Mihir Bose: Isha Johansen and the other side of FIFA

Isha Johansen, President of the Sierra Leone Football Association, has a little game she plays with taxi drivers whenever she comes to London. The taxi is taking her to Oxford Street, Selfridges, and the taxi driver asks, “Going on another shopping spree are you? Going to shop till you drop?”

“No,” replies Johansen, “I am just going to pick up some makeup. I’ll give you two guesses about what I do for a living?” The taxi driver responds, “You are a model or you are in acting or something like that?” and Johansen says, “No, I’m in football”. This prompts the taxi driver to ask, “Are you a football agent or something?”

For Johansen this is so much part of the drill while travelling in London taxis that she says, “It’s always the same and I always tell taxi drivers, ‘if you can guess what I do I’ll double your fare.’ I have never had to because nobody can guess that I run a football association. I guess I’m different. And I guess perhaps that’s what Sepp also saw.”

The Sepp she is talking about is, of course, Sepp Blatter and the reference is to the fact that Blatter helped her become the first female President of an African Football Association, and one of only two female football Presidents in the world. He also supported her as she struggled with her many football enemies. We shall come back to Blatter later but now let us look at the barriers Johansen had to break through, not only was there the glass ceiling of sex to be overcome but there were also the problems in Sierra Leone football and the country at large which in the last decade has seen a ruinous civil war and has had to cope with Ebola.

“That was a nightmare. It started a year after my election. It was like being in one of those zombie movies. Mentally it was horrible, we were fighting an enemy that you couldn’t see. We had been through the civil war and we knew who our enemies were, we could see them coming so you knew how to take shelter, how to protect yourself. But with this illness that guy sitting over there could have Ebola. He is sneezing and coughing, he is feeling poorly and you go and hold him, take him to the hospital. He dies and you die two or three days after. It was one of the most frightening things you could ever think of. I survived by the grace of God really. We had to lay off a lot of the staff. We were not in a good place at all, everything came to a standstill, a lot of families left. Football came to a standstill, not only could you not play football, you could not even watch football in cinemas, you couldn’t be in groups of more than ten.”

Sierra Leone’s football was shunned by the rest of Africa and failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations. For Johansen the whole experience proved the hollowness of the talk that Africans are supportive of each other. “As Africans we need to be more supportive of each other in times of need. We all like to think that Africans unite but sometimes we fall short of that.”

Ebola has now been eradicated but the problems she faced when she tried to take over Sierra Leone football has not gone away. She faced two opponents when she stood for election two years ago, Rodney Michael, a businessmen and the former Internazionale striker Mohamed Kallon. Just before the election both were ruled ineligible candidates and Johansen was elected unopposed. But the bitterness generated remains. “They called themselves ‘the aggrieved party’. They wanted a stake in the football. I said: ‘OK, fine, let’s work together.’ We tried to bury the hatchet. But it didn’t work.”

This saw Kallon, an old friend, accuse her of hitting him in the face. Johansen’s version is during an argument he grabbed her arm and she reacted instinctively in self-defence. She has been called a prostitute on the radio by one of her opponents and a journalist has said she was a disgrace to womanhood.

As she presents it many of her opponents are part of gambling syndicates that want to control football in Sierra Leone. “It is not illegal to gamble in Sierra Leone but it is illegal to be involved in football administration if you are betting. Those that call themselves stake holders who are in the betting business seem not to want to understand that section 25 of FIFA ethics clearly states that if you are directly or indirectly involved with football gambling, you cannot run for any position. My executive has been completely remodelled. None of the syndicates are there. People who are involved in gambling will simply not be allowed into administration in this country’s FA, it’s as simple as that. If you are referee you cannot be involved in gambling. If you are coach you cannot be.”

She admits that the whole system may not have been completely purged but insists, “the main players like the executive members, higher up the administrators cannot be involved, I simply won’t allow that. Like many people in power they feel that they [her opponents] are above it and this is where the friction is and it continues to be so. So it is a struggle. And like all gambling syndicates they have got their feelers in all sectors in society. That makes it difficult. They tried to remove me several times simply because I am driving good governance. My FA was chronically corrupt. Not under my regime. It is not. The old guard who still have a bit of influence among the stakeholders cause trouble. Not to remove me. But just to cause destabilisation. The gambling syndicates keep in the background as if they know nothing about it. They are part and parcel of it.”

“If they can’t remove me which they can’t, they’ve tried, they’ve really tried, they try to create mayhem and credible people, credible donors and organisations don’t endorse or sponsor the FA simply because there is too much chaos. It’s a shame. I’ve only got two years left because I would have loved to have been able to impact a lot of good into the system. It’s not too late. It needs a lot of change in the mindset of people.”

This change will clearly not be easy as illustrated by the story she tells about what happened to her vice president and exco members which may indeed have been an attempt on her own life. “They were attacked, abducted, beaten, robbed whilst going to an area called Bo in the southern part of Sierra Leone, an area where the gambling people are. They went to carry out the identification process. You cannot have a proper congress if the delegates are not validated. FIFA has rules that say the FA should ensure that all the regions have been properly identified, they should run their own elections, appoint their own people. Then a seven man committee will go and verify the authenticity of these people. That was the process they were doing.”

“And they [my opponents] didn’t like it so my vice president and some excos who were on that mission got hijacked, beaten up. And there were rumours that they thought I would be in the convoy, that they wanted to kill me.”

And this is where Blatter and FIFA came in. When her opponents formed an interim body which tried to remove Johansen and told FIFA it was taking over the Sierra Leone Football Association FIFA refused to formally recognise this group which meant Johansen remained. “Sepp Blatter was particularly keen to see the match fixing inquiry was opened so at least it could pave the way for a smoother running of football administration for me.”

This explains why despite all the scandals that have plagued FIFA, and which has seen Blatter banned for eight years, when I ask whether she can still believe in his integrity she can say, “I do not know. There were some good sides to Sepp Blatter. I and most African countries, indeed the world, should give him credit for bringing female football to the fore. He encouraged women to play football and he encouraged female football to grow which it has done. We see the figures, we see the ratings we see how popular it is. And it is going to be on the increase.”

And then she adds, “And from a personal side he was very concerned about me being a woman in a man’s world. How I would fare? He took that personal interest. Every time I would go to FIFA he would stop and ask me how I am carrying on? How I am tackling issues?”

Johansen, of course, was at last year’s Congress and although she was attracted by what Prince Ali offered she voted for Blatter because she says she had pledged her vote to him.

The vote came after the Swiss police at the request of the US Justice Department had early one morning gone to the hotel where the FIFA top brass were staying and arrested several high ranking FIFA officials including FIFA executive members. This says Johansen, “was a very surreal time. Shock and total confusion. We had had a late night with friends talking to the family and there was a lot of excitement for the next day. It was my first congress. I came down for breakfast. There were few people in the breakfast room. There was this dead silence in the breakfast room. I thought everybody had a hangover or something. And people were whispering. My colleagues said, ‘Did you hear what happened’. And I said , ‘No’. In fact it was my husband who was in Sierra Leone who informed me by text about what had happened. He said, ‘Are you allright.’ I said, ‘ Yeah. I am just a little bit late for breakfast.’ He said, ‘There have been arrests. They are arresting FIFA officials’. I said, ‘What.’ And then, of course, breakfast was no longer breakfast. You did not feel like having breakfast. I started looking round to see who of my colleagues were there. Yes, it wasn’t pleasant at all.”

Johansen skates round the question as to whether following the arrest Blatter should not have withdrawn from the election as Michael Platini suggested. “To be honest everybody was confused including Blatter himself. I honestly do not believe the man knew or believed the magnitude of what was happening. Maybe in hindsight he should have stepped down. But then, perhaps, he thought he could take on and address the situation. And bring those to book. I think maybe those who are closest to him could have advised him that at the end of the day this is going to fall on your head. But I strongly believe the man that I know, the little bit I know, wanted to take on this situation head on, bring those who were guilty to book, name them and shame them.”

Johansen says this despite the fact that her father, a banker, himself behaved very differently. “My father was head of a banking institution and things went terribly wrong in Sierra Leone. He had a very dysfunctional managerial situation. But at the end of the day he had to be held accountable. And he was held accountable. The bank closed. So I see this very much the same. First of all the top has to be held accountable for what has gone wrong.”

It is as if her gratitude for Blatter’s help during her struggles with her football enemies in Sierra Leone prevents her from seeing what Blatter should have done. She does agree, “the world of football has been tainted. It isn’t pleasant every time you mention the name FIFA. I feel bad personally as a new comer into FIFA. It is not a good time but it will pass”. She quickly adds, “But these things happen not just in football but in the banking world, big organisations. They have had their bad moments. And they pick themselves up. The organisation will reform itself. It has to. When real change comes, we see it in governments and in other organisations, it comes with a massive tornado. And it topples the top. And this is what is happening in FIFA.”

But can FIFA really reform itself without outside intervention? After all the corruption that has convulsed FIFA is the result of actions by the US Justice Department and the Swiss authorities with the Americans calling FIFA a mafia style organisation.

Her response is revealing, “I would just say FIFA is an organisation that sticks very closely to its own and like most big organisations they will go all out to protect their own and if wrong doing is being seen to happen they will try their utmost to address these issues internally. But clearly FIFA has not been able to do that and has meant that outsiders have had to come in to do the job for us like the justice department, police coming in arresting people, extraditing people. That makes it really sad. It is very disheartening. We have gone wrong. FIFA has gone wrong in quite a few places. But they will get it together. It will fall back into place.”

When I ask can this be done without outside intervention there is for the first and only time in our conversation a long pause and then she says slowly, “I think so. I think it can run itself without outside intervention, if you got the right people in the right places. If the chairman of the ethics board is correct. The chairman of the disciplinary board and the chairman of integrity and the people who do the checks and the balances are correct and proper, why not? Why should you have an outside body coming in to run? I see no reason why.”

And she rejects the argument of those who say many of FIFA’s problems are due to the fact that Blatter on getting elected made himself executive President enabling him to give Platini £1.3 million without any written contract which has since seen both man banned for eight years. “I think he [President of FIFA] should be an executive President, he should be hands on.”

Johansen does see some merit in how the Americans have organised sport where the commercial part is completely separate from the amateur side unlike the European model and says, “You do have a point there. All of this stems from one thing and one thing alone. It is the money. Too much money and how you manage this money. Maybe that could be an option.”

However, she will not have any truck with the new FIFA model proposed by Gerhard Aigner, former UEFA chief executive. This is that FIFA should become a supervisory body composed of the football confederations and not have individual countries as members. “I think there will be a lot of chaos. I think it’s good to have a body like FIFA. This is football after all and where money is concerned it can become chaotic.”

Johansen herself has no need for money. “I don’t get paid, I don’t even take an allowance. I’ve got means. My husband is the managing director of a cement factory and is also the honorary consul general for Sweden and Norway [he is Swedish] but having said that I am not brimming over with cash. If I took the monies that was owed to me, and our FA owes me quite a bit of money, there would be no money in the coffers. “

“We get $250,000 a year from FIFA, the norm, what’s that? The government refuses any money so we need endorsements. We have no deficit at the moment but we cannot manage on $250,000. The only reason we were able to manage is because we had some bonuses that came through $750,000, so we had close on $1million and we used all that to fund 16 matches. We took out the under 23, the under 20, the first team back to back world cup qualifiers, African nation qualifiers, 16 matches. “

And she adds proudly, “I can’t be corrupted because of money, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to make money. I would like to set up my own small businesses to earn, even if it is football related. I could do with a lot more money I’ll tell you that. The difference between myself and most Africans, and definitely I’ve been told, maybe some women as well, women of leisure who like all the good things but they don’t want to work for it, I will bust my behind working. I am a workaholic you know. I am always thinking of new things.”

If this makes her sound very self-righteous then she can claim that her background is very different to many who run football in Africa. “My background is unusual. Very much so. Like owning a football club. They started from zero [cofounded by her father]. It is now in the premier division. I don’t run it. I would love to see it stand up on its own and get endorsements.” Educated in England, her son goes to school here and she says, “my mother lives here.” Indeed soon after we spoke she went to see her mother in Brixton before flying back home.

Her opponents in Sierra Leone have made much of her privileges and she says “They see me as an elite woman. I make no apologies for my privileges. And I feel no guilt. What saddens me when you have people like myself who have money, who have influence, who have exposure but they cannot do things for people who are less privileged who have no way of getting anywhere close to some of the privileges we have. I take great offence to these kind of slurs and my opponents pray on the ignorance and lack of education of these youngsters and their parents to further their own interests.”

This privileged background may explain why, unlike most other African administrators, she did not feel the exposure of FIFA corruption in the British media proved the British were racist. In 2014, just before the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, that is how CAF labelled allegations in the Sunday Times. But she says, “I do not feel there is a racist agenda in the British press. I don’t like to speak on behalf of Africa. Different FAs will have their own ways of dealing with things.”

For her the most difficult task remains, “Being a woman in football administration, being a woman in leadership, being a woman in a male dominated arena in Africa. Some African countries have got it right like Namibia, East Africa are doing quite well, Ruanda in women’s leadership, South Africa, even Ghana and Nigeria have some women in leadership positions who are respected, they get the job done without any hindrance.”

But not so in her own country. “Sierra Leone, from what I have experienced, it’s all lip service, it’s a politically correct thing to be seen to be doing, subscribing to the gender equality business. I am very very disappointed in the way I have been treated and the government has sat by and watched it. I am extremely disappointed [by the lack of support from] women in positions in the judiciary, politicians, legal capacity. I never played the gender card going into football and I’m happy I didn’t because really it’s not about Isha at the end of the day, it’s about women as a whole, women in leadership. It’s not about a football problem, it’s a national problem.

“Corruption in football is no different to corruption in banking. It’s just that football has a lot of noise, a lot of emotion behind it, whereas the bankers don’t. So I am most disappointed in women gender groups that they have not been able to be more vocal in Sierra Leone.”

As for the rest of Africa she says, “It depends how much Africa knows. It’s only in the past couple of months that my situation has been highlighted in places like South Africa”.

Her visit to England and meeting Greg Dyke has also been a help. “Greg is concerned about the viciousness towards me as a woman, he seems very interested in the African continent and how the Africans fare.” There is talk of a match with England but before that she feels, “First of all Sierra Leone, Africa should wake up, they need to understand that the world is watching now, just like the world is watching FIFA. Just because you think you are in an African country you can’t be doing things with impunity any more. Because at the end of the day when you need money and support you come to the west so you can’t sit in your corner there and think you can just do things anyhow.

“That’s the message I gave to Greg. I would like to see the FA stand up and support the drive for bringing good governance and integrity back to football be it by a woman, be it by an alien. And he’s very up for that. And I also said we need money, we are so broke it’s unbelievable, the government’s stopped funding the FA.”

Johansen’s hope is her visit will make “the English FA come out with something. I hope it is pretty soon. It’s a case of the international community saying look, there’s one woman in the whole of Africa, there’s two in the world, but the woman is only trying to drive good governance for goodness sake, only trying to clean up football. And, like Greg himself said, ‘the things that you are doing now, perhaps if FIFA had done that before maybe they wouldn’t have found themselves in such a rut. You understand these kind of things like cleaning up.”

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. His most recent books are The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World and Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World. Follow him on twitter @mihirbose