Blaine, Minn. — This was the first year Minnesota hosted Liberia's Independence Day soccer game. More than 2,000 Liberians attended the game at Blaine's National Sports Center. Brooklyn Park resident Tay Daynuah was among them.
"I know what's going on in Liberia is bad and brutal, and I really feel for the people out there. But sometimes you've got to, when bad things happen, have some good times to take your mind off of it," said Daynuah.
As Daynuah and his cousin Mendine looked on, members of the Invincible Eleven took on players from the Mighty Barrole on the field. Both are teams that played in Liberia's professional league during more stable times. Now most of the members of both teams are in exile here in the United States. Organizers here have flown in the team members from all over the country.
They're all household names for Liberians, but they played in a stadium with many empty seats. Daynuah said he would have liked to see a bigger turnout for such a special event.
"I think the reason why the turnout is so small is because earlier today, they had a flyer going around saying it had been cancelled," said Daynuah.
In the week leading up to the event, prominent Liberian community leader George Wuo posted flyers around Liberian neighborhoods in Brooklyn Park. The flyers asked organizers to cancel the soccer match, and urged fellow Liberians not to attend the game. It stated, 'Now is a time to mourn, not celebrate.' Wuo suggested that his fellow countrymen spend Independence Day doing what he planned to do.
Soccer is a good way to unite the people and let out the stress.
Between attending prayer services for family and friends in Liberia, Wuo and his family spent their Independence Day in their living room watching updated CNN reports. Wuo and his wife Lydia haven't heard from their family members in Monrovia for almost a week now. Wuo said he keeps calling his brother's cell phone, but there's no answer.
"Every day you worry about what has happened to them, you don't know what's going to happen next," said Wuo.
Wuo serves as president of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota. He's received hundreds of calls in the past week, urging him to try and cancel the soccer match. Since another Liberian group is organizing the event, Wuo said the flyer campaign and prayer services were all he could offer.
Lydia, George's wife, said Liberian-Americans usually spend several days celebrating this holiday. But this year, she said, cities across the country have cancelled their celebrations because of the war. She said the soccer game in the Twin Cities is the only Indpendence Day event taking place.
"It's very unfortunate to have festivities when people are dying. It doesn't show any sympathy for our people. But I think most Liberians, about 90 percent, like to spend this time with other family members, hoping and praying for the best for our country," said Lydia Wuo.
As it turns out, Lydia Wuo's prediction was right. About 2,000 of the 20,000 Liberians who live in Minnesota turned up for the event, around half of what was expected by the event's promoters.
Simon Mattar plays for the Invincible Eleven. He's come from Houston to play in the event. He says despite the low turnout, the game continues to serve an important purpose for Liberians. Mattar recalls a game he played for Liberia's national team in a 1990 World Cup qualifying match against Algeria, during the thick of civil war in his country.
"Fighting stopped that day," said Mattar. "There were factions from rebel and government troops watching a single soccer game. That united the people. Soccer is a good way to unite the people and let out the stress."
Although this weekend's match didn't stop the fighting in Monrovia, Mattar says the need to let out stress is something many Liberians can agree on.