While traveling in Liberia as an undergraduate research student, William Smith played in 7am pickup soccer games. As the captain of the varsity team at the College of William & Mary (‘14), he needed to stay in shape. Little did he know what would happen next.
William’s foot skills impressed Sekou “Georgie” Manubah, a former national team player. A few days later, Georgie invited William to play a friendly game at the national stadium. But it was no ordinary game. It was the Liberian Peace and Reconciliation match where JJ Okocha, Samuel Eto’o, Patrick Mboma, and Roger Milla had been invited. The organizer of the event was the legendary George Weah, Africa’s only FIFA World Player of the Year (and Liberia’s soon-to-be-President).
35,000 fans—including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—came out to watch the game. William was the only non-African player on the field. Though he lost the match that day, William gained an important insight that summer: The potential of football to change Liberia’s failing education system and gender inequality.
Liberia’s challenges were staggering. A devastating civil war had killed 250,000 people of its 3.5 million population. The GDP per capita was $455 (compared to $2,300 in Honduras). It was the least electrified country in the world. In 2013, 25,000 high school graduates in Liberia took the university entrance exam and every single one failed. Then Ebola broke out in 2014.
In November 2014, William asked himself a simple question: “What about a football academy? What if we use this passion and energy that young people have for football as an incentive for kids to improve in the classroom, to break down gender barriers, and to ultimately prepare students to lead positive change?”
He reached out to Georgie and together they wrote out a plan for Monrovia Football Academy.
He began raising money in London while pondering their next steps: “What does the concept actually look like? How many students do we start with? What ages? How many boys? How many girls? Where do we do this?”
There was no time to waste. 58% of 15-24 year olds in Liberia were not completing primary education. “We jump in when ebola finishes,” they said to each other. It was a tough time to start an NGO. People couldn’t shake hands, hug each other, go to school, or play soccer for an entire year because of ebola. In 2015 when ebola subsided, they opened MFA—the first football academy in Africa with a principle of 50/50 gender equity.
William was full of self-doubts. “I had no idea how I was doing any of it,” he said. “You’d be a fool to think you have all the answers.” He tried to convince himself to try and be okay with the prospect of failure while being obsessive about not letting it fail. He woke up early each morning asking himself, what was next? How do we get better? How do we improve?
He gave a fundraising pitch at Saracens Rugby Club but that was not enough. He was asked to do a second and then a third presentation. Finally, they awarded MFA $45,000 for seed funding. Crowdfunding campaigns, meetings with potential donors, and events followed. Like pre-season training at an elite soccer camp, the pace was grueling. But his persistence began to pay off.
Now in its third year, Monrovia Football Academy is showing great promise. President Sirleaf visited, as well as US Women’s National Team coach Jill Ellis and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. Results from preliminary impact studies demonstrated academic and athletic improvements. Word began to spread. In 2017, 1,062 students applied for the 21 spots available at the academy. “We’re trying to be the best school in Liberia,” said William. “That’s our goal.”William Smith Reading List