Well known for his outspokenness in football matters in Sierra Leone, Rodney Michael loves challenging the status quo and is willing to criticize and offer solutions to the West African nation's lingering football problems.
The former head of the Sierra Leone Premier League Board (PLB), who strongly advocates for the development of provincial football, is aspiring to be president of the Sierra Leone football federation.
In this interview with African Sport Monthly, the chairman of Bo Rangers Football Club unfolds his plans and vision for Sierra Leonean football.
African Sports Monthly: You have always demonstrated a huge passion for football in Sierra Leone. What has been the driving force behind your love for the game?
Rodney Michael: I grew up playing football and watching the likes of Max McCauley and Gainga for both Bo District and CKC and since then it has always been a passion I share with majority of my friends. It has always been our favourite sport as a family as well as tennis. Football was the only sport we played on a daily basis. Even during my early years spent in England studying, where I played rugby and cricket for my school, football was more a passion to most of us than the other sports which were more recognized as school sports. So, it will be safe to say it's a passion since my childhood and it has been a way of serving my community and country over the last 26 years as an administrator. I have always loved doing it and the fire is still burning with the belief that there is more I can do.
You have been known for your outspokenness against the way football is run in Sierra Leone. Do you think things are getting better now?
I'm not sure if I can determine whether things are getting better than say 20 years ago but what I can say is that over the last 10 years, the only improvement has been our FIFA ranking after wonderful performance by the Leone Stars in 2011. However, we still lack the basic administrative structures and financial transparency. The FA has no credibility and has lost all respect. There is no technical or officiating program because the funds allocated for such have never been used appropriately.
There is no female or youth league program. The premier league is the only properly structured league in the country but still struggles to find sufficient sponsorship, while the National Division one and two leagues are played as galas, and this implies very little football is played in the smaller districts like Kambia, Koinadugu, Port Loko, Tonkolili, Pujehun, Moyamba, Bonthe and Kailahun. Our national teams play under very difficult circumstances and poor logistical arrangement in spite of an incredible increment of government funding for such matches. It therefore implies that there is a lot more to do and even if things have gotten better over the last two decades, things ought to be much better than they are now.
What was it like to head the Sierra Leone Premier League Board and what did you learn in that capacity?
It was a very good experience for me. I took the job at a sensitive time. The previous chairman was forced to leave for his political engagements and his board's mandate had expired. The Premier League appeared dead and the public was becoming very agitated. The offer came as a shock and many thought it was a trap but believing in myself and my sincerity, I didn't hesitate to go for it.
The board members were men of integrity and together we agreed to disagree and disagreed to agree. Funding was our biggest challenge as our nation has no policy to entice corporate sponsorship. Luckily, my string relationship with Africel and Mercury helped the board acquire sufficient sponsorship for the one round league. I learnt a lot from my experience, especially the fact that our clubs need to be guided into becoming better structures and the need to convert all clubs into share-holding companies. I also learnt that until we design, with Government's support, a national policy that will entice corporate sponsorship and partnership, the future of football in Sierra Leone is going to continue as a struggle and sacrifice instead of becoming a business entity. We need to encourage more corporate ownership or partnership in the clubs and the issue of clubs belonging to communities must be a thing of the past.
We must learn from the European experience as copied in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and North Africa where the best leagues in Africa are played. Football must no longer just be a sacrifice but a business and with a strong policy that allows some amount of tax rebate for corporate sponsorship, government can help the FA build a strong league where special talents can be identified for the national teams.
Why did you resign from the board at a time when the beleaguered league needed your attention most?
There was no personal motive in my resignation. It was purely on principle due to unacceptable comments made by the FA president at a joint press conference with a FIFA representative that the league, which we had suspended for very good reasons, must "recommence immediately". I considered it as interference in the running of the PLB. His executive never called the board to explain the decision but simply opted to reveal it to the media. The responsibilities of the PLB were to commence and conclude a league which meant if there was an obstacle it could also suspend the league and notify the FA. The board unanimously decided it was impossible to continue with a league under the circumstance at the time, particularly with the uncomfortable relationship between the ministry and the FA, which resulted in the suspension of the first match at the National Stadium. We informed the FA of our decision yet they decided to personalize the issue as a problem between the Ag President and myself, choosing the media as the appropriate means to announce their intent. Briefly, my resignation was on principle and not from personal motives, and it was supported by most of the board members.
Some of your critics have pointed out that the same criticism you made against the Sierra Leone Football Association under Nahim Khadi can be admissibly made against you. Delay in the commencement of the league, accusation of foul play by match officials and so on. Do you find these criticisms justifiable?
The delay in the commencement of the league was never our fault. We received a mandate for the 2011 league in January, and after surmounting complications in composing the board members, we immediately went to work and commenced within six weeks. The league was very successful under those circumstances as confirmed by the FA while renewing our mandate. The renewal came late September and so we had to work towards commencing the 2011-12 league immediately.
The first scheduled date was affected by the minister's decision to suspend the league with the support of eight out of 14 Premier League clubs. It was impossible to commence a league with only six clubs. The rescheduled commencement, after the PLB brokered a solution between the clubs and the FA, was affected by the infighting between the ministry and the FA, with the first match at the National stadium between Ports and Lions being suspended after thousands of fans had turned up to watch. I resigned two days later as already explained. The delay was never our fault and everyone knows that, including the FA.
You have announced your intent to run for the presidency of the Sierra Leone Football Association, what will be your campaign strategy?
I have already commenced putting the structures in place for the campaign and in keeping with my pledge over the years to unite the football family. My campaign strategy will have a national outlook. I have established a National Advisory Council (NAC) which is the highest body and its job is to examine all strategies, proposals and budget of the National Campaign Committee for approval. The NAC will monitor the campaign and advice on the best way forward not only for the campaign but for the future of football, and its members will scrutinize the manifesto and approve the final draft. They will work and supervise the National Campaign Committee (NCC) which will consist of seven members - the chairman and two others appointed by me, and four Regional Campaign Committee Chairmen / Women.
The NCC will be responsible for approving the proposed strategy and budget of the Regional Campaign Committees and to present them to the NAC. The NCC is also charged with the responsibility of supervising the Regional Campaign Committees (RCC) to ensure that the budget is used judiciously, and the strategy is complied with strictly. It will also determine the performance and success of the RCC and reports to the NAC. I am not a direct member of any of the committees but have the right to attend all their meetings and to participate without dictating the decisions. The NAC, NCC and RCC are responsible for all decisions within their terms of reference.
Whether you end up being the President of the SLFA or not, what will be your legacy in Sierra Leone football?
My legacy in Sierra Leone football will be determined in the years to come. I will always be in football and will always continue to support football. However, what I want to be remembered for is that I helped transform football for the better and that such transformation became the envy of not only countries in West Africa but beyond the sub-region and the continent.
I would like to be remembered as the president that worked with government and everyone to regularly qualify our team for the Africa Cup of Nations and the FIFA World Cup. That is a legacy that could linger well beyond my years left on earth, and it will be success more rewarding and satisfactory than any financial benefit I could possibly derive.