Far From Home

Craig Lassig

Saturday, July 26 started out soggy and brooding. At the National Sports Center in Blaine, a warm, spotty rain was falling on the crowd of perhaps 2,000 waiting for the evening's match, between Mighty Barrolle and the Invincible Eleven All-Stars, longtime rivals in the Liberian Football Association.

The headlines that Saturday were full of news of home--"U.S. poised off Liberia"; "Barrage kills at least 26 in Monrovia"--and a resultant free-floating anxiety seemed to affect the crowd, who had come to commemorate the 156th anniversary of Liberia's independence, as well as to raise money for their war-ravaged country. The game itself was controversial--a flyer requesting that it be canceled has been circulating in the Liberian community--and the day's images of carnage in Monrovia were fresh in the minds of those who had turned out. "The U.S. has troops off the coast, so we hope they do what's necessary to relieve Liberia," said a 27-year-old law student named Abraham. "It's hard to see dead bodies in the street."

The players began almost gingerly, in part because of the wet field and air-clotting humidity, maybe in part because of uncertainty over whether they should be playing at all. Near the base of the stadium bleachers, a thickly built man named Orlando watched them with a cocked expression. He was, he explained, a former center forward for another Liberian team, the St. Joseph Warriors, and thus couldn't bring himself to cheer for either one. "Soccer is the number one sport in Liberia," he said. "You start out playing with a handmade ball. You know, everyone plays."

He said that he had come to the States on a college soccer scholarship and had ended up working for a pharmaceutical company in Atlanta. A brother remained in Monrovia. "He's doing pretty good," Orlando shrugged. "But there's no food, no freedom of movement. And there's gunshots and all that crazy stuff."

Further down, Cedric, a nursing assistant and Barrolle supporter, said that he hadn't had news of his 12-year-old daughter since the war began. "Not yet." He shook his head. "Very disturbing."

Down on the field, a shot dribbled leisurely past the out-of-position Barrolle goaltender, giving the Invincible Eleven a 1-0 lead. The crowd seemed to shake off some of its listlessness. Near the concession stand, a group of young men and women, dressed, respectively, in hip-hop gear and belly button-baring T-shirts, were chatting and exchanging phone numbers.

Nearby, a 27-year-old construction worker was wearing a shirt printed with a map of Liberia. "Stop the killing, save our children," it read. During the 1989-90 outbreak of the civil war that brought Charles Taylor to power, he said, he had been a teenager in Monrovia. With his family, he'd fled his home and taken refuge near the American embassy.

"It's hard to watch on TV, because I know exactly what they're going through. I've seen it happen. There's no food, no medication, no health care. The air is polluted. Bullets flying all over. When the fires get hot, you have to run someplace else." Still, at least on this Saturday evening, he found a reason for hope in the flotilla of U.S. troops sailing for the African coast.

The heat of the day had by then melted into one of those languorous midsummer twilights. Seventy-three minutes into the game, a Barrolle player dribbled through a wall of defenders and pushed a shot just beyond the outstretched arms of the Invincible goaltender. The crowd was dancing now, standing on the bleachers. A few minutes later, a penalty kick gave the Invincible Eleven a 2-1 lead, which they managed to hold for the rest of the game.

High up in the stands, a well-dressed middle-aged gentleman named Alfred B. King II, a businessman who'd come to Brooklyn Park 22 years ago as a political refugee, watched the crowd thin out. "Minnesota has been very nice to me," he said.

He, like many older people in the Liberian community, had had reservations about this game, about celebrating Independence Day while their country teetered between despair and salvation. Now, King waved his hand at the crowd. "See, this is basically teenagers. Most adults didn't come because they felt that this was not a time to celebrate. But I feel that if it's raising funds for the poor people, then it's all right. Anything that helps the people back home is all right."

And which club does he support? "That's a hard question," he laughed. "I'm not usually a sports fan. And they're both Liberian."

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