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FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE, 24 MARCH 2004
Mediating Disputes: Successes and Failures
Strange yet interesting ramblings from Rob Hughes of the International Herald Tribune ("Playing Games on Battlegrounds"). Hughes weaves disparate stories of violence, the bizarre and the hopeful—a combined Palestinian and Israeli "peace team" at the

Slovakian referee Lubos Michel was among three to visit Sierra Leone on behalf of UEFA.
Dallas Cup youth tournament, the absurd pressures on Chelsea's Claudio Ranieri and the clashes between police and fans at the 21 March Roma-Lazio derby. Had Hughes written a few days later, he might have included the apparent assassination of Branko Bulatovic, secretary general of the Serbia and Montenegro Football Association. Bulatovic was shot outside his office on 26 March and died the next day.

Amid these events, in which football maintains a seemingly ambiguous influence, Hughes accompanies referees Lubos Michel (Slovakia), Anders Frisk (Sweden) and Markus Merk (Germany) on a UEFA-sponsored mission to beleaguered Sierra Leone, recovering after the end of civil war in January 2002 (see also the account on UEFA's website, and the BBC World Football program devoted to the visit on 3 April). UEFA helps fund work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in reuniting children with parents and protecting them in future conflict. The traumatic effects of war are apparent in Hughes's account:

On March 17, [the referees] took turns changing into their uniforms in the Red Cross Land Rover, and officiating at a game between 14-year-olds of two refugee camps, Gerihun and Jembe. ¶When Jembe opened the scoring, the boy who scored the goal ran to the corner flag, calling his teammates to him. There, he turned, pretended that he had a machine gun in his hands, and "mowed down" his pals, who fell to the ground. ¶The villagers, standing in front of their mud huts on the edge of Jembe camp, laughed at the children's celebration. It was an innocent act from children in a society that has lost all innocence, but few of those who were there were shocked by the boys' playful exhibition.

For additional reading about a possible role for football refereeing in violent societies—specifically within Sierra Leone—see Paul Richards, "Soccer and Violence in War-Torn Africa: Soccer and Social Rehabilitation in Sierra Leone," in Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 141–57, especially 150–52.

  • Lahti, Finland, and Freetown, Sierra Leone | 27 August 2003 . . . Thirteen players for the Sierra Leone youth team have been "found," several days after they disappeared in Finland following their three games in FIFA's Under-17 World Championship. The players are believed to be seeking political asylum from their war-torn country. In a meandering commentary about the incident, Osman Benk Sankoh writes in the Concord Times of Freetown that the disappearance was to be expected. "[T]his shameful act which will continue to hunt [sic] us for years and years to come has rekindled that negative decade-old past of this country as a nation of gun-toting kids and marauding gangsters. We must, however, doff our hearts to those [players] that braved it back to the impoverished nation, a nation wherein to secure a plate of rice and a pint of coke after waking up in the morning would be like challenging the Mozambican Express Maria Mutola for a marathon dash for Mount Kilimanjaro." | back to top