For Isha Johansen, a journey that began by helping to give kids displaced by war a semblance of a normal childhood, has led her to become the first West African woman elected to the council of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA.
“The narrative about Sierra Leone was child soldiers,” Johansen tells CNN Sport’s Alex Thomas. “Really gruesome details about what happened during the war.
“I thought that through the language of football and the power of football, I could possibly change that narrative.”
As a football official Johansen has already had an eventful career — she’s the long-serving president of the Sierra Leone Football Association after her election in 2013.
During that time she’s had to deal with Ebola, Covid-19, panic attacks, imprisonment — on corruption charges she was subsequently cleared of.
In a historically male dominated industry, it hasn’t been an easy ride.
It was in 2004 that she set up F.C. Johansen to help children on Freetown’s streets.
“I didn’t know about the political structures,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what it was to build a career as a football administrator to becoming an FA president or anything like that, let alone FIFA.
“These were just displaced kids as a result of the war in the neighborhood, and all I wanted to do was to get these boys off the streets at night, get them at home where they should be, get them off the streets in the morning and during the day, put them in school where they should be.
“For me, it was very obvious that they lived and dreamed for their football … so that was my focus, and this was all I was about.”
It was during David Beckham’s visit to Sierra Leone as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2008 that Johansen sensed the possibility of turning dreams into reality.
“David Beckham’s coming to Sierra Leone and these boys meeting him wearing the FC Johansen shirt with a number seven, Beckham, all of that was just an amazing time for us.
“The kids were amazing and then I realized that, you know what? This is so powerful, we could actually change our story in a big way, in a bigger way.”
Entering the country’s second division, F.C. Johansen grew in prominence, traveling abroad to compete in international tournaments such as the Under-16’s Swiss Cup, which they won in 2011, beating Liverpool in the final.
Back home, the club’s domestic form lifted them to the national Premier League, and players were invited to trials at top English clubs Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
“It became a big reality,” Johansen says. “And I think that was the time it dawned on me that, you know, I think I can actually do something really big for my country through football.”
In 2013, Johansen stood in the Sierra Leone Football Association’s presidential election. She’s happy to admit now, it was a ploy intended to ruffle the feathers of men in the game, but after a FIFA-backed committee disqualified all of her opponents — two for links to the gambling industry, and another for failing a residency stipulation — she won, unopposed.
Looking back, she acknowledges she lacked sufficient knowledge for the role, as in her eyes, she had only run a humanitarian project. But even an experienced administrator might have struggled given the challenges she faced.
“My tenure of office has been blighted and it’s been plagued with all kinds of situations and challenges,” Johansen admits.
“Ebola was one huge challenge, and it really set us back for more than two years.”
Meanwhile she was encountering opposition within the hierarchy of Sierra Leonean football, uncomfortable with the idea of a woman being in charge.
An advocate for good governance in the sport, Johansen says people in the ‘football family’ opposed her, simply because they did not want football to be governable.
“My idea of bringing integrity into football,” she says. “My idea of growth and development doesn’t sit well with their idea. It’s sad because we are no different from other countries who have the same kind of problems.
“I think there comes a time when you have to draw the line and put the country first. You may not like Isha. Isha may not like the other side. But if there is a formula that works for the development of a country then let us go with that formula.
“In my country, we’ve had 30, 40 years of decline in football governance, and growth. We aren’t where we should be. Forget about all the other complexities of Ebola or flooding or what have you. We as a family in football, haven’t been able to grow and attain what we should have simply because of the infighting.”
The divisions were laid bare in 2016 when Johansen was arrested on charges of corruption, alongside her vice president and secretary general.
In a drawn out legal and political saga, the sport’s governing body FIFA refused to accept the removal from office that would accompany her indictment, and suspended Sierra Leone from world football, citing government interference.
Only after Johansen’s acquittal on all charges, and reinstatement as SLFA President, was the suspension lifted.
“It was a very lonely and scary time,” Johansen recalls, pointing to how she was arrested and detained when in poor health, while her husband and son were out of the country.
“There were other very scary moments, you know, with the panic attacks and being rushed to hospital and me thinking really, I was going to die.
“But you see, these are moments and things that serve as a lesson for me, a lesson to be stronger.”
‘I took risks’
With her British schooling and diplomat husband — Arne Birger Johansen, the Norwegian Consul — Isha Johansen has at times been cast in a negative light by some in the media in Sierra Leone, as if unrepresentative of her country and people.
“This is a poor country, the education level is not that high, and the media is very powerful,” she explains. “I’ve been portrayed as an elitist. I’ve been portrayed as too European or what have you.
“But the fact of the matter is I’m an African woman. I’m Sierra Leonean. I was born in Sierra Leone and I live in Sierra Leone. And with all the problems, Ebola, everything, I stayed in Sierra Leone.
“I took risks for it on behalf of my people, with my people, with my players, with the youngsters, and it’s never, ever crossed my mind to be anywhere else other than in my country.”
She contends her resilience is down to her growing up with brothers in a world where a female must fight for a place.
“You know that business you’re a girl you’re not going to play football with the boys,” she says.
“You’re not going to be where we are. You’re not going to go out night clubbing with us. You’re not, you’re not, you can’t, and I was always I can, I can, and I will.”
Such persistence has now led Johansen to the top table in world football, with her election to the FIFA council.
“Our story is different, our time is now,” Johansen says. “If you dream it, you can be it, and despite the challenges and despite our cultural settings that don’t enable women to achieve to the level they want to, they can actually do it.
“I’ve been told that I’m an inspiration and I believe that I am because I am living proof that if you believe in it strongly, you actually can achieve it.”
Even though Johansen has the support of FIFA, in Sierra Leone she remains a lightning rod for criticism.
Long-time captain of Sierra Leone’s national team, Mohamed Kallon, also ran for the presidency in 2013, and has since rowed publicly with Johansen — amicably settled by all parties with the help of the country’s public affairs ministry.
Domestic league football in Sierra Leone has been a rarity over the last decade.
“I don’t think in the last eight years we have played a complete league,” says the former Inter Milan and Monaco striker, who like Johansen owns an eponymously named Sierra Leone football club.
Further criticism Kallon says can be directed across all levels of the sport, in areas the country’s football association would typically take responsibility for.
“Football development in Sierra Leone, there’s nothing good to write home about. Female football is not played around the country; youth football is not played around the country.
“I think we’re nowhere. We’ll just have to start from scratch, build a better foundation, build infrastructure in the country, then we can be able to develop footballers.”
Johansen would counter such criticism by pointing to Sierra Leone becoming the first African country to introduce equal pay for its men’s and women’s teams.
While clear in his condemnation of how football is run in Sierra Leone, Kallon is positive about Johansen’s election to the FIFA council, admitting she has faced unprecedented difficulties in her time in office.
“For me personally, I was happy for her assuming one of the biggest offices in FIFA,” he said. “I think it is good for Sierra Leone. It’s good for Africa to be able to have women stepping into those positions and defending their countries.
“I played for Sierra Leone national team for 18 years … I know when it comes to a voice in FIFA, a voice in CAF, we don’t have a voice, we don’t have representation. So I think somebody from Sierra Leone getting to be part of FIFA council, I think that that was fantastic.”
Changing the narrative
In the eight years Johansen has been president of the Sierra Leone FA, no elections have taken place, and she admits this is an unusually long period.
However, according to Johansen federation elections are due soon, with their absence due to the “dysfunctional behavior behaviour of our federation, and all the interferences with the mandate,” plus significant health hazards such as Ebola and the pandemic.
At FIFA, Johansen says she is looking forward to working closely with President Gianni Infantino, commending his passion for Africa and a vision for the sport globally that she shares.
Infantino too has faced criticism for recently helping an ally, Patrice Motsepe, win the top job in African soccer as CAF President.
“It is a fact that FIFA have stood by me throughout this ordeal,” Johansen acknowledges. “Not because I’m the fairer sex or a weaker being or anything untoward other than the fact that I came in with an agenda … in 2013.
“Which was to fight corruption, which was to change the narrative, which was to instill discipline, that entrenched loyalty to whatever it was. I was out to fight it and bring about a cleaner, better, healthier football. I see that with Gianni Infantino.
“He came with an agenda for change and a lot of challenges. So it resonates, we have shared visions. This is why I think he supported my fight. He believed in it, and I certainly believe in his fight, and the FIFA team, I believe in it strongly, and we will all fight together to change that narrative and to make football a louder voice for good.”
Discussing the future of African football at the time of Motsepe’s election, the FIFA President said, “I have already said it, and I say it again. We must stop saying that it is necessary to develop African football. It is about projecting it to the summit of world football.”
Infantino and Motsepe are due to visit Sierra Leone on May 5. It will be the first time that the current FIFA and CAF presidents have visited the African nation at the same time.