Isaac Gborlee is a 14-year-old Liberian whose hero – of all people – is the former British football referee, Howard Webb. Adrian Chiles tells the story of how a boy from a poor one-parent family ended up refereeing matches with a yellow card his idol used in the World Cup final.
I often fall into despair about football, invariably when my team is going through one of its many bad patches. At these times all the depressing things about the global game float to the surface of my thinking: the money, the corruption, the World Cups held in the wrong places, the same old clubs winning the same old trophies. You know the kind of thing.
Feeling very much like this recently I texted an old friend of mine, with whom I shared much football back in the last century at university together. Ged’s a big Newcastle fan from Consett, County Durham, who is now an aid worker in West Africa.
“Do you still like football?” I wrote. “I don’t.”
He replied at once: “I love it. Despite everything. On one hand, even in Liberia I get Johnny-come-lately Chelsea fans taking the mickey out of me. On the other hand, I met a 14-year-old kid who wants to be Howard Webb, so that balances things up.”
Find out more
- Listen to Isaac’s story on Chiles on Friday on Radio 5 live from 10:00 on 2 March
- Or listen via the BBC iPlayer
- Adrian Chiles has presented sports programmes on the BBC and ITV and is a lifelong fan of West Bromwich Albion football club
I asked for more information and Ged told me that he had met Isaac in the town of Gbarnga, four hours’ drive north of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
The charity Ged works for, Mary’s Meals, provides school meals to children in poor communities and Isaac is one of those who benefit. As they chatted in Isaac’s home, Isaac told him about a football coach called Timothy “Gapsi” Kromah, who has had a huge effect on his life.
Isaac was nine years old when Gapsi came across him sitting on the grass watching some footballers preparing for a training match. And when Gapsi blew his whistle for the game to start, he saw Isaac jump up, attach some plastic to a stick, and start holding it like a linesman.
“Every time the ball go out, he would put the plastic up,” says Gapsi, who started reacting to Isaac’s signals.
This, in Gapsi’s words, is what happened next:
I decided to follow him, and would blow. Any foul he would put the flag up, and I would blow. After the practice, I called him. I said, ‘What’s your name?’
He said, ‘My name is Isaac’.
So I said, ‘Where do you live?’
He showed the area he lives. So then I asked him, ‘Where’s your father?’ As soon as I said this he began to cry.
He was like an abandoned child in the community because his father died and his mother was disabled. She can’t walk for even five minutes, when she goes out.
I told him to come for practice the next day. He came. So I called the children on the practice ground. I told them, ‘This man you see, he will be your head from today. Anybody disrespect him, you disrespect me. So everything he tells you to do, do it, or you will not play on the team,'” says Gapsi.
Over time, Isaac came to be known as Isaac Popo because of the sound his whistle makes. And Gapsi saw him improve to such an extent that he decided to try him out refereeing adult football.
I took him one morning to the old-timers, practising one Sunday. I told these guys, ‘Let the little kid ref our practice.’
You know, they got vexed, so they say, ‘Why, Gapsi? Don’t play fun out of us. A small little boy like this, what does he know about reffing?’
I said, ‘I beg you guys, just give him 10 minutes, please.’ So they said, ‘All right, no problem.'”
Gapsi was delighted to see his protégé pass the test.
After 10 minutes, just to observe these guys, to see whether they enjoy Isaac, I said, ‘Cut the practice off and give the whistle to the next guy.’
The guys got angry. They said No, I should not do it. They saw that the little kid was good. So we started entrusting him with some games. Big, big games. He reffed the biggest high school game, which is Gboveh and St Martin’s.
You know the only reason why he’s he’s not reffing far is because of his age. According to the football association, you’ve got to reach 18 before you can do this. We tried going and registering him to the Liberia Football Association, but no help.
If he has the support, I see him go far, like Howard Webb, the great Howard Webb of England. I see him maybe exceeding Howard Webb, because that’s his role model. He said he wants to be like Howard Webb, or even more than Howard Webb.
Now I’ve never met Howard Webb but I did have a number for him so I dropped him a text.
“You had to go a long way to find a fan of mine,” he replied.
Then Ged and I sent Howard Isaac’s story and some photos.
“This is an amazing story and I was pretty moved,” he wrote back. “I spent a few weeks in Nigeria working for Fifa in 2009 and I know about the obsession with Premier League football in West Africa, but it’s unbelievable that somebody like Isaac has even heard of me, never mind holding me as his role model.”
Howard works in the US now, but when he was home for Christmas he sent Ged a package for Isaac. In it was one of Howard’s Fifa kits, a copy of his book, and a note wishing Isaac all the best for his refereeing career.
He also sent the actual yellow card he used in the 2010 World Cup Final in South Africa, between the Netherlands and Spain.
Ged’s just made the journey to Gbarnga to give it all to Isaac. Half the town seemed to be there for the presentation. It’s fair to say Isaac is extremely happy.
“I prayed by Almighty God today, when I received these gifts, that I will be standing with Howard Webb one day and that we two can interact,” he said. “I will tell him thank you for his gifts, and I would like to take some advice from him for the rules of the game.”
The next job of course, is to get Howard out there. Leave that one with me. But in the meantime Isaac “Popo” Gborlee is to be found in Liberia refereeing football matches. The five dollars he earns every game helps to support his family. He wears a Fifa kit several sizes too big for him, and books players with the very yellow card his hero used 14 times in a World Cup Final.
Football, honestly, what’s not to love?
Photographs by Ged Naughton
Listen to Isaac’s story on Radio 5 Live