CHESTER, Pa. – Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Lahoud was recently called up to the Sierra Leone national team for a 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in the country of Seychelles.
He never got there.
And for a while, it seemed like he might never get back home.
“It was pretty bizarre,” Lahoud said after Thursday’s training session, just one day after finally returning to Philly after more than a week away from his MLS squad. “Probably my greatest adventure yet.”
It also proved to be a frightening adventure for Lahoud, who flew from New York to Brussels, Belgium, and then to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet up with his teammates last week. But just as the Sierra Leone team was set to board a plane for Seychelles – a 155-island country off the African coast – government officials there prevented the players from coming to their country because of fears over the spread of the Ebola virus.
The recent outbreak, which has claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 people, has primarily affected the Western African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
“We felt like fugitives,” Lahoud said. “They banned us from their country. It wasn’t like they banned people from Sierra Leone; it was just us. When they did that, it became a political issue.”
The toughest part for Lahoud was not necessarily missing the flight but what happened next. As the governments of Sierra Leone and Seychelles squabbled, Lahoud and his teammates were quarantined for a few hours in a tiny room inside the Nairobi airport.
“Which is probably one of the worst feelings,” he said.
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Meanwhile, all Lahoud wanted to do was play soccer to help Sierra Leone advance to the final group stage of African Cup of Nations qualifying.
“We were willing to fly to Seychelles whenever it took to play the match because we had the advantage of what was at stake to play in the next round,” Lahoud said. “That’s something we didn’t want to risk. We were even willing to bring the game to Kenya, since it’s a short trip for them and we’d traveled from all over the world to be there.”
In the end, Seychelles decided to forfeit the match, allowing Sierra Leone to advance – although not in the way Lahoud would have liked. And Lahoud, who was born in Sierra Leone but grew up in the United States, eventually made it home after another grueling journey, flying from Nairobi to Johannesburg, South Africa to New York and then taking a train to Philly.
But it’s an odyssey he won’t soon forget.
And even as he prepares for the Union’s game against the Montreal Impact on Saturday (7 pm ET; MLS Live), he’ll still be thinking of his native country – especially his family members who still live in Sierra Leone under a state of emergency.
“People are just living in fear that everyone’s got it,” Lahoud said. “It’s kind of like how AIDS was in the 80s. It didn’t have a face. I think the biggest thing for us was when you’re in a foreign country, they’re always trying to put a scapegoat, put a face to something like a disease or some tragedy, and we didn’t want to be that and represent our country that way.
“For us moving forward, we have the opportunity to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. We really see it as a chance to give Sierra Leone hope – because right now it’s not looking like there is much.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.