It was a sunny Saturday on July 24, 2016, in the American suburb of Landover Hills, Maryland where a handful of Liberians have gathered to celebrate Liberia’s Independence Day with the now-famous ceremonial clash between fans of Liberia’s historic football rivals – Mighty Barrolle and Invincible Eleven.
This yearly festivity is organized by diaspora Liberians to commemorate the country’s independence and relive the rivalry that has come to define the nation’s love affair with the beautiful game.
With apologies to the other clubs, Mighty Barrolle and Invincible Eleven are arguably Liberia’s most storied teams. They’ve each won 13 championships in the Liberian Premier League with the Invincible Eleven winning its first in 1963 and Barrolle in 1967. This rivalry is undeniably one of the core aspects of Liberia’s culture and pastime.
Forget the rivalry between the two giants of Spanish football, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid – okay, I shouldn’t get carried away here, but you get the point. Like any major rivalry in sports, rooting for either Barrolle or I.E. was always a matter of family and loyalty.
Growing up in a household that cheered for a particular team or the admiration of a star player when these two arch-rivals locked horns meant you were a lifelong fan. Imagine the unprecedented amount of Facebook memes if the heyday of this rivalry had been in the age of the internet.
As I pulled into the parking lot of Gallatin Street in Landover Hills for the 2016 Independence Day celebration, Sekou Keita arrived with his family, followed by a steady stream of fans eagerly expecting a grand celebration.
At its peak, the yearly Independence Day celebration around the United States can be a sight of joy with a circus-like celebration. However, I tend to be a bit of a wet blanket due to past experiences, and at times, only long to indulge myself in the taste of Liberian cuisines at these events.
Far from a fête that some have come to expect, the game started a few hours late – way beyond the slated scheduled time with a not-so-impressive attendance. The usual aroma of Liberian cuisines circulating the air was also missing, and many could be heard questioning their decision to skip lunch in anticipation of patronizing the local food vendors.
Keita and I decided to drive out to grab a bite at a nearby fast food joint. With mild frustration in his eyes, as one would expect from a mild-mannered guy, he started to question the organizational structure and the lack of adequate planning for the Independence Day celebrations in the diaspora.
Like a true football nerd, Keita carefully segued into the history of the Invincible Eleven and its owner, the Majestic Sports Association, Inc. This organization dates all the way back to 1943 and is one of the founding members of football in Liberia.
The Invincible Eleven isn’t just a sporting team; it’s a sports institution that promotes sports as a means of encouraging fellowship and understanding; it’s a social club that works to address illiteracy, poverty, and deprivation; it’s an invincible group that promotes athletics, education, and youth development. But, as with any aging institution, I.E. must keep up with the times.
Keita expounded on a range of rebranding plans and what it would take to revive the club. At the time, he was serving as the director of Global Business Development for I.E., a position he used to voluntarily shoulder the financial responsibility for the club.
As a lifelong fan of I.E. and former footballer, Keita had an opportunity to play for the team in 2004-2005 when Isaac Nyenabo was president but opted to return to the United States after his playing time with Jeanne D’Arc de Dakar of Senegal.
Fast forward to 2017: Keita has been appointed as interim president until the 2017 election, which is slated for December. Joining Keita are Joe Acqui, a real estate developer from Maryland who is now Interim VP of International Affairs, and Musa Turay, the Operations Manager from Aminata and Sons, Inc. in Liberia serving as Interim Assistant Secretary General.
In his new role, Keita has already been busy. Upon the release of eight players, he’s signed nine new with four of them coming from Guinea.
Notable among his plans as president are:
- Avoiding relegation in the Liberian Premier League
- Restructure and rebrand the team
- Strengthen the diaspora wing of I.E.
As I think back to our Independence Day lunch at a fast food joint thousands of miles away from the heart of Liberia, I’m confident that I.E. is in good hands with Keita in charge. He has the vision and passion to keep the Invincible Eleven invincible and relevant.
Photo courtesy of Peterking Quaye