By: Uma Ramiah, Voice of America
A crumbling football stadium in Sierra Leone drew international attention when the world's football association banned it from use this week. It was renovated after the recent civil war, but those efforts seem to have fallen short. As Uma Ramiah reports from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar, the state of the stadium reflects larger problems that plague Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone's national soccer stadium served as a sanctuary for people fleeing violence during the country's brutal, decade-long civil war, and was badly damaged when rebels took over the capital, Freetown, in 1999. Now, in a state of disrepair, the international football association, FIFA, has banned matches at the neglected stadium.
Local fan Lansana Fofana says, though this is upsetting to Sierra Leoneans, FIFA was right in its decision. He says the stadium desperately needs improvement.
"The technical side of the stadium is really embarrassing to the nation as a whole," said Fofana. "In the dressing room, there is no security. The pitch itself is nothing to write home about. Not even the goal posts. So this has been a problem."
But Fofana also says the ban could have been avoided.
"The football association here has been given sufficient warning to rectify all these anomalies, which they did not do," said Fofana. "And, now, FIFA has taken the drastic decision to ban the stadium for a year. So, this is going to have a very lasting impact on football in Sierra Leone, and people are very, very much destroyed."
The president of Sierra Leone's Football Association, Alimu Bah, says the decision was a big blow to the association, but there is little he can do, as the stadium maintenance is up to the government. He has been asking the government to improve the stadium since last year, when visiting FIFA delegates gave warning.
"We have been asking all the while," said Bah. "We had inspectors from FIFA coming here to look at the stadium and to give recommendations in areas where we can fix the stadium. So, it is not like we are not in the know. We are in the know, and we have passed on the information to the appropriate authorities, stadium management."
Bah says he will appeal the decision, and hopes management will fix the stadium before June 7, when the Sierra Leone side, known as the Stars, are set to play Nigeria.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked at the bottom of a United Nations index, which rates quality of life.
Fofana says the stadium ban is unfortunate, as football serves as a welcome escape from the day-to-day problems of unemployment, poverty and hunger.
"Football is almost everything to Sierra Leoneans, in terms of entertainment," said Fofana. "It is the biggest sports event here. Apart from that, the country came out of this very brutal war that lasted 11 years, and football has certainly been used as a healing process. People are just picking up the pieces of their broken lives after the war. There is mass poverty, so people need football to cushion the effects of their suffering and all their problems."
Football is immensely popular in Sierra Leone. People play in the streets, on beaches and in fields. On weekends, thousands of Sierra Leoneans gather in video clubs to watch football matches on satellite television.
But Fofana says a stadium in disrepair may not be a top priority for a government plagued by a crumbling economy, widespread corruption and poverty.
The structure is used not only for sports but for concerts, gatherings and political rallies. China built the stadium for Sierra Leone nearly 30 years ago, and paid for renovations toward the end of the war. But, according to FIFA, more needs to be done.