The argument to honour a Liberian football legend

Liberian footballing legend Josiah N Johnson. As national coach, he guided the nation to its first and only international football trophy in 1979

Liberian footballing legend Josiah N Johnson. As national coach, he guided the nation to its first and only international football trophy in 1979

In sports, heroes are not hard to find because athletes, unlike any group of citizens, are blessed with special talents which, when put on display, often provide national joy and therapy for a country.  For love of country, they perform under inconvenient and dangerous circumstances without hesitation.  Therefore, when it comes to Liberian footballers, everyone who has been one is a hero and, to make that point, we always struggle to say only good things about them in life and death in our conversations.  Yes, in our conversations, all of them will be our heroes that we will talk about.  But when the individual sacrifices and contributions of former Liberian footballers are put in context and examined, one person, Josiah N. Johnson, stands alone, shoulders above everybody’s, as one former player whose invaluable contributions to the development of Liberia’s football are unmatched by anyone’s. To understand and appreciate the significance of his contributions, one has to examine the many roles he played as a player, coach, administrator and citizen to keep Liberian football relevant and inspire young boys to be footballers.  In these roles, Coach Johnson, it will not be manufactured hyperbole to assert that he single-handedly kept Liberia’s football alive and transformed it for national appreciation. But the country has yet to honour him appropriately by naming a football stadium after him.

Mr. Josiah N. Johnson, commonly known to the Liberian football community as JNJ, has been a constant and indispensable contributor to Liberian football for more than 50 years as a player, coach and an administrator.  Coach Johnson was born in Botaw, Sinoe County, on July 27, 1939.  Life in this town at the time, according to Wilfred Harris, a son of Botaw, was not promising for its residents.  The town was defined by poverty, the absence of middle and secondary high schools and the remarkable determination of its people to succeed in life.  This led to young people moving to Greenville or Monrovia, if they had relatives there to live with and continue their education. The Johnson’s family would later make this decision too.  For the record, Wilfred Harris was a footballer whose only goal in football was to play against Brazil or any team that had a Brazilian player.

Amidst the depressing poverty and the uncertainty of opportunities to prosper in life, young Johnson began playing football with neighbourhood friends on the dusty roads or anywhere they could find space.  Without money to purchase sneakers or football boots, they played barefooted and used brown banana leafs or discarded old papers from school to make football.  Meticulously, they wrapped ropes around dead brown banana leafs or papers until they were solid and took the form of a football.  In this town, young Johnson also began his education in 1945.  But his mother, having realised that Botaw did not provide any opportunity for him to be educated beyond elementary school, decided to relocate the family to Monrovia in 1949.  As his mother had wished, he enrolled at St. Patrick’s elementary school in 1950.  But unable to pay the tuition, he was forced to transfer to a public school and then to Monrovia College, which had just opened in the 1950s.  At this time, the future national team midfielder was distinguishing himself with performances that were stylish but well noted for quality while he played for Youth Leaders, his first team.

Playing for Youth Leaders, however, did not last for long.  Young Josiah left for another team named the Connections.  This team, at the time, was financially better off than the other teams-Barrolle, IE, Jets and Youth Leaders.  The owner of Connections, according to Coach Johnson, was a Nigerian national who was a diamond dealer and married to the sister of his teammates, George and Garrectson Sackor.  While playing for Connections, young Josiah debuted for the Lone Star in 1958 against Sierra Leone.  But his stay in Connections was truncated.  Under mysterious circumstances, the Nigerian national ran afoul of a politically powerful person in the Liberian government and was forced to leave Liberia.  It left the team without a reliable financial benefactor and eventually led to its dissolution in 1958.  In 1959, as a result of this, he joined Barrolle while the Sackor brothers joined IE.  In Barrolle, he found a permanent home on a team that in later years featured great Liberian players like Wanibo Toe, George Sackor, Borbor Gaye, Charles “Baby Red” Woelfer, Mass Sarr, Patrick Arthur, John “Monkey” Brown, Alexander Peal, Abu Kamara, and Tarpeh Roberts.

As a player for Lone Star and Barrolle, young Josiah was not just a player with mediocre ability who was brought into the teams to supplement other players.  Rather, he was a naturally gifted and talented superstar player who played leading roles for Lone Star and Barrolle.  With dribbling skills that were entertainingly attractive and elegant, he was a fans’ favourite to watch and cheer.  The Liberian football world was at his feet.  While Wanibo Toe mesmerized fans with his effortless and magical dribbling skills, young Josiah had them jumping up and down in their seats as they mimicked his moves and shouted “waah-way.”  At the centre of his dribbling skills was a bag of tricks from which he decided moves that sent his markers the wrong way, making them look hopelessly foolish.  Patrick Arthur, then an understudy teenager and teammate of Coach Johnson in the late 1960s in Barrolle, described him as a “midfield general with a vision of a cat.”  As a player, Arthur continued, Johnson was not lacking in confidence.  This state of mind, Charles “Baby Red” Woelfer added, “sometimes led to Josiah holding on to the football longer,” or in conventional football language, “dribbling too much” than his teammates wanted.  But they did not mind because it was not wasteful as it helped to preserve victories for Liberia and Barrolle by keeping the ball away from the other teams.  With this ability, he would be a world class player in today’s game, where teams play going backwards and when they are in the lead, defensively waste time off the game clock by having their dribblers dribble in the corners

In 1971, after thirteen years of playing for Barrolle and Lone Stars, he was sent to the former West Germany to be trained as a football coach.  His decision to be a coach did not surprise his former teammates.  As a player, he theorised strategies and constantly gave instructions to his teammates during matches to the chagrin of some of them.  After he completed his training, he returned to Liberia and became a coach-player of the Liberian national team.  As a full-time player, Coach Johnson had endured the indignities of being a Liberian footballer for whom people advocated.  As a coach in a reversed role, he was expected to advocate for players that he recruited, developed and supervised.  This would pose the toughest test of his commitment to Liberian football and footballers.  It did not take long for him to have such opportunity.

At the time he became coach of the national team, a significant number of his national teammates, from 1958 through the 1960s, had retired or left Liberia for overseas.  Only two great legends, Borbor Gaye and the late John “Monkey” Brown from that era, were still actively playing for the national team.  They were backed by the next generation that consisted of Augustus Mitchell, Santos Maria, the late Patrick Teah, Sylvester Weah, Philip “Coacha” Davis, Samuel Toe, Christopher Nippy, William Nah, Lawson “Apollo” Teah, James “Zito” Davies, Patrick Arthur, Anthony Nagbe Wesseh, Tommy Manneh, George Tarpeh, William Sherman, William Nah, etc.  This team took on the Sierra Leone’s Leone Stars and beat them 3-1 in Monrovia.  When they travelled to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the rematch, the coach and his players were made to travel by road during the raining season, while the sports administrators, headed by E. Harding Smythe, travelled by plane.  An insult and humiliation of the players and the coach that, undoubtedly, would have left another person disenchanted in the service of his country.  But like a father and a patriotic army general, he motivated his players to perform well and they did, losing 1-0 from a goal scored because the ball was slippery for Nippy to secure it firmly in his hands.

Then in 1973, the Lone Star went to Ghana to participate in the zone 3 qualifying tournament for the All-African games that included football, basketball and volleyball against Ghana, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.  But before they left, something happened that began a series of challenges that were to test Coach Johnson’s commitment to Liberian football.  While the team was preparing to depart for Ghana, a request was submitted to the Ministry of Finance for a $25.00 daily allowance for each player travelling to Ghana to play in the tournament.  The request and budget, according to Coach Johnson, were approved by President Tolbert.  He and the players were delighted that the president had approved the request. However, while they were calculating how much each player would accrual from the allowance during the weeks of the tournament, they were told that Stephen Tolbert, the powerful  minister of finance and the president’s younger brother, vetoed and dismissed the request because of disagreement between the then Sports Commission and the Ministry of Finance.

According to Charles Wordsworth, then a student at Ricks Institute and member of the Lone Star basketball team that travelled to Ghana, the disagreement was over the Finance Ministry’s insistence to pay the allowance to the players directly and the Sports Commission’s position that it should be the one disbursing the money to the players directly.  Because this was not resolved, the Liberian athletes, according to Wordsworth, left Liberia and played in the tournament without allowance.  The players were devastated by this, leaving Coach Johnson with the challenge again to console and motivate his players to play for their own pride.  They played well, tying Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone but losing to Ghana 1-0.  Christopher Nippy emerged from the tournament as the best goalkeeper ahead of Amadu Kargbo, the late great Sierra Leonean goalkeeper

In 1974, Lone Star went to the former West Germany for training and after they returned from there, only Patrick Teah, James Davies, Patrick Arthur and Tommy Manneh, from the team Coach Johnson inherited, remained on the national team.  He reconstituted the national team with players like Solomon Sipply, Koko Wleh, Frank “Jericho” Nagbe, Joseph Forkay Nepay and Sayon Davies that played Cameroun, Ivory Coast and Guinea in Monrovia in friendly matches. The team defeated Cameroun 2-0 and tied Ivory Coast. Although the results against Cameroun and Ivory Coast were encouraging, the goalkeeper’s position worried the coach and the public as the team prepared to play Guinea.

Against Guinea, incredibly, the incomparable David Momoh, made a dramatic return to the national team and performed well against a Guinean national team that featured Papa Kamara, Osman Tolo, and Bangally Sylla.  Mr. Momoh had been replaced by William Nah as Liberia’s consensus number one goalkeeper by the end of the 1960s.  After Nah became ill in 1973, Christopher Nippy replaced him.  But Nippy and other players retired from playing for the national team in 1974 over demands for incentives and better treatment for Liberian athletes.  It left the stage opened for other goalkeepers to compete for the number one position.  So when Momoh, once the best goalkeeper in Africa in the 1960s, had those great performances reminiscing of years past, Liberians were convinced that the national team’s difficulties with goalkeeping were resolved.  Coach Johnson, too, was convinced and so confident in his former national teammate that in 1975 he took him to Ghana to play against the Black Stars.  But Momoh and his defence conceded six goals and the Lone Stars lost without scoring a goal.  In Liberia, the loss was greeted with absolute disbelief with many finding solace in conspiracy theory that the referees may have been bribed to cheat for Ghana.  In the rematch, Ghana beat Liberia 4-1 in Monrovia, emphatically dismissing the credibility of any conspiracy theory.

The entire country was driven to shame by these losses that some members of the House of Representatives, led by Ijoma Robert Fleminster, requested hearing into the reasons for Liberia’s poor performances.  President Tolbert, too, wanted to know and, therefore invited the sports administrator to a meeting with him at the Executive Mansion.  Mr. E. Harding Smythe, then the chairman of the Sports Commission, was expected to explain the reasons for the losses.  But, as the coach who was carrying the agonizing burden of the losses and blamed by many for his decisions, Coach Johnson insisted to attend the meeting.  In a telephone interview for this article, he said that his insistence was inspired by suspicion that the honest answers would not be provided by Smythe because of political restrictions.  The request was granted and it would mark the first time a Liberian football coach attended such meeting.

At the meeting, he told the president that the ‘players who played on the national team were unemployed young boys who lived in the poor communities around Monrovia and, on an average, walked about thirty minutes one way to practices.”  He divulged to President Tolbert that “some players come to practice hungry because they are unemployed and have no money to buy food.  Because of these conditions, some players do not come to practice regularly and I, as a coach, cannot discipline them.  They do not feel obligated to come to practice and, without preparation in practice, we cannot compete with other countries.”  Then, in conclusion, he told the president that the “Antoinette Tubman Stadium was far below international standard and Liberia needed a new modern stadium.”

President Tolbert, Coach Johnson said, genuinely reacted with shock and promised to “do something about this.”  Following this meeting, President Tolbert’s administration approved a budget in which money was allocated for Liberian Lone Star players in football, basketball, boxing, tennis and track and field to be paid $50.00 monthly.  In 1979, the amount was increased to one hundred and twenty-five dollars monthly.  Although the amount was never going to make any of the athletes wealthy, it enabled some of them to provide meaningful cares for themselves and their families.  The football Lone Star was assigned a bus that took players to and from practices. This meeting pushed the Tolbert administration to negotiate and conclude agreement with the Chinese government to construct a national sports stadium known today as the Samuel K. Doe Stadium.  Following this meeting, the National Port Authority and the Liberian Petroleum Company, organised football teams that employed palyers on the national football team.  For Coach Johnson, undoubtedly, this was the finest hour in the history of his association with Liberian football because it was the first time a Liberian football coach was granted an audience by a Liberian president to abreast him of the state of the country’s football programme.

The losses to Ghana did not only open the door for Coach Johnson to abreast the president of the miserable conditions of footballers, it ended the national team careers of some veteran players like Patrick Teah, Tommy Manneh, James “Zito” Davies, James Washington, Peter Sneh, etc.  But it opened the door to a new generation of national team players.  For any coach in any sport, the reconstitution of a national team is a very difficult and frustrating challenge because every player wants to be selected.  But Coach Johnson did not select every player.  He selected Waka Herron, Sarkpah Nyanseor, Joseph “Kofi Bruce” Sion, John “Tetoe” Tiewloh, Albert Nah, Sayon Davis, Sekou Gomez, Philip “Philip Pee” Weah, Solomon Sipply, Anthony “Strongman” Nagbe, Joseph Forkay Nepay, Frank “Jericho” Nagbe, etc. Some of them had already played a number of international games for country and clubs.  Hence, they had the experience to form the fulcrum of the national team.  But it did not take long for Coach Johnson to be tested again.

In 1978, while he was serving as head coach, a British coach, Bert Trautmann, was recruited and installed as coach.  Coach Trautmann, a German paratrooper captured by the British during World War II, came to Liberia with an impressive coaching resume and a playing career with Manchester City from 1949 to 1964, making 508 appearances for the team, according to his biography.  This career ranks him among Europe’s greatest goalkeepers.  Under the agreement that brought Trautmann to Liberia, he was hosted in a 3-bedroom house in Paynesville and given an automobile to drive to and from practices and around Monrovia.  Conversely, Coach Johnson took public transportation to go to practices.  But this apparent demotion and national humiliation did not discourage him.  He worked diligently with Trautmann, theorising strategies and articulating them very impressively during training sessions.  As a result, by the end of 1978, Trautmann relegated himself to the role of technical advisor and left Coach Johnson to organise and conduct training sessions with occasional suggestions from him if it was necessary.  Again, it did not take long for Coach Johnson’s ability as a coach to be tested in 1979 in the Six-Nation Tournament in Monrovia that included Liberia, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Togo.

Until the late 1970s, the Guinean president, Sekou Toure, had constantly accused Senegal and Ivory Coast of subversion on behalf of France, the former colonial power, to dislodge him from power.  Therefore, for more than a decade, Guinea did not have any diplomatic relations with them. Liberia was expected to host the conference of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1979 and the Liberian president wanted to have every African president to be present at the conference.  But Toure, because of the overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah and perhaps, his suspicion of Senegal and Ivory Coast, had not attended an OAU’s summit since 1966 and, therefore, his presence at the Monrovia conference was not certain.  President Tolbert, from the impression of the Liberian public, had cultivated good personal friendships with the Guinean and Ivorian leaders and, therefore, the absence of any one of them, did not present a good picture for the Liberian president.  Hence, he decided to take on the diplomatic challenge to reconcile Guinea and these two countries with the diplomatic assistance of Togo and Gambia.  Following the diplomatic success of the Liberian president, the Liberian Football Association (LFA), always motivated by political expediency, organised the tournament to honour and celebrate the president’s success.  The tournament was decisively won by the Lone Stars under the tutelage of Coach Johnson.

For Liberian football, winning the Six-Nation Tournament was significant historically.  It marked the first time that Liberia won a football trophy.  The historic significance of winning the Six-Nation Tournament was not lost on President Tolbert.  Few weeks after the tournament, he invited the victorious Lone Star to his Bentol residence to celebrate the team at a dinner.  Almost who was who in the Liberian government, including Speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard A. Henries, was there, albeit that he took occasional naps between ceremonious remarks during the programme.  Solomon Sipply, who led the team as captain, was honoured with the Humane Order of African Redemption.  Again, this was the first time the national football team was invited by a Liberian president to have dinner at his personal residence or the Executive Mansion.  The honour bestowed on Sipply was the first for an active Liberian football captain.  The winning of the trophy took place in 1979 and 36 years on, it remains the first and only trophy the national football team has ever won in an international competition.

After the euphoria for winning the trophy subsided, another challenge to be the first began for Coach Johnson again. This time, it was whether under him the Lone Star was capable of beating Ghana Black Stars for the first time.  As a player, Coach Johnson played in many of the games that Liberia played against Ghana, all of which ended in losses for Liberia. The first game between the two countries took place on January 18, 1964, at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia.  Coach Johnson, recalling the game, said that the Black Stars came to Liberia as the “best team in Africa, having beaten other African national teams very dismissively.”  Although the Liberian public had confidence in the Lone Stars, it was still jittery over the reputation of the Ghanaians.  So when Lone Star led 3-1 in the first half, the first ever against the Black Stars, the Liberian spectators and players had no doubts about the result being in favour of Liberia.  But the Black Stars scored four goals in the second half and defeated the Lone Stars 5-4.

This defeat, according to Coach Johnson, was crushing psychologically and appeared to have created doubts in the confidence of every generation of Liberian national team players that they could beat Ghana.  As coach, the opportunity came for him to try to reverse this psychology or, at least, diminish its influence in June 1979.  The venue, however, was the then Accra Sports Stadium in Ghana. The game ended 0-0, the first time a Liberian national team ever tied with a Black Stars team in Ghana.  The return match was scheduled and played on July 26, 1979 with Lone Star winning 3-1 after Black Stars had taken a 1-0 lead into the second half.  Speaking about the victory, he said fondly and proudly that “this victory is ranked number one on my list because it broke the psychological advantage the Ghanaians have had over us as a result of the 1964 game.”

In the 1980s, a new generation of Liberian coaches he coached and tutored to be coaches, ironically, replaced him. He moved into administration, serving as deputy minister of sports without salary during the period of the ups and downs of the Liberian civil war.  But he was unceremoniously removed from the position by the Taylor’s administration.  Today he has no official position and receives no retirement compensation from government.  But, still, he remains committed to Liberian football, visiting dressing rooms of the Lone Star and Liberian clubs, offering them counsel at half-time during international games.  If he is not doing that, he is seen humbly discussing the sad state of Liberian football with anyone on the sidewalks of Monrovia streets in phrases that have endeared him to the public and turned him into a venerable football icon to the youngest generation of Liberian footballers and fans.

Coach Johnson’s service to Liberia was not restricted to playing football only.  While playing for Liberia and Barrolle, Coach Johnson joined the special Security Service (SSS), a branch of the security service that was responsible for the safety of President Tubman.  He was sent to Israel and trained there in details of protecting the president.  After he returned, he was assigned directly to the unit that was directly and closely responsible for the safety of the president.

This man, in any role in his area of qualification, has answered every call to do something for the greater good of Liberia and its football.  As a player, he travelled the dangerous roads to other African countries to play for Liberia under bad conditions.  As coach, a player’s coach, he pushed the Liberian government and successfully advocated for all Liberian sports men and women to be incentivized.  In addition to this, he stands alone as the first and only Liberian national football team coach to have coached a Liberian national football team that won a trophy in an international competition.  Under him, for the first time, Liberia tied with Ghana Black Stars in Accra and beat them in Monrovia 3-1 under the same circumstances that Ghana had beaten Liberia 5-4 in Monrovia in 1964.  As an administrator, he worked for the country without financial compensations during the most difficulty times in Liberia’s history.

No Liberian government, however, has shown any appreciation for Coach Johnson’s impressive resume of sacrifices, contributions and accomplishments by honouring him.  Since his sacrifices and accomplishments were made in football, he should and must be honoured by naming a football stadium in his honour.  In other African countries, notably Ghana, all the major public football stadiums are named after retired footballers, coaches and administrators, whose respective records of sacrifices, contributions and accomplishments are constituted by the same impressive record of sacrifices, contributions and accomplishments as Coach Johnson’s. To name a stadium in his honour, the country does not need to look into the future beyond the Samuel Doe, Antoinette Tubman, and Nancy Doe Stadiums to do it.  These stadiums carry the names of people, unlike Coach Johnson, who benefitted and enjoyed enormously from the country’s resources.

This year, Coach Johnson will turn 76 years old come July and, at this age, we resign ourselves to the possibility of our lives concluding suddenly any day.  This fact is not lost on Coach Johnson and was conveyed in his comment, during our telephone conversation, that “it is better to give a person his flowers while he is alive than to do it after he has died.”  So, is it not time now to honour this man for his sacrifices and contributions to the development of Liberian football?  Is it not time now to honour this man for making his life the business of Liberian football and Liberian football the business of his life?  Coach Josiah Johnson has proven that a Liberian, after all, is capable of being as good a coach as a European.  Undoubtedly, if he was a politician, they would have named a building, street or an auditorium in his honour.  He took on the challenging responsibilities of citizenship in his area of qualification and succeeded.  If Mr. Josiah N. Johnson does not deserve to be honoured as argued, no other Liberian footballer deserves to be so honoured.

Benedict Nyankun Wisseh, who penned this article, lives in New York City. Email: