true value of football, therefore we must break clean.”
For her crusade and determination to fight corruption, Johansen has been included in the powerful FIFA integrity Committee.
In August 2013, she was elected President of the SLFA unopposed after both Rodney Michael and former Inter Milan striker Mohammed Kallon were disqualified for not meeting the constitutional requirements.
The spotlight has been firmly focused on FIFA since May when the world controlling body was rocked by graft, money laundering and corruption with at least 14 executive members initially arrested during a raid at the Zurich headquarters.
Bealeaguered FIFA President Sepp Blatter, suspended by the Ethics Committee for 90 days for allegations that he made illegal payments to Michel Platini with the irganization’s funds without consultation, was this week hospitalized.
Although Johansen missed the deadline to contest the seat that would be vacated by Blatter in February, she mulls over the possibility of contesting for a place in the executive committee.
“Why not? If people feel that it’s right for me to be there and if I’ve got the right approach and I’m up to it, yeah, I will give it my best shot. It would be nice, wouldn’t it?
“It would be a great achievement for sure. And that’s what I am all about, rising to the challenge and chasing the dream. That is and has always been my motto. It’s not just a dream, but what you do with that dream. You chase it – you’re in pursuit all the time.”
She reveals that Manchester United great Ryan Giggs whose father is Sierra Leonian, could have played for the Leone Stars and not Wales and, she adds that it could have raised her country’s profile even higher.
She recalls the first time she met Blatter in Zurich. She had gone to the GlassHouse offices to introduce herself and the newly elected executive committee of the SLFA after becoming FA president two years ago.
“He sat me down and started telling me about Sierra Leone and the first time he set foot in the country many years ago, perhaps in the 1970’s or 1980’s. You could see that he took great interest in Africa and the continent.
“I saw him as a father figure. From my first encounter with him he came across as that and he offered his unqualified support. I saw him as someone who embraced our continent and that made me happy. But what has been happening in FIFA lately is very tragic and sad.
“This is a very sobering time for the entire football family. But we have to look at ourselves and see where we want to go and how we want to get there. We have to find a way of where FIFA is headed. It’s obviously going to be a lot more turbulent. There seems to come new revelations everyday and I think it’s going to be very difficult in the coming days.”
Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa is the last African standing among candidates that have thrown their hats into the pool for the FIFA Presidency. What does she think of Sexwale and his chances of landing the hottest seat in the world?
Johansen has not made up her mind yet. “It’s still early days, I’ll probably find time to listen to him and hear if he has a compelling argument and a vision to restore the beauty of the game.”
Follow me on twitter: @TKwenaite