The Liberian players kicked up clouds of red dirt as we watched their practice from the non-existent sidelines of a Monrovia field. Between children pulling at our pant-legs and asking if we were recruiters, our host Robert Sirleaf eagerly pointed out how hard they were working.
"They actually play on the sand, which is tough," said the son of and senior adviser to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "It's much more difficult. It's probably 40 percent more difficult."
We considered asking what 40 per cent more difficult meant. Then, the players dodged a small motorcycle spewing black smoke as it cut across the pitch and we realized no explanation was necessary.
The team is known as the Barrack Young Controllers, or as Sirleaf calls them, "the little West African champions."
"This little rag-tag group from Liberia," he said fondly. "You know, nobody thought they would get anywhere past the first or second round. And they actually won the whole tournament."
That tournament he referred to was the 2009 African International Youth Tournament. Last December, the Liberians battled more than a sandy field to get to it in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
They had no uniforms. Their bus broke down. The military was called in to get them to Freetown. When they got there, they beat top-ranked Brazil and Ghana to bring home the trophy to a beaming nation.
"Brazil comes on the plane. They have all the best equipment in the world. It was an ardent contrast," said Sirleaf. "None of (our players) had ever been in a hotel room. They had never seen a landline telephone."
The victory became a source of pride to the struggling West African nation.
Seven years ago this month, Liberia saw the end of 14 years of civil war. At the time, people breathed a sigh of relief as they freely moved in the streets. But, as the fog of war lifted, it revealed a country with no schools and no jobs.
The Barrack Young Controllers were especially hard hit. Before the team got started, the players were sons of soldiers, born in the army barracks. When their parents demobilized, the boys had little to do. The government became worried about the fragile peace.
Today, there's no mistaking the tension. At one stop in Monrovia, we were immediately approached by a group of young boys asking for day-jobs as they stood under a sign reading, "Make Liberia gun-free."
"Most of them don't go to school. Most of them haven't been to school," said Sirleaf. "And so, football is really the foundation of keeping them settled."
Sirleaf spoke to the energy exuded by the young men who grew up in a violent atmosphere. Through the Barrack Young Controllers, the players funnel their energy into football and, in exchange, receive support.
"I'm feeding them, paying their rent, paying their tuition," said Sirleaf. "We also sit them down, we talk about what's bad and different. And they have just been great with it. None of them get in trouble."
Take Albert, the team's midfielder. He was serious as he showed off his skills and told us how he was studying public administration at school. Then, he broke into a wide grin when we asked about the tournament.
"In Sierra Leone, so profession," he said. "Many people doubted our ability. But when we won, we were so joyful."
They weren't the only ones. The victory was a proud moment for many Liberians who came together under the team's banner.
"I want people to know there's a country called Liberia in Africa," said Albert. "A lot of people in Liberia are desperate because of wars. But, gradually we are improving."
"They don't have any of the infrastructure. They don't have any of the uniforms," said Sirleaf. "But, they feel good."
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