Isha Johansen is the president of Sierra Leone’s soccer federation. At least in FIFA’s eyes, that is.Credit…Pool photo by Adrian Dennis
By Tariq Panja – The New York Times
April 28, 2019
Even before she became one of the handful of women ever to have run a national soccer federation, Isha Johansen had carved out a prominent profile in the sport.
Long before she became a fixture at international gatherings and a presence on the decision-making committees that govern the game, Johansen entered Sierra Leone’s soccer scene by founding a club that offered street children equipment in exchange for a promise that they would attend school. The club grew, once attracting a visit from David Beckham, and eventually established itself in the country’s top league.
Johansen, meanwhile, quickly rose through soccer’s governance ranks as a rare woman in the upper echelons of a sport long run by men. With her carefully crafted public image and English boarding school education, she was politically savvy enough that she was soon rubbing elbows with power brokers like Sepp Blatter and Gianni Infantino and stars like Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yet at home in Sierra Leone, where Johansen has been a lightning rod for controversy since even before she became federation president, her life in soccer has been an entirely different experience. And now she is facing a reckoning.
On Monday, a court in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, will hear final submissions in a two-year corruption case against Johansen and her top deputy. The government has accused Johansen of abusing her office and misappropriating funds; she has insisted that the case is politically motivated.
It is, in fact, several other things, too: a test of anticorruption efforts and impartial justice in Sierra Leone; a referendum on FIFA’s ability to protect its member associations from government interference; and a window into a broader question about female empowerment in soccer, and the consequences for one woman who broke one barrier only to run into more.
The verdict in Johansen’s case, which could come within days, will be closely followed in West Africa but also thousands of miles away inside FIFA’s glass-and-steel headquarters in Zurich, where Johansen has been a regular visitor. FIFA already has taken Johansen’s side in one respect: Citing violations of its rule about government interference in soccer, it suspended Sierra Leone’s federation last year to protest the removal of Johansen from office pending the resolution of her case.
“This ordeal has in a sense taught me about the real dirty side of the beautiful game,” Johansen said. “I did not steal, and I am not corrupt.”
Johansen, 53, said she had never planned to become a national soccer federation president. She said she entered the race only to lead Sierra Leone’s F.A. in 2013 to “ruffle a few feathers,” but late in the campaign she found herself as the only candidate after a process run by a FIFA-backed committee disqualified all of her opponents.
Johansen’s rivals — two were ruled out because of their links to gambling interests, and another because of a residency requirement — complained bitterly that FIFA had put its thumb on the scale to ensure victory for a female candidate, a result that would provide FIFA’s president at the time, Blatter, with a public relations coup and another loyal supporter in Africa. A poisonous campaign bottomed out when a prominent supporter of one of Johansen’s opponents took to the radio to brand her “a prostitute.”
Much of the anger at her candidacy and later her victory, she said, was fueled by a news media that she accused of being paid by elements of the gambling industry, and because of her pledge to clean up soccer in Sierra Leone.
“I inherited a chronically corrupt system,” Johansen said. “It was corrupt to the core from top to bottom.”
Challenges came in quick succession, though. Sierra Leone’s top club teams responded to Johansen’s presidency by boycotting matches in the country’s top league, which was soon embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. At the same time, an Ebola outbreak that started in neighboring Guinea quickly spread across West Africa, turning Sierra Leone’s national team — and others from the region — into international soccer pariahs.
By 2017, with Johansen facing corruption charges and removed from her post by a government anti-corruption body, FIFA was forced to release a public statement insisting that it still considered her the rightful president of Sierra Leone’s soccer federation.
That backing, and her prominent roles in the corridors of power of overseas — Johansen sits on FIFA’s member associations committee and is Sierra Leone’s first representative on African soccer’s governing council — only protected her for so long.
Last September, Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption commission seized control of the Sierra Leone federation’s offices and forced out Johansen in a corruption probe, in which nearly a dozen original charges have since been reduced to only three.
Two of the charges accuse Johansen and the federation’s general secretary, Chris Kamara, of misappropriating a $50,000 grant that prosecutors said should have been used to conduct bone scans on youth players to confirm their ages. The other allegation relates to the repayment of a $5,000 loan made by Johansen’s Norwegian husband, Arne, who at the time was the managing director of the national team’s principal sponsor, the cement company Leocem.
Johansen and her lawyers have argued that the scans were completed locally instead of overseas, saving on costs, and that it was not a stipulation of the donor, African soccer’s governing body, that the funds be spent solely on the age scans. Francis Ben Kaifala, the head of the anti-corruption commission, disagreed; he said local laws required that grants be spent only for a specific purpose.
“If money is given to buy a house and you use it to fund travel, then even if travel is not a criminal thing, it could still be misappropriation,” Kaifala said in a telephone interview.
In the case of the Leocem loan, Johansen said that she was not even in the country when her husband made the payment to cover the national team’s costs to travel to a game outside the country, and that the $5,000 he later received was merely a reimbursement.
The defense has produced detailed paperwork to explain the payment; Kaifala said the documents were either forgeries or created after the event. “All the receipts they are bringing, we say they are fabricated,” Kaifala said. Johansen said prosecutors had not sought testimony from her husband or CAF officials that might clarify the dispute.
FIFA, whose officials privately speak about tiring of the yearslong saga, uneasily waded into the fight last October, inviting a delegation from Sierra Leone — which included the country’s vice president, attorney general and minister of justice — to Zurich for talks. Johansen attended, too. After the meeting, FIFA said its sanctions against Sierra Leone would not be lifted until Johansen’s trial concluded. It also said Sierra Leone’s government had made a commitment to investigate the withdrawal of funds from the soccer federation’s bank account — money sourced to FIFA grants — that were made after Johansen’s ouster.
Whatever the outcome, the case has gripped the soccer-mad nation, where organizational chaos continues unabated. Only now, five years after its league shut down in protest of Johansen’s election, have domestic league matches resumed, with a new government-backed league formed under the auspices of a federation that is not recognized by FIFA. Johansen, who founded a team that once played in the old league, labeled it a rogue operation.
But she also said she had no intention of giving up the fight to keep her post. The FIFA suspension has delayed elections anyway, meaning her term in office has been extended beyond the original date when it was to end.
“I won’t go away just because somebody says, ‘We will bully you, we will intimidate you, defame you,’” Johansen said. “My only crime is that I refused to toe the line of entrenched loyalty to corruption within the system.”