Ebola makes Sierra Leone's soccer team 'the ultimate outcast'

The World
A fan of the Ivory Coast holds a sign with a message against Ebola during a 2015 African Nations Cup qualifier between Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital.

A fan of the Ivory Coast holds a sign with a message against Ebola during a 2015 African Nations Cup qualifier between Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital.

Luc Gnago/Reuters

They’ve been taunted by crowds chanting “Ebola, Ebola." They've been denied entry into countries where they were scheduled to play, and quarantined in the ones they could actually get into. But that hasn’t stopped Sierra Leone's national soccer team.

The team, known as the Leone Stars, has continued to travel and compete as normal — or at least as normal as they can manage. Their ranks include midfielder Michael Lahoud, who plays professionally in the United States for the Philadelphia Union.

Major League Soccer, the top league in the US and Canada, is known for its long, demanding travel. But Lahoud says that's nothing compared to what he's faced with Sierra Leone.

He remembers one flight in August that took the team to the Seychelles for an African Cup of Nations qualifying match. As the players prepared to board their connection in Nairobi, they were stopped at the gate. Seychelles immigration authorities were concerned that members of the Sierra Leone team may have contracted Ebola.

“The Seychelles government had issued an international ban on every single member of our team [who] was listed on the roster,” Lahoud says. “So within the Seychelles, our photos were all over the place, our information was all over the news and they warned the Kenyan government that if we would have landed on that flight ... they would have put us right back on the flight and kicked us out of their country.”

Lahoud’s team won the game — by forfeit. “They said they were going to forfeit because they didn’t want to take a chance on any of us having Ebola," Lahoud says. "That was pretty crushing.”

Opposing teams have refused the traditional pre-match handshakes with Sierra Leone players, and swapping jerseys at the end of a match is definitely out. On recent trip to play Cameroon, the players even had to submit to temperature screenings each day at breakfast and dinner.

But at least the Leone Stars have home-field advantage sometimes, right? Nope. The team was barred “until further notice” by African soccer officials from playing in its own country, turning it into a perpetual roadshow.

“We have to play all our games away,” Lahoud says. “We have forfeited the right to have home games for an indefinite date ... for whatever reason we have taken the role of the ultimate outcast, where no country on the continent of Africa will take us in.”

The Ebola crisis has devastated parts of West Africa, including Sierra Leone. On Monday alone, 121 people in Sierra Leone died of the disease, making it the deadliest day of the outbreak so far. More than 700 people in the country have died in total, according to official numbers. 

Lahoud lives in the United States; he's been here for more than 20 years, since his family fled Sierra Leone's long civil war when he was a child. But he still goes back to visit friends and family. “All of us [on the team] have family there. All of us have many close ties — homes. For some guys, [they have] wives and kids [in Sierra Leone]," he says. "This is a very personal issue.”

Sierra Leone’s government has taken extreme measures to control the spread of Ebola. It has quarantined more than a million people, and nearly a third of the country’s population is now under curfew.

Lahoud is also trying raise awareness through an online campaign called #KickEbolaInTheButt. It’s modeled after the hugely successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Participants are asked to post a video kicking a ball off a partner’s rear end. Contributions benefit Doctors Without Borders, a global health organization working to end the Ebola outbreak.

Lahoud says the idea came up one day with his friend, Dr. Thilo Kunkel of Temple University. “I was telling Thilo about my experiences in the Seychelles and Kenya," he explain. "And he blurted the punchline out during the conversation, ‘I think we just need to kick Ebola in the butt’.”