Sierra Leone Shoeless Soccer Player
From Civil War and Shoeless Soccer to Prayer and a Professional Contract: Meet Sierra Leone Native Teteh Bangura
Written by Henry Ortlip
Raised in West Africa to poor Muslim parents during a civil war, it’s safe to say Teteh Bangura’s current situation is nothing short of a miracle. Like many of his friends in Sierra Leone, Bangura dreamed of becoming a pro soccer player. It was an American scout that first gave him the chance to prove himself on the field overseas. Suddenly surrounded by a soccer team of Christians supporting each other through Bible studies and prayer, Bangura’s faith grew as well as his foot skills. A stint with Sweden and a lucrative trade to Turkey catapulted this rising star to complete success and wealth. Traveling to Israel, Risen sat down with Bangura to learn more about his youth, relationship with the Lord, and the ways he’s giving back to his home country.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Jerusalem, Israel
Risen Magazine: What was it like growing up in Sierra Leone, Africa?
Teteh Bangura: It’s always difficult as a child in Sierra Leone, because where I come from is a part of Africa that is a very terrible land. Things are not like other places like in Europe or America, or even other African countries. I’m from a very poor family. I didn’t get the opportunity to go to one of the best schools. My parents did all they could to see me get some education, which I loved. Even though I wanted to play football, I was also trying to go to school.
My Dad always said to me, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If football doesn’t work, maybe you can be a lawyer or something else.” But football was all that I wanted to do. So, it was hard. We don’t have facilities and you have to struggle a lot. I had to find shoes for myself; sometimes I would just play barefoot. In Africa, we play with our bare feet. As time goes on maybe you can find trainers, or old shoes to play with. It was difficult. I had to take care of myself. I would just roam around the streets to find a place where I could play. I just wanted to play. There was no one there to look after me, who would monitor me or teach me what to do. I did everything by myself.
It was difficult for me especially, but I thank God today for everything. Football has done so much for me. I’m always thankful because when I started playing football in school, I was always good. They saw me as a prospect, a future player for Sierra Leone and they thought I could make it in the top leagues someday in Europe. I had the dream to become a professional player. Football is one thing that I love, I have always loved it, and I will continue to love it to the end.
Risen Magazine: Many people heard about civil war in Sierra Leone at that time, but what was it like actually living in the country during those conditions?
Teteh Bangura: I was young, really young. I can remember only so many things. It was a tough time. I remember my dad had to move from Freetown to a village called Turtle Islands. That was where he came from so we had to go there. I remember when we came back to Freetown, my mother, sister, and I got really sick. When we came back everything was different. They had burned houses. The city was completely different in my eyes.
Risen Magazine: How old were you when the civil war ended?
Teteh Bangura: The civil war ended in 2003-2004. I can’t remember actually. I was ten or eleven, I think.
Risen Magazine: There are a few major religions in Sierra Leone. How did you choose Christianity?
Teteh Bangura: There are Muslims and Christians. I came from a Muslim family, but I didn’t grow up going to a mosque. My mom and dad are strong Muslims. When I was young, my mom would always ask me, “Why can’t you fast or go to mosque.” I would say, “No, I can’t.” I didn’t like to and I didn’t want to. In Sierra Leone, both Christians and Muslims live side by side and get along.
In 2005, when I met my first girlfriend, she was a Christian. She always would tell me when she was going to church, or Bible class. She would invite me. Then one day I came with her. We sat and listened to the pastor. Afterwards, I said I liked it. She said I was always welcome and I started going on Sundays. That became part of me. I fell in love with the way things were going. I got myself a Bible. I read my Bible before I would go to sleep and I would wake up and read my Bible. It was nice and things were getting better for me. Praying and reading my Bible, God made things happen for me.
My parents didn’t have a problem with me becoming a Christian. They said, “You are fine, it’s your life, your choice, we’re good.” Especially in Sierra Leone, we never fight. Muslim or Christian, we get along. Everyone believes in God here and we just keep on going like that.
Risen Magazine: It seems like everyone wants to become a professional football player in Africa. What made you stand out from everybody else striving for the same dream?
Teteh Bangura: We all wanted to play. There would be like twenty people playing in my community, some were playing just for fun or for a joke, but I had that passion. I wanted to play professional football. I would go all by myself to the hills and run. In the morning, I would do my sit-ups; I would have a ball with me. I would go out and do some juggling. I just always wanted to be with the ball. I was very hard working because I wanted to play.
Risen Magazine: Tell us about the day you signed your first overseas contract and how did you feel?
Teteh Bangura: That was one of the best feelings I have had in my life. I was in Sierra Leone when I went to the Internet café and saw that Cleveland City had offered me a contract. I was so excited. I printed it out and brought it to my mom and dad. Even though they can’t read, they were so pleased and said, “Thank God.” Personally, I was very, very happy; it doesn’t happen like that in Sierra Leone. Only one guy from America, Aaron Tredway from Ambassadors Football, came to Africa and saw me play at the beach. He said, “Teteh, would you love to come to America and play for our team?” I said, “Ok, why not.” It was kind of easy, everything happens for reason. Then I was in Sierra Leone and I got the contract, and it was on the Internet. That was amazing.
ESPECIALLY IN SIERRA LEONE, WE NEVER FIGHT. MUSLIM OR CHRISTIAN, WE GET ALONG.
Risen Magazine: What was your experience playing for the Cleveland City Stars?
Teteh Bangura: When I first came to the team, nearly 100 percent of them were Christians. It was a small team and the things we would share together amongst us were amazing. We would have Bible studies every week and that was a nice thing for the team. Everyone was willing to do it. We would all sit together and read the Bible, then maybe have dinner or something. It was special and different from other clubs. I didn’t have other responsibilities. At other clubs, my job was to come in the morning, do my training session and then on weekends, play a match and go home. Most of the time, it is very difficult to come together as a group. With Cleveland City, this was very different. We shared things about each other’s lives. That is one thing I always remember. Most teams in Europe only come together once or twice in a whole season, but we came together when things were not going well like when we were losing. Then we would need to do team building to turn it around. With Cleveland, we did this stuff every week, whether we were winning or losing.
Risen Magazine: After you moved up in your career, you went to AIK [Allmanna Idrottsklubben], a top team in Sweden. You scored 15 goals in 17 games. How do you think your success has impacted your relationship with God?
Teteh Bangura: When I came to Sweden I played in the fourth division. I was there for only three months before AIK bought me. When I came to AIK, it is a really big team in Sweden so playing for this team was a really big test for me. There was a lot of pressure. I have a friend from Sierra Leone who was a success by then, with the same [last] name [as me], Bangura. He was the best player on the team, and in the league. The pressure was on me. The fans wanted me to be like him. I thank God in whatever I’m doing and say, “If it’s Your will, let it be.”
When I started playing at AIK I was scoring goals. I went to the stadium one day when it was empty and I sat there thinking, “I’m from Sierra Leone and I’m playing in the top league in Sweden. I’m one of the best players and everybody wants to talk to me and take pictures with me.” It was a great feeling and that motivated me to do more. After scoring 15 goals I was a hot player in Europe. All the scouts from the big clubs in England and Germany came to see me. I always thank God and say, “This is because of You. You gave me this talent, thank you God. I want to keep doing great things for You.”
Risen Magazine: Success has been a blessing for you. Has it presented any difficulties?
Teteh Bangura: Not really. Any time that I’m in a difficult situation, I grab my Bible and pray, and things turn around. I always call on God in difficult situations. God can turn any situation into a good thing. I have faith in God and I’m here for a purpose. When I think back to where I grew up and where I came from, I’m the only one that went on to have success.
Risen Magazine: God has a plan for everybody, but He chose you out of all the other kids in Sierra Leone playing soccer, for this journey. How do you feel about that?
Teteh Bangura: Sometimes I feel happy and sometimes I feel sad. In Sierra Leone, the leagues are not the best. It’s difficult. One day I was playing at the beach and a man from America was watching me. He came to talk to me and signed me to a contract. That doesn’t happen. Most scouts never go to Sierra Leone; it’s a difficult place to go. I feel the pressure when I see my friends and I see how they are still struggling. I want them to become a better person and player, to have opportunities like I have had. At times I feel really bad, especially in Sierra Leone.
ONE DAY I WAS PLAYING AT THE BEACH AND A MAN FROM AMERICA WAS WATCHING ME. HE CAME TO TALK TO ME AND SIGNED ME TO A CONTRACT. THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN. MOST SCOUTS NEVER GO TO SIERRA LEONE; IT’S A DIFFICULT PLACE TO GO.
Risen Magazine: When you were playing in Sweden a lot of clubs wanted to buy you. You ended up signing with Bursaspor, a good team in Turkey. How did you make that decision?
Teteh Bangura: I was very close to signing for a club in Germany called FC Schalke. I was so close, everything was set. My club in Sweden was looking for the best offer for me. My agent called me and told me we had an offer from Bursaspor. The money was fantastic. Bursaspor offered a much better price and also offered me a big contract. When I looked at the contract, I said, “No way.” It was a lot of money and it took me by surprise. So, the move to Bursaspor came as a shock.
When I was in Sweden I thought maybe I could play here for the rest of my career. Playing in Sierra Leone, I would get paid like 50 dollars a week. I come to Sweden and it was better. Then when I see the contract Bursaspor offered me, it was on a different level. I was like, “There is no way I could sign this. This can’t be for me. How can I make this much money, just from playing football?” That’s what I was asking myself in my head. I thought my agent was lying and this was a scheme to get me to go to Turkey. My agent said, “No man, this is the contract my friend.” Even when I was on the flight going to Turkey, I still wasn’t too sure. When I got to Turkey, things were good. The transfer fee between AIK and Bursaspor was a record transfer fee. Things went well and I signed the contract.
Risen Magazine: How have things changed in your life since you signed for Bursaspor?
Teteh Bangura: I thank God because so many things have changed. My parents used to live in a small home, and I’m proud to say that I got them a very big house. I’m proud to provide for my family. I got married and I have been able to help in Sierra Leone with different charities. I’m able to help out the amputee football charity in Sierra Leone and a women’s’ volleyball team. This was something I always wanted to do. I was once like them struggling to succeed. I know how it feels and I know what it takes. Since I signed with Bursaspor, it’s been a blessing to give back. I have no need to have all the money for myself.
Risen Magazine: Do you see giving back as a joy? Responsibility? A pressure?
Teteh Bangura: I think it is a responsibility, but I’m happy to do it. I give from my heart. Nobody is making me do anything. When I give, I feel joy.
Risen Magazine: What was it like when you played your first game for your country’s national team?
Teteh Bangura: To play for the national team is every Sierra Leone footballer’s dream. My first game for the national team was a U20 [under 20 years old] game against Gambia. My first full national team match was against Sao Tome. I was playing in Sweden in the fourth league during that time. I guess because I had scored some goals, they invited me on the team. My first goal was against Niger during the African Cup of Nations. It was a great feeling. It was our first victory against them in five or six years. We won 1-0 and I had the only goal. We were playing at home in Freetown in a full stadium. That was a great feeling to give my country their first victory in some time.
Risen Magazine: Did people treat you the same or differently after that day?
Teteh Bangura: After that day, I became popular. People would sing chants when I was around. People were thankful. That’s one thing I always think about when playing football. I will always try and give my best because off the field I want to keep my head up. When you do well, people want to come to you and talk to you. So that’s another motivation to play well, football means a lot to people.
Risen Magazine: Unfortunately, Sierra Leone didn’t make the World Cup in Brazil, but you mentioned you plan to go as a spectator. What are you most excited about?
Teteh Bangura: I have never been to the World Cup. In some ways it will be difficult because I don’t want to be watching, but I’m really looking forward to it. I have had some Brazilian teammates in the past. I have heard so many good things about the country. I don’t know what it is going to look like. I think this World Cup will be special. Brazil won the Confederations Cup and they have a chance to win it all in their country. I’m in favor of Brazil winning.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2014
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