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FIFA: Isha Johansen’s rise to the corridors of power

“I thought that through the language of football and the power of football, I could possibly change that narrative.”

As a soccer official Johansen has already had an eventful profession — she’s the long-serving president of the Sierra Leone Football Association after her election in 2013.

During that point she’s had to cope with Ebola, Covid-19, panic assaults, imprisonment — on corruption prices she was subsequently cleared of.

In a traditionally male dominated trade, it hasn’t been a straightforward journey.

It was in 2004 that she arrange F.C. Johansen to assist kids on Freetown’s streets.

“I didn’t know about the political structures,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what it was to build a career as a football administrator to becoming an FA president or anything like that, let alone FIFA.

“These have been simply displaced youngsters because of this of the struggle in the neighborhood, and all I wished to do was to get these boys off the streets at evening, get them at residence the place they need to be, get them off the streets in the morning and through the day, put them at school the place they need to be.

“For me, it was very obvious that they lived and dreamed for their football … so that was my focus, and this was all I was about.”

Isha Johansen speaking to a group of boys outside the National Stadium, in 2016.

It was throughout David Beckham’s go to to Sierra Leone as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2008 that Johansen sensed the risk of turning desires into actuality.

“David Beckham’s coming to Sierra Leone and these boys meeting him wearing the FC Johansen shirt with a number seven, Beckham, all of that was just an amazing time for us.

“The youngsters have been superb after which I noticed that, you understand what? This is so highly effective, we may truly change our story in a giant manner, in an even bigger manner.”

Entering the country’s second division, F.C. Johansen grew in prominence, traveling abroad to compete in international tournaments such as the Under-16’s Swiss Cup, which they won in 2011, beating Liverpool in the final.

Back home, the club’s domestic form lifted them to the national Premier League, and players were invited to trials at top English clubs Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.

“It grew to become a giant actuality,” Johansen says. “And I feel that was the time it dawned on me that, you understand, I feel I can truly do one thing actually huge for my nation by means of soccer.”

Ruffling feathers

In 2013, Johansen stood in the Sierra Leone Football Association’s presidential election. She’s happy to admit now, it was a ploy intended to ruffle the feathers of men in the game, but after a FIFA-backed committee disqualified all of her opponents — two for links to the gambling industry, and another for failing a residency stipulation — she won, unopposed.

Looking back, she acknowledges she lacked sufficient knowledge for the role, as in her eyes, she had only run a humanitarian project. But even an experienced administrator might have struggled given the challenges she faced.

“My tenure of workplace has been blighted and it has been plagued with every kind of conditions and challenges,” Johansen admits.

“Ebola was one enormous problem, and it actually set us again for greater than two years.”

Meanwhile she was encountering opposition within the hierarchy of Sierra Leonean football, uncomfortable with the idea of a woman being in charge.

An advocate for good governance in the sport, Johansen says people in the ‘football family’ opposed her, simply because they did not want football to be governable.

“My concept of bringing integrity into soccer,” she says. “My concept of development and improvement does not sit properly with their concept. It’s unhappy as a result of we aren’t any completely different from different international locations who’ve the similar variety of issues.

“I think there comes a time when you have to draw the line and put the country first. You may not like Isha. Isha may not like the other side. But if there is a formula that works for the development of a country then let us go with that formula.

“In my nation, we have had 30, 40 years of decline in soccer governance, and development. We aren’t the place we needs to be. Forget about all the different complexities of Ebola or flooding or what have you ever. We as a household in soccer, have not been ready to develop and attain what we must always have just because of the infighting.”

Sierra Leone and West Africa were the epicenter for the world's worst Ebola outbreak in 2014.

The divisions were laid bare in 2016 when Johansen was arrested on charges of corruption, alongside her vice president and secretary general.

In a drawn out legal and political saga, the sport’s governing body FIFA refused to accept the removal from office that would accompany her indictment, and suspended Sierra Leone from world football, citing government interference.

Only after Johansen’s acquittal on all charges, and reinstatement as SLFA President, was the suspension lifted.

“It was a really lonely and scary time,” Johansen recalls, pointing to how she was arrested and detained when in poor health, while her husband and son were out of the country.

“There have been different very scary moments, you understand, with the panic assaults and being rushed to hospital and me pondering actually, I used to be going to die.

“But you see, these are moments and things that serve as a lesson for me, a lesson to be stronger.”

‘I took dangers’

With her British education and diplomat husband — Arne Birger Johansen, the Norwegian Consul — Isha Johansen has at instances been forged in a destructive gentle by some in the media in Sierra Leone, as if unrepresentative of her nation and other people.

“This is a poor country, the education level is not that high, and the media is very powerful,” she explains. “I’ve been portrayed as an elitist. I’ve been portrayed as too European or what have you.

“But the truth of the matter is I’m an African girl. I’m Sierra Leonean. I used to be born in Sierra Leone and I stay in Sierra Leone. And with all the issues, Ebola, every little thing, I stayed in Sierra Leone.

“I took risks for it on behalf of my people, with my people, with my players, with the youngsters, and it’s never, ever crossed my mind to be anywhere else other than in my country.”

She contends her resilience is down to her rising up with brothers in a world the place a feminine should combat for a spot.

“You know that business you’re a girl you’re not going to play football with the boys,” she says.

“You’re not going to be where we are. You’re not going to go out night clubbing with us. You’re not, you’re not, you can’t, and I was always I can, I can, and I will.”

Isha Johansen is the first West African woman elected to FIFA's council.

Such persistence has now led Johansen to the high desk in world soccer, along with her election to the FIFA council.

“Our story is different, our time is now,” Johansen says. “If you dream it, you can be it, and despite the challenges and despite our cultural settings that don’t enable women to achieve to the level they want to, they can actually do it.

“I’ve been instructed that I’m an inspiration and I consider that I’m as a result of I’m residing proof that for those who consider in it strongly, you truly can obtain it.”

Controversy

Even though Johansen has the support of FIFA, in Sierra Leone she remains a lightning rod for criticism.

Long-time captain of Sierra Leone’s national team, Mohamed Kallon, also ran for the presidency in 2013, and has since rowed publicly with Johansen — amicably settled by all parties with the help of the country’s public affairs ministry.

Domestic league football in Sierra Leone has been a rarity over the last decade.

“I do not assume in the final eight years we now have performed an entire league,” says the former Inter Milan and Monaco striker, who like Johansen owns an eponymously named Sierra Leone football club.

Further criticism Kallon says can be directed across all levels of the sport, in areas the country’s football association would typically take responsibility for.

“Football improvement in Sierra Leone, there’s nothing good to write residence about. Female soccer is just not performed round the nation; youth soccer is just not performed round the nation.

“I think we’re nowhere. We’ll just have to start from scratch, build a better foundation, build infrastructure in the country, then we can be able to develop footballers.”

Mohamed Kallon featured for clubs including Inter Milan and Monaco.

Johansen would counter such criticism by pointing to Sierra Leone changing into the first African nation to introduce equal pay for its males’s and ladies’s groups.

While clear in his condemnation of how soccer is run in Sierra Leone, Kallon is optimistic about Johansen’s election to the FIFA council, admitting she has confronted unprecedented difficulties in her time in workplace.

“For me personally, I was happy for her assuming one of the biggest offices in FIFA,” he mentioned. “I think it is good for Sierra Leone. It’s good for Africa to be able to have women stepping into those positions and defending their countries.

“I performed for Sierra Leone nationwide workforce for 18 years … I do know when it comes to a voice in FIFA, a voice in CAF, we do not have a voice, we do not have illustration. So I feel anyone from Sierra Leone getting to be half of FIFA council, I feel that that was incredible.”

Changing the narrative

In the eight years Johansen has been president of the Sierra Leone FA, no elections have taken place, and she admits this is an unusually long period.

However, according to Johansen federation elections are due soon, with their absence due to the “dysfunctional conduct behaviour of our federation, and all the interferences with the mandate,” plus significant health hazards such as Ebola and the pandemic.

At FIFA, Johansen says she is looking forward to working closely with President Gianni Infantino, commending his passion for Africa and a vision for the sport globally that she shares.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has been a consistent ally of Johansen.

Infantino too has confronted criticism for just lately serving to an ally, Patrice Motsepe, win the high job in African soccer as CAF President.

“It is a indisputable fact that FIFA have stood by me all through this ordeal,” Johansen acknowledges. “Not as a result of I’m the fairer intercourse or a weaker being or something untoward aside from the indisputable fact that I got here in with an agenda … in 2013.

“Which was to fight corruption, which was to change the narrative, which was to instill discipline, that entrenched loyalty to whatever it was. I was out to fight it and bring about a cleaner, better, healthier football. I see that with Gianni Infantino.

“He got here with an agenda for change and lots of challenges. So it resonates, we now have shared visions. This is why I feel he supported my combat. He believed in it, and I definitely consider in his combat, and the FIFA workforce, I consider in it strongly, and we’ll all combat collectively to change that narrative and to make soccer a louder voice for good.”

Discussing the future of African football at the time of Motsepe’s election, the FIFA President said, “I’ve already mentioned it, and I say it once more. We should cease saying that it’s crucial to develop African soccer. It is about projecting it to the summit of world soccer.”

Infantino and Motsepe are due to go to Sierra Leone on May 5. It can be the first time that the present FIFA and CAF presidents have visited the African nation at the similar time.

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