Soccer, Sierra Leone and the stigma of Ebola | THE WORD

THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer. This week, as the soccer world focuses on international play, MLSsoccer.com contributor Dave Zeitlin profiles Major League Soccer players Michael Lahoud and Kei Kamara, both caught in the middle of the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa.


Photoillustration by Gabriel de los Rios

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THE KIDS WERE ADORABLE. That’s what Michael Lahoud remembers most when he thinks back to the end of a training session with the Sierra Leone national team last month at Stade TP Mazembe in Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They were playing in the dirt outside the stadium, and Lahoud could tell they were hot and probably thirsty, so he approached them. Carrying an extra bottle of water, Lahoud asked if they wanted their own drink. He smiled.

They looked him up and down. Suddenly, terror spread across the faces of the children, each one no more than three years old.

“No, no, no!” they screamed. “Ebola! Ebola! Ebola!”

His moment of goodwill melted in the ruthless West African sun, and a familiar feeling of anger and confusion swelled up inside of Lahoud.

The children ran away, as fast as their little feet could take them.

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A Côte d'Ivoire fan holds a sign with a message against Ebola during the 2015 African Nations Cup qualifying soccer match between Côte d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone at the Felix Houphouet Boigny stadium in Abidjan on Sept. 6. (Reuters)

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WEEKS LATER, Lahoud can’t help but laugh as he sits inside in a coffee shop in downtown Philadelphia. The question that’s just been posed to him is one he’s been asked often over the past couple of months. It’s one he’s even asked himself.

Why does he do it?

Why does he subject himself to airport quarantines and brutal travel delays to play soccer on a different continent instead of remaining with his MLS team, the Philadelphia Union?

Why does someone who hasn't been to Sierra Leone since the outbreak of Ebola put up with people – worst of all, children – assuming he has the deadly virus just because that’s the country he represents on the field?

Why does an American professional athlete, who's spent most of his life in the United States, play in an African stadium where the word “Ebola” is chanted at him, over and over, a slow rumble that makes him want to say the most vile thing he can think of?

The answer boils down to one word: pride.

“Yeah, I grew up here,” says Lahoud, who came to Virginia during Sierra Leone's Civil War in the mid 1990s, when he was six years old. “But Sierra Leone is where I come from. There is a sense of pride I’ve never known since moving here – almost like a forgotten part of who I am. The luxuries of being an American kind of washed over that. I’m definitely a proud American, but I’m an even prouder Sierra Leonean.”

Kei Kamara feels the same way. The 30-year-old forward is thrilled to be back in Major League Soccer after signing with Columbus Crew SC last month. But Kamara’s heart will always be in Sierra Leone, the country he lived in until he emigrated at 16.

That’s why he’s emerged as a leader for the Sierra Leone national team during impossibly trying times. The last time he put on his country’s kit, Kamara was faced with perhaps his most difficult task as a soccer player: Captaining a team and trying to motivate his teammates to stay focused while spectators chanted “Ebola” at them for 90 consecutive minutes. It was such an awful proposition that the fourth official actually questioned why Kamara didn’t lead his team off the field before the match ended.

Michael Lahoud has played for both Chivas USA and the Philadelphia Union during his career in MLS. He also has four caps with Sierra Leone. (USA Today Sports)

“People ask, ‘How come you didn’t play for the US? You wouldn’t be going through everything you’re going through today,’” Kamara says. “And my reply to all of that is I don’t think I would have had the same success I’ve had – because [playing for Sierra Leone] gave me a different drive in life and my perspective on everything was different. Every time I wake up in the morning, instead of having everything, I realize where I come from. And I get to go back home more often to see my family. All of that hits a refresh button for me. It’s everything to me.”

For both Lahoud and Kamara, the Ebola outbreak has been devastating. Neither player has returned to their native country since the epidemic began in West Africa last December. And it’s not often they aren’t thinking about the how the disease has ravaged Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, killing more than 5,100 people and infecting more than 14,000 people in all, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of all, they think about their friends and family members subjected to weeklong quarantines in their homes and the constant fear that they, too, will be infected.

“At the moment, they’re doing fine,” says Kamara, whose father and siblings currently live in Sierra Leone. “I keep praying for them – not just them but the majority of people out there. Sierra Leone has a 6-million population, but when it comes down to it, you feel like everybody knows everybody.”

Lahoud has less family still living in Sierra Leone than Kamara, but his best friend from childhood remains in Freetown, the country’s capital and largest city. The friend is a newlywed and has a son, and he hasn’t heard from anyone in the family in nearly two months.

Says Lahoud, softly: “I worry about him a lot.”

Oftentimes, Kamara and Lahoud feel helpless as a country once decimated by war is now suffering through another deadly battle. But they’re trying to help as much as they can. Each player has donated money to fight Ebola, and about two months ago Lahoud launched the #KickEbolaInTheButt campaign with his friend and Temple University professor Thilo Kunkel.

According to Kunkel, the online campaign has raised more than $3,000 to benefit Doctors Without Borders, and more than 500 videos have been posted online of people trying to kick soccer balls at someone else’s rear end – a fun way to raise both funds and awareness. Kunkel hopes to reach at least $10,000 by the end of the year and that more soccer players from around the world take the challenge and rally behind Lahoud.

“He’s someone that really cares about other people,” Kunkel said. “And he likes to take that leadership role and not just stick his head in the sand.”

Above all else, though, Lahoud and Kamara believe it’s important to put on a Sierra Leone uniform, even if it turns them into outcasts in other countries. And it’s important for other people to know exactly how they are treated when they do.

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Lahoud (left) made his first appearance for Sierra Leone in September 2013, and it also marked his first time back in his native country since he left when he was six years old. He hasn't been back since the Ebola outbreak. (Darren McKinstry)

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BEFORE EARLY AUGUST, Lahoud had only made a couple of appearances with the Sierra Leone national team. But they were all special.

When he was called up for a World Cup qualifying match against Equatorial Guinea on Sept. 7, 2013, it marked not only his first international cap but also his first time back in Sierra Leone in 21 years – when, as a frightened 6-year-old, he was put onto a plane by himself to the United States to meet up with his mother and begin a new life.

Playing in that game, he hoped, would begin a new journey for him. And it did – just not in the way he expected.

The craziness began when Lahoud was called up for an important Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against the small island country of Seychelles on Aug. 2. After taking a train to New York, flying to Brussels and getting a connecting flight to Nairobi, Kenya, Lahoud met up with some Sierra Leone teammates to make the trip to Seychelles, a nation made up of 155 islands off the Eastern coast of Africa.

But, without warning, Lahoud got word that the Seychelles government did not want any Sierra Leone citizens to travel to the isolated nation because of Ebola fears, even though the players on the team had mostly arrived from Europe and North America. While the soccer federations of Seychelles and Sierra Leone argued, Lahoud and his teammates were quarantined in the Nairobi airport between immigrations and customs – “like being quarantined in a locker room, without the lockers,” he says – for about a half of a day.

Lahoud didn’t have a book. His phone was dead. There was no WiFi. For hours, he did nothing but grow angrier and angrier.

“It was somewhere between angry and almost like losing your grip on reality,” he says. “It was like, ‘What decision have I made? Why did I come here again? This isn’t fun anymore. Take me back to the days when it was fun.’”

Eventually, the Seychelles team decided to forfeit the match rather than let their Sierra Leone opponents into their country. This came as interesting news to Kamara, who managed to get a direct flight to Seychelles and was patiently waiting for his teammates to join him.

“It was a really sad vacation for me,” Kamara says. “I was waiting for them when they got stuck in Kenya. If you’re Sierra Leonean, you’re on a no-fly list, even though no one was coming from Sierra Leone. For me, it’s making it feel like Ebola is in our genes – because everywhere you are in the world, you say you’re Sierra Leonean and people just look at you like, ‘Do you have Ebola?’ It’s kind of sad.”

If there was any good news to be gleaned from the Seychelles debacle it was that the forfeit allowed Sierra Leone to advance to the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations qualification.

Kei Kamara has 21 caps with Sierra Leone, and served as the team's captain during their match against Côte d'Ivoire in September. He signed with Columbus Crew SC last month. (Reuters)

The bad news, however, was three-fold. Not only did the Confederation of African Football (CAF) ban them from hosting any games because of the Ebola outbreak, they were also placed in a loaded group with Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And then, perhaps, worst part of all: Leading up to their first group-stage match against Côte d'Ivoire on Sept. 6, there was more travel drama that crushed the team’s spirits and seriously hurt their competitive chances.

According to Lahoud, Côte d'Ivoire team officials decided they wanted to call off the match, only to change their minds a couple of days before the game, leaving the Leone Stars players to scramble to purchase plane tickets and arrive on time, all while dealing with the airport delays that have become the norm for anyone with a Sierra Leone passport.

When Lahoud got to the airport in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital, he was asked “every health question you can ask,” and was almost forced to take an injection of “I have no clue what” – which he did not entertain. When strangers approached him on the street, he lied and told them he was an NBA player visiting from the United States who played with Kobe Bryant.

To make matters worse, Lahoud and his teammates soon found out was that the Côte d'Ivoire team had been training for a week even under the guise that the game might be cancelled.

“I don’t think it was coincidental,” Lahoud says with a suspicious smile. “You’re playing one of the best teams in the world and you have some of your starters showing up a day before the game. The preparation was very difficult.”

Nevertheless, Lahoud still has some good memories from the trip. There are a lot of Sierra Leonean immigrants in Côte d'Ivoire, which “made us feel a little bit of that piece of home you need when you’re on the road.” And despite hardly getting any time to prepare for the match, the Leone Stars put up a good fight against the star-studded Côte d'Ivoire team, currently ranked 25th in the world.

Lahoud said it was “an experience of a lifetime” to man-mark Manchester City star Yaya Toure and win a header over Swansea City forward Wilfried Bony. And after Kamara scored a goal late in the first half to put Sierra Leone ahead, the underdogs were certainly riding high. But, perhaps predictably, fatigue set in late, and Côte d'Ivoire dominated the second half en route to a 2-1 victory.

Still, it was a well-fought game for the Leone Stars, and a result they felt they could build on heading into their next group-stage match against the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But that, Lahoud says, is when the nightmare really began.

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Fans clean their hands with antiseptic solution during the match between Cote D’ivoire and Sierra Leone on Sept. 6. Lahoud says he began telling people on the street in Abidjan he was an American basketball player so they wouldn't suspect he was from a country affected by Ebola. (Reuters)

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FOUR DAYS AFTER THE COTE D'IVOIRE MATCH, Lahoud sat in the stands of a Congolese stadium, surrounded by about 20 military members with machine guns. Just about everyone else in the crowd – besides the guys with the guns – were chanting “Ebola.” And Lahoud, wearing a Sierra Leone jacket and sweats, felt like he had a bullseye on his back.

“I’m just looking around like, ‘Man, at any moment something can happen,’” he says. “And that’s when I started hearing it – as soon as our team came out. It was unlike any chant I ever heard in my life. ‘E-Bo-La. E-Bo-La. E-Bo-La.’ For the entire match.”

The hardships had begun at the airport – as usual – when the Sierra Leone players and coaches didn’t think they would get a flight out of Cote D’ivoire to the Congo because of more travel restrictions. Eventually, Lahoud, Kamara and two others who also held non-Sierra Leone passports – including defender Mustapha Dumbuya, who grew up in England and currently plays there for Notts County – were able to get on a plane to Johannesburg, South Africa, before connecting to Lubumbashi. But then when they got to the Congo, they were detained for hours as they tried to obtain a visa.

“We were each other’s therapists,” Lahoud says. “Between Kai, Mustapha and I, we would all lose our cool and be like, ‘What is going on?’ And one of us would be like, ‘It’s OK, guys.’ And then that person would lose their cool. You just couldn’t believe what was going on and how widespread the stigma was.”

It turned out that Lahoud and Kamara had it easy compared to the rest of their teammates, who were forced to fly all the way to Morocco before coming back south to the Congolese capital city of Kinshasa, where Lahoud said they were detained for 13 hours. That left the team with only one training session before a must-win game that would have been held at home if not for the Ebola fears.

As the bus pulled out of the hotel en route to the stadium for training, the taunts began. Old men came out of their stores to say it. Kids ran down the street to say it. Women holding babies said it. It was only one word -- Ebola -- but it hurt more than anything else could.

“I definitely remember the look in their eyes – which was, you guys are evil,” Lahoud says. “Initially, I was just in shock because you don’t think that word means something to you until you hear it.”

Before a match in September, former Sierra Leone head coach Johnny McKinstry employed his players to honor their countrymen: "Remember that you’re playing for seven million people back home who have nothing, who have no hope, who are looked at as nothing.”  (Reuters)

When Lahoud went to the bathroom at the stadium, one of the security guards told him to get out of his country. And shortly after the kids ran away from him when he offered them water, Lahoud learned he would be suspended for the match because of a yellow-card accumulation rule he didn’t even know about.

So after traveling around the world, getting detained in multiple airports and enduring endless taunts, Lahoud had to watch with armed guards from the stands as Sierra Leone lost, 2-0.

Kamara, meanwhile, rallied his team in vain.

“When you hear 20,000 people shout 'Ebola' at you, it’s hurtful,” Kamara says. “It definitely does make you angry. We wanted to take the anger out on them on the field and show them. They thought they were playing mind games with us. Maybe the mind games did work.”

Following their odyssey in the Cote D’ivoire and the Congo, Kamara and Lahoud didn’t return to Africa to play two games against Cameroon last month. Neither will play in the team’s match Friday against Cote D’iviore or their group finale on Nov. 19 against the Congo in Kinshasa. In the year of Ebola, Sierra Leone will not qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Still, both players are committed to play for Sierra Leone for the long term, and they’re out to raise funds and educate people about the negative effects of Ebola’s stigma that even exists in the United States, where there are only three confirmed cases of the disease.

During a recent "Kick Ebola In The Butt" event in Philadelphia, for example, Lahoud overheard someone in the crowd when organizers were auctioning off a game-worn Sierra Leone jersey as a prize.

“Oh,” the onlooker said, “does it have Ebola on it?”

Shortly before his players took the field against the Cote D’ivoire in September, Sierra Leone head coach Johnny McKinstry offered up words of encouragement to a weary group. A 29-year old native of Northern Ireland who was fired just 11 days after the game in Abidjan, his plea still sticks in Lahoud’s head as a rallying cry for that group of men who fought a foe much larger than any on the field of play.

And it still motivates him today, as he fights his own battle a long way from Sierra Leone.

“Before you go on that pitch, remember that you’re playing for seven million people back home who have nothing, who have no hope, who are looked at as nothing,” McKinstry said. “You represent more than just the name on the back of your shirt. Remember that.”

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Members of the Sierra Leone team pose before an African Nations Cup qualifying match earlier this year. Kamara (far left) and Lahoud (purple shirt) both say they're committed to the team, despite the obstacles faced this year. (Darren McKinstry)

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AS THILO KUNKEL WAS GETTING READY TO FILM a "Kick Ebola In The Butt" video last week at a South Philadelphia playground, he turned around to see Lahoud approach two young kids. They were there with their mothers, and they were roughly the same age as the ones who ran away from him in the Congo.

Much to Kunkel’s surprise, Lahoud asked them if they wanted to take a shot at his rear end, and maybe learn a little in the process.

Perhaps it’s not that surprising. Lahoud, after all, works for a charity that builds schools in Sierra Leone. He recently reached out to a Pennsylvania teen that was taunted with “Ebola” chants during a club soccer game. He even stopped to kick a ball around with kids in a remote village in the Congo, just days after hearing the others yell “Ebola” at him.

“It’s still a passion of mine, helping kids,” he says. “Not just in Africa but here in the States.”

The Philly kids, as it turned out, were too young and too shy to take the challenge. But the boys’ mothers promised they'd get them into soccer and take them to a Union game next season.

Lahoud walked away with a smile, but not before he promised to look for the boys in the stands next year and give them a wave.

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.

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