Look on the bright side ... At least Bafana will not be flanked by military aircraft in Liberia

Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos. Picture: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos. Picture: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Published Mar 26, 2023


Johannesburg - The silver lining to the dark cloud that is hovering above Bafana Bafana’s hopes of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations following their dismal failure to beat Liberia on Friday is that the Liberian capital Monrovia they will fly to for their second-leg clash is nothing like the one their predecessors visited some 22 years ago.

For starters, the petulant Hugo Broos and his men are going to a democratic country, ruled by a man who is much more a footballer than he is a politician. This is a man who was actually on the field when South Africa and Liberia drew 1-1 back in 2001, in a qualifier for the 2002 Afcon hosted by Mali.

And there is every chance that George Weah, the legendary former Monaco and AC Milan star – who remains the only African player to ever win the much-coveted Ballon d’Or (world footballer of the year award) in 1995, and who is now his country’s number one citizen – will be at the match venue on Tuesday.

You can bet that Weah’s trip to the stadium will not be as dramatic as what we experienced when the then Liberian president was in transit through the capital.

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Charles Taylor, the war-lord president who reduced his country to a basket case through his dictatorial and murderous ways, was preceded by a military motorcade with soldiers brandishing rifles – and pointing them at anyone they wanted off the road – to clear the way for him.

It was a scary experience. A taxi we were travelling in had to get onto the gravel and drive into small bushes, where we could easily have suffered a puncture, as the soldiers demanded – via a loudspeaker – that we make way for the president’s motorcade.

We’d known we were in a dictator’s land upon our arrival in Monrovia when, shortly after checking in at the inn where we (the South African media) were staying for the weekend, we were summoned by officials to an office in the centre of the city.

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We were then instructed to pay “working tax” before we could carry out our journalistic duties. I can’t be sure exactly how much we each paid, but I seem to recall it was about $20.

The SABC crew that were there to televise the match were given so much grief that at one stage they were made to disconnect their cables shortly before the match, only to be allowed to continue broadcasting after some negotiating (and possibly paying someone a bribe).

Under Taylor’s dictatorship, Liberia was a mess, with many of the country’s citizens taking refuge in other countries – the majority of them living in a camp called Buduburam on the outskirts of Accra, in Ghana.

Those who stayed behind had it very hard, and I remember seeing lots of young kids sitting on the road doing their schoolwork under the street lights in the evening, no doubt because their families just did not have the resources to afford lights.

Bafana are chartering a flight to Monrovia, and it is unlikely they will have as hair-raising a trip as we had back in 2001.

All had gone well with our journey, only for us to fly into a severe thunderstorm that forced us to delay our landing at Roberts International Airport.

Such was the turbulence that I remember many of the players – some of them toughies on the pitch – crying as they feared their lives would end in the Liberian sky.

Former Jomo Cosmos striker Nkosinathi Nhleko, who was playing overseas then, prayed the hardest and later explained to me that he had just become a father and could not bear to leave his infant behind.

We began running out of fuel and the pilot decided we had to go to Freetown in Sierra Leone to fill up. It was all good as we left the turbulence for clear skies. But no sooner had we breathed a collective sigh of relief than our hearts leapt back into our throats as we found ourselves flanked by two military aircraft.

It was scary stuff as it appeared we were being attacked, entering the airspace of a country that was particularly unstable at the time. The military simply directed us down to the airport, but it was an uneasy hour-and-a-bit of sitting inside the plane as it refuelled, what with machine-gun-brandishing men in military uniform all you could see as you peered out of the window.

The relief of finally landing in Monrovia was quickly shattered by the hard knock on the door and a stern instruction from officials who demanded that we accompany them to the “president’s office” before they proceeded to reduce our S&Ts.

Bafana played fairly well that day and got an away point that went towards ensuring that they qualified for Mali 2002.

Liberia qualified too, and I remember our plane to Bamako for the tournament in January 2002 stopping in Abidjan, where Weah and his teammates boarded to go for their country’s second appearance at the biennial continental showpiece.

Yet, following the 2-2 draw at the Orlando Stadium on Friday, Bafana will need to play out of their skins and win in Monrovia – or face the ignominy of missing out on yet another Afcon.