Gbenda-Charles enjoys the best of both worlds

Melanie Ho

The story could be called 'How to collect cousins', 'My return home' or 'What sport can actually mean'. It could even borrow its title from popular music, as John Gbenda-Charles will attest that in New Zealand he was the black child and then later, in Sierra Leone, the white athlete. But no matter the title, the story would be the same. It's selecting the highlight that becomes difficult.

Was it when a young cousin in Kono stuck by his side and offered to bodyguard his older cousin, who is now a Leone Star?

Was it when Gbenda-Charles first received a letter asking him to play for Sierra Leone as the country attempted to qualify for the 2010 World Cup? Or is the highlight still to come, when Gbenda-Charles, 29, eventually opens a school that specialises in teaching sports but focuses on academics? It will be named after his mother.

Ask a child what it means to flee and he probably has no idea. But a few months before civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, his parents decided their mother, Judith, would leave with Gbenda-Charles and his sister, Lucy, while the two eldest sons, Steven and Andrew, would stay behind with their father, Sahr.

From age nine, Gbenda-Charles spent the rest of his childhood in his mother's native New Zealand, going to school, playing rugby and soccer. When he said goodbye to Kono, it was the last time he would see his father, who was killed in the war.

In 2002 - after finishing school, after a car accident ended his career with English side Crystal Palace, and after the birth of his now eight-year-old daughter - Gbenda-Charles went to Kono with his older brother to take care of his father's burial.

'It was really bad,' Gbenda-Charles said. 'I was still a bit hesitant [to go]. It was only one week because there's only one flight a week. If there was a flight every day, it could have been two days.'

He remembered the village as poor, so poor he needed a new word to describe what he saw. Having given away his anti-malaria medication, he returned to New Zealand with malaria and was in hospital for a few weeks.

Six years passed after that week-long trip and in that time Gbenda-Charles moved to Hong Kong to play rugby as a professional.

He was also asked by coach John Schuster to train the Samoan sevens team. In addition to commuting from Hong Kong to Samoa, Gbenda-Charles travelled the sevens circuit for two years and after the 2005 World Cup, he decided to work with the Hong Kong team as a fitness trainer. After two seasons, he moved to a job with Adidas, focusing on the company's running programme. In June, he received a letter asking if he would be available to play soccer for Sierra Leone's national team. He thought the invitation was a joke. But once he realised it was a genuine try-out, Gbenda-Charles said he 'got every jab, got every pill and just headed off to Sierra Leone'.

He started as a rugby player and also made it as a soccer player. Growing up in New Zealand, he automatically played rugby, but in high school, the soccer coach noticed his speed and approached him to play the game. He made the under-19 and under-20 teams in New Zealand and then earned a scholarship to Britain for a chance to try to play professionally with Crystal Palace, on the youth squad and with the reserves. And then one morning, as he was riding his bike back from practice, he was hit by a car.

'It basically killed any dream of pushing on,' Gbenda-Charles said. 'In hindsight, whether I would have made it to the top of the Premiership is debatable, but at the end of the day, I was right in there with a chance.'

'Bummed' is how he felt leaving his soccer dreams behind in England and returning to New Zealand. Astounded, is how he described his sentiment when he arrived in Sierra Leone, there to revive the improbable.

In Freetown, he walked right through customs, perhaps because of the way he was dressed or perhaps because the custom officials were also Leone Star fans and therefore knew a player from Hong Kong was due to arrive.

He and the other players, all professionals, were taken to their training camp isolated from the city and even still, 20,000 people would come to watch a training session.

The first day of training, he stepped off the bus on to concrete.

'No grass,' Gbenda-Charles said of the playing surface. 'Home-made goal posts and this is for a national team and I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh' what is this? And the other guys are top superstars and they were humbled as well.'

In the month he was in Sierra Leone, the team trained just once at the national stadium, where there was grass. In January 1996, Sierra Leone reached their highest Fifa ranking of 51 but hit a low of 172 in September 2007. Now, they are 134th in the world, tied with Barbados and one ahead of Madagascar.

Gbenda-Charles believed he could make the team and eventually he did, but in his spare time he began exploring local villages, where he had relatives on his father's side.

It was there where 'A-Boy', as he was known because his name in the local language is Air, gained a town's worth of family members.

'I think I went there knowing that I had 40 or 50 cousins and left with about 20,000 cousins,' Gbenda-Charles said. 'It was quite cool because the kids were screaming 'A-Boy' and I'd go out in the village and just do coaching with kids, play football with them.'

He was protected by his 10-year old cousin who offered to be his bodyguard and defended their familial link.

'He's not your cousin, he's too white,' others would say in their dialect of half-Creole, half-French.

'He is,' the child insisted and Gbenda-Charles laughed to himself.

'All my friends were laughing because they were saying in New Zealand I'm the black guy and in Africa, I'm the white guy,' he said. 'I can't win.'

Sometimes it got to the point where Gbenda-Charles did not want to leave his hotel because it just became too depressing for someone with such an energetic disposition. And this was in the same country where he grew up, where he remembered running outside with shoes alongside friends who had none.

And then one day, Gbenda-Charles decided to build a school. He started a foundation, bought four hectares of land in Kono, turning to schools in part because when he was child, no matter what he achieved in sports, his mother would ask him if he had finished his homework.

'I've got a lot of energy that I want to put into this foundation,' Gbenda-Charles said. 'This foundation's all about sustainability. The school that we're going to build is going to have to be self-maintained by the people.'

Gbenda-Charles will go back to Kono in December to start construction, hoping his visit coincides with the national team's training camp if they do qualify for the next round of the World Cup qualifiers.

In June, he made the 20-man squad. Away at Equatorial Guinea, the Leone Stars lost 2-0 and if that environment was hostile, then coming back home to play against Nigeria was an absolute about-face.

'It's a 25,000-seat stadium, but there are 35,000 people there, hanging off the lights and everything,' Gbenda-Charles said. 'They get there at 10am for a 4pm start and you just have to remember that you've had war for 10 years, you've had nothing, there's no TV.'

The Leone Stars conceded a last minute goal and lost 1-0, but they drew 0-0 with South Africa in their third game. Now there is a game at home against Equatorial Guinea next month and one away against the already qualified Nigeria in October. Sierra Leone have never qualified for the World Cup finals.

However, Gbenda-Charles will miss those games because his first sport has re-entered his life. In August, he made his debut with the Hong Kong rugby sevens squad, first going to Denmark and then Malaysia as part of the team's selection process for the rugby World Cup qualifiers in October.

There is no dilemma as it is possible to play soccer for one country and rugby for another, and if anything, he cannot believe his fortune that he may have the opportunity to play in two different world cups in one calendar year.

Those experiences, however, could pale in comparison to the school he builds. What was supposed to be a trip to play soccer has turned out to be much bigger.

'My mindset has changed since I've been there,' Gbenda-Charles said. 'It's not the modern day Mother Teresa but the best word is that it's just humbled me.

'I went back to Sierra Leone and [saw] kids that get enjoyment out of the simplest things. All they need is an opportunity so at the end of the day the foundation is designed to provide an opportunity.'