The long road back to Liberia: the story of Mo Sangare's international debut
Written by Rory Mitchinson
In the heart of the sprawling metropolis of Kinshasa is the Stade des Martyrs. Home to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national football team and the third largest sporting venue in Africa, the stadium’s name translates exactly as you’d expect, paying tribute to the four senior politicians who were executed there in the wake of the turmoil which followed the country’s independence. Six weeks ago, it was the setting for young Newcastle United midfielder Mo Sangare’s international debut.
Sangare is 20 and from Liberia, a far older nation in African terms but another where internal conflict has wreaked havoc over a period of decades. The game in question could hardly have been a bigger one – a de-facto play-off for a spot at this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
“We have 52,000 at St. James’… There were 80,000 plus at the game in Congo,” Sangare reflects, chatting to nufc.co.uk at United’s Little Benton Academy a fortnight after the clash. “It was ridiculous. But I loved it. I loved every second of it.”
Sangare’s senior bow in a Magpies shirt may still be to come, but this was very much a coming-of-age moment. The road which led to that Sunday afternoon in Kinshasa is a truly remarkable one; as he is about to discuss, little – even in recent weeks and months – has come easy along the way…
Located on the west coast of Africa, Liberia became the continent’s first republic during the 1840s and its history is linked, intrinsically, with the United States. In the years leading up to independence being declared, thousands of freed American slaves – as well as a smaller number from the Caribbean – moved across the Atlantic and helped established a colony where, ostensibly, they would encounter greater opportunities for prosperity in a land they would call their own. The new country’s flag and constitution were closely based on those of the US, while its fledgling capital, Monrovia, was named after American president James Monroe – who supported the movement.
Ironically, though, those who settled – who became known as Americo-Liberians – soon emerged as the dominant force in a territory where they only accounted for a small percentage of the overall population. Their relationships with the indigenous Liberian people were far from harmonious and, all the way up until 1980, the country was governed either by those who were among the original colonisers, or their descendants.
Such tension played a key role in the development of the First Liberian Civil War, which claimed more than 200,000 lives between 1989 and 1996. Peace did not last for long, though, and in April 1999 – when Sangare was just a few months old – the Second Civil War broke out.
Again, it was a conflict which was to last for years rather than months and, growing up in Monrovia – which, at one point, found itself completely under siege – Sangare was caught in the crossfire.
“It was like everything was just rushed, all of the time,” he remembers. “As a kid, one minute you’re there, the next you’re there, and the next you’re there. You’re running for survival. You’re scared. You’re hearing guns. Like, in wars, you can hear all sorts of stuff. Sleeping – you just couldn’t. It was like you were almost always running away, non-stop, for survival.”
Sitting inside the otherwise empty Academy classroom with a ray of the springtime sun shining through the window to his right, this is the first time that Sangare has opened up about his childhood since his arrival on Tyneside in 2016. His arms folded on the table in front of him, he reveals – emotively but calmly – just how close to home the conflict hit.
“Africa as a whole, it’s tough,” he says. “You don’t have money – you don’t have anything. And then my dad got missing during the war. Since then, no one’s found him, so everyone just assumed he was dead. We’ve not seen him. Me, as a child, I assumed he was dead. Even up to now.
“You’re growing up with people, seeing other people with their fathers, and it’s not nice. When you have a dad, it’s a lot better, because it gives you that hope and guidance. You’re more restricted in the things you can do and the things you can’t do. If you don’t have a dad, you don’t know what to do – you’re basically living off instincts and just thinking: ‘Right, if I’m doing that, is that right?’ You’re learning everything for yourself instead of someone saying: ‘Hold up a sec – you can’t do that. It’ll lead you to this path, or it’ll lead you to that path.’ You’ve got to figure all that out by yourself as a kid. And if you don’t have a dad or you don’t have a mum, then somehow you’ve got to survive.”
Sangare’s mother, Massability, was pregnant at the time his father, Lassana, disappeared. Little brother Faisu came along in December 2002. Massability gave birth to another son, Souleymane, three years later.
By that point, the Second Civil War had come to a close but the country remained one of Africa’s poorest and Massability had moved to the UK, laying the foundations for a new life for the family.
“After my mum travelled to England, I was in Liberia with my little brother (Faisu) and we stayed with my mum’s friend for ages,” Sangare recalls. “But living without your mum for that long, it’s tough.
“Schooling was not even a thing. Other people go to school because they have parents – they have their mum and their dad. But I was with my mum’s friend and obviously she had her own kid to look after, so I didn’t really used to bother her with anything.”
So, in the absence of the sort of upbringing that would be taken for granted in other parts of the world, how did Sangare spend his days?
“Most of the time we just used to be playing,” he says. “Sometimes we’d go fishing. You know what young boys will do over there – stuff to get the day going, stuff to make the time pass.”
Was he, in effect, just waiting to grow up?
Sangare, left, in FA Youth Cup action against Swansea City during the 2016/17 campaign
Sangare was 14 when he first arrived in the UK. Massability travelled from Manchester to meet him, and Faisu, in London, where they spent a week before moving back to the North West.
“It was all new. Like, everything was new,” Sangare recalls. “One thing I will say is that friends are very important – who you follow, what you do and making decisions from there. Obviously I’ve learnt a lot from when I first came, but I wasn’t very smart. It was hard.”
As he speaks fluently and, at times, eloquently, it is incredible to think that Sangare could barely utter a word of English upon his arrival on British shores. He remembers taking additional lessons at school, Massability providing further tuition at home and, even in his own time, checking out the videos available on YouTube. Within a year and a half, he had the knack of it.
Life in Manchester, however, threw up further challenges.
“I used to get bullied by people,” he reveals. “At that time, when I first came, my mum used to cut my hair. And then going to school, everyone was laughing. But I didn’t care – I just got on with it.
“I started to see different stuff going on. Every time I went into PE, I used to love it. I’m quite athletic and I wanted to do stuff like that. I started doing athletics – long jumps, triple jumps, 100 metre sprints. I tried the high jump but I knew I was no good at that! I played for the rugby team and then I got introduced to the football side. I wasn’t very good at the beginning but I started playing for the school, and I played a few times.
“And then Year 10, Year 11, I did my GCSEs. I didn’t have a clue. I said to my mum: ‘What are these GCSE things?’ She said: ‘It’s like a big exam that everyone has to go to when they’re leaving school.’ I still couldn’t speak proper English at the time, so I literally just sat there for two hours ‘til the time went past.”
Another change of scenery soon followed. Sangare left school at 16 and enrolled at Accrington & Rossendale College, a half hour’s bus journey from Manchester. Having added to his footballing experience with Sunday league side Reddish North End, it was at this point that he started to set his sights on a possible career in the game.
“I went to Liverpool on trial, but I didn’t get in. I then went to Oldham, but they said they didn’t want me either, so I started to go to college and I played for their development team,” he explains. “I was there for about six or eight months. Accrington (Stanley)’s academy said they’d give me a scholarship. They were trying to sort my international clearance but every time I asked about it, I just got told that the club were working on it. But nothing was happening. I’d go to my lessons and try to learn, but like I say, I’m not the brightest. It was very hard. I used to wake up at 5am to get the bus to Accrington and beat the traffic.
“I thought there was no point staying there, so I went to Nelson and Colne College. I’d heard that people who went there could go on and play for Burnley’s academy, so I thought I’d give it a go. I was there for six or seven months, and the coach, Chris (Andrews), said: ‘I’ll take you in, but we need to work on a few things.’ I’d work with Chris after college and I’d do a few drills. He said: ‘You’re physical, you’re quick, but you need to understand the game.’ I started watching videos and stuff, and one Wednesday he called me and said there was an Under-18s game against Blackpool and that I should come and play. I played the game and the academy said they’d give me a two-year scholarship.”
Just before he joined up, though, Sangare met former United youngster Kevin Gall. “He said I was very good,” Sangare remembers. “He said he might have people who could help me.”
Sangare went for a trial at Barnsley, where he was one of just four from a group of more than 20 offered the chance to stay on. The following week, he headed straight to AFC Bournemouth, where he impressed sufficiently to be offered an 18-month professional deal. The Clarets were updated, and Sangare was duly invited back to Lancashire.
“Burnley said they had a game against Fleetwood and they wanted me to come and play,” he recalls. “I got an assist, nearly scored, and they said: ‘OK, we’ll give you two years.’ But as they were sorting out my international clearance, I was told that Newcastle wanted me to go on trial for a week.
“Newcastle said they’d give me three years. At that point, I hadn’t been home for a month – I’d been to Barnsley, Bournemouth, Burnley, and I was in a hotel for a bit. I was going to go to Manchester United and Sporting Lisbon as well, but I thought: ‘I’ve been away from home for so long. I miss my mum. I know what I want to do – I’ve got what I’ve always wanted. I don’t want to be big-headed and lose everything. I want to sign for Newcastle.’ And I knew that if I moved away, I would focus a lot better and it’d give me something to push for, and I could look forward to going home every time to see my family.”
Sangare, left, goes toe to toe with Port Vale's Marcus Harness in the Checkatrade Trophy
Sangare officially linked up with United in November 2016, a month shy of his eighteenth birthday. He made his debut for the Magpies’ Under-18 side in an away game at Wolverhampton Wanderers, playing all 90 minutes in a 2-1 victory. Despite ending the season with 12 appearances to his name, he is the first to admit that it was far from plain sailing. With a grimace, he recalls an FA Youth Cup clash against Swansea City at St. James’ Park, in which he was deployed in the No. 10 role – behind a central striker – for the first time. So deflating was the experience, he was reduced to tears after the game.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he admits. “That was the first time I played at St. James’. Like I was just running, and I didn’t have that experience of when to run and when not to. I hate not knowing what I’m doing and I looked bad on the pitch. But you learn from things and move on. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re stupid.”
Learn was just what he did, and the following campaign – his first full one on Tyneside – was to prove significant. In the summer of 2017, Sangare travelled with Peter Beardsley’s Under-23s to the Whitby Town Challenge Cup, where the Magpies saw off Celtic and AZ Alkmaar to lift the trophy. A competitive debut at second-string level followed a fortnight later, when he came off the bench in a thrilling 4-3 victory against Stoke City at St. George’s Park – scoring within ten minutes of his introduction.
A further 25 appearances followed that term, including a Checkatrade Trophy debut at Crewe Alexandra and an impressive showing in the Under-23s’ dramatic Premier League International Cup win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light – in which he scored from the spot in a mammoth penalty shootout.
It’s likely that those who keep close tabs on the Magpies’ second string would have been starting to sit up and take notice of Sangare by that point but, unbeknown to him at the time, his displays in the centre of the park had also caught attention further afield. If Sangare’s pathway into club football at St. James’ Park was an unconventional one, then his rise to the international stage certainly followed the trend.
“A guy on Instagram messaged me and said that he worked for the Liberian international team,” he remembers with a smile. “He said: ‘We want you to play for Liberia.’ I thought it was a prank. My mind wasn’t in the right place at the time, so I said: ‘Don’t mess with me – I don’t want the joke.’ And then I deleted it. But then he messaged me again. It happened for like a month – I just kept deleting the message. At the end I said: ‘Bruv, what do you want?’ He said: ‘I’m actually trying to help you here. We heard you’re from Liberia.’ I said: ‘Yeah, I am.’ He asked how long I had lived there, I said I was born there and we started having a conversation. He said: ‘Would you want to come and play for your homeland?’ And I said it was something I would love to do.
“I spoke to Kev, but I was a bit scared. I said: ‘Kev, listen, there’s this guy messaging me on Instagram. Will you message him and check if he’s fake?’ Kev messaged him and he said he was definitely a Liberian guy, and he passed on my WhatsApp to him. Kev asked if I wanted to go and play and I was like: ‘Of course. That’s my dream.’ When I was in Liberia, I always used to listen on the radio to see what the result was going to be. Most of the time it was disappointing! It was like: ‘Oh no, Liberia have got beat again!’”
Though famous for producing 1995 World Player of the Year George Weah (now the country’s president), Liberia had, at that point – in the weeks leading up to the start of the 2018/19 season – only ever qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations on two occasions. Weah was part of both of those successes, in 1996 and 2002, though the Lone Stars – as they are nicknamed – were twice eliminated in the group stage.
This time around, though, there was cause for optimism. Liberia had come within a whisker of making it to the 2017 instalment – losing out to Togo by just a single point – while the number of qualifiers for the finals had increased from 16 teams to 24. The Lone Stars were beaten by Zimbabwe in their opening Group G game but they still had everything to play for by the time they welcomed the Democratic Republic of Congo to Monrovia in September 2018 – a game in which Sangare was in line to make his debut.
But then, he suffered a setback. As he took the train one day, Sangare lost his wallet – and, with it, his UK residency permit. He rang the train operator to see if anything had been handed in, but he had no luck. Travelling to Liberia clearly wouldn’t be an issue, but getting back into the UK might be. Sangare stayed back; the Lone Stars played out a 1-1 draw after shipping a late equaliser.
Liberia came calling again a month later ahead of a potentially significant double-header against the Democratic Republic of Congo’s near neighbours, Congo. But, after contact was made with the Home Office, further frustration ensued. “The lady thought it was the UK passport she was sorting,” Sangare explains. “I said: ‘No, it’s the residency permit I need.’ By the time she realised, it was too late.”
Liberia lost the first game 3-1 but picked up a crucial 2-1 win in the return clash five days later, keeping their hopes of qualification alive. In November, Zimbabwe were again the opposition in their penultimate Group G game and, finally, Sangare was cleared to travel. Third time lucky, you’d think.
Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way. “I had blisters on my foot,” Sangare recalls. “They didn’t have much equipment to help with that situation. I couldn’t run, so I told them I couldn’t play – first impressions count. I wanted to wait until I was 100 per cent fit to play. They were going to put me on, against Zimbabwe, but I said there was no point. And if I messed up, it wouldn’t look good on me. I came back feeling disappointed.”
At the very least, though, Sangare had returned to his homeland for the first time as an adult. The journey there was a complicated one; he took an early flight from Newcastle to Amsterdam, waited in the Dutch capital until mid-afternoon, headed south to Freetown, in Sierra Leone, before finally touching down in Monrovia an hour later. “Not being there for so much time, it was very hot – oh my God, it was so hot!” he laughs. “Even at midnight, it was like 28 degrees. To be fair, the place is improving from what it was like when I was a kid. But to every African country, there’s a bad part about it. There’s criminals everywhere – maybe it wasn’t as bad as it was before, but I didn’t go out whatsoever. I stayed in the hotel, and straight after the game I got on the plane and came back.”
Over the winter months, Sangare was in and out of United’s Under-23 side, by now under the guidance of Ben Dawson and riding high in the Premier League 2 Division Two. However, he figured in all bar one of the Magpies’ Checkatrade Trophy fixtures, despatching the decisive spot kick against Macclesfield Town in the last 16 after a 1-1 draw at St. James’ Park. Then, after five starts in six, he flew out to Kinshasa, independently, ahead of the Lone Stars’ do-or-die encounter at the Stade des Martyrs.
A narrow win against top-of-the-table Zimbabwe in their previous outing had left Liberia occupying Group G’s second qualifying place. They trailed the Warriors by a point but led the Democratic Republic of Congo by the same margin, with Congo another point further back. That meant, amazingly, that all four teams had a fighting chance of making it to Egypt heading into the final game.
After linking up with his teammates, Sangare was named on the bench, taking his place in the portable dugout positioned on the running track circling the pitch. The home side – quarter-finalists in the previous tournament and third in the one before that – quickly took the game to Liberia, with goalkeeper Ashley Williams called into action twice early on. The Lone Stars got a foothold, though, and forward Sam Johnson nearly silenced the capacity crowd after seeing a first-time strike desperately clawed wide by Ley Matampi.
However, the Leopards – representing the fourth largest country on the continent – upped the ante at the beginning of the second half. Five minutes after the restart, Cédric Bakambu found himself one-on-one with Williams, only to hammer the ball against the crossbar from a glorious position. The next time he bore down on goal, though, the former Villarreal frontman made no mistake, picking out the far corner after being adjudged – controversially – to have held his line.
In the 73rd minute, sporting the number seven shirt, Sangare was summoned to replace fellow midfielder Allen Njie. The atmosphere further charged following the hosts’ opener, he took up his usual role in the engine room and looked far from out of place during the closing exchanges. Unfortunately, though, Liberia were unable to produce the leveller which would have ended their lengthy hiatus from African football’s flagship competition; the Democratic Republic of Congo saw the game out.
“It was disappointing that we lost. I wanted the team to qualify because that would have been good for me as a player, and for my career,” Sangare reflects. “But playing in front of 80,000 people, against some good players – like Chancel Mbemba – gave me a massive boost. And I don’t see no difference between them and me. I put this to my advantage.
“But I don’t praise myself. That’s what I’ve always said – I never ever tell anyone that ‘I was so good today.’ You’ll never hear me say that. Even Kev will tell you that. After I played (on trial) at Barnsley, Kev came up to me and he said: ‘How did you play?’ I said: ‘I played very ****.’ ‘Why, what made you say that?’ I said: ‘I just was. Kev, let me tell you now, there’s not one day you’ll hear me praise myself to you.’ Even now, whenever he asks me, I just say: ‘I played OK.’ When things happen on social media, or people say: ‘You’re on this website, or you’re on that website,’ I just say: ‘Good to know.’ When they start talking about it, I change topic. When they keep talking about it, I just say I need to go. No one knows me. Who am I? I’ve made no name for myself. I don’t want to be like: ‘Oh yeah, I’m too good.’ I’m not that kind of person, because I know where I came from.”
Immediately after their defeat in Kinshasa, Liberia travelled to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast for a friendly encounter against one of Africa’s heavyweights. Sangare was handed his first start, and early into the second half, he nearly broke the deadlock, swivelling inside the penalty area after gathering William Jebor’s cross before bringing a low save out of goalkeeper Abdoul Cissé. The Lone Stars performed admirably throughout but were undone at the death, succumbing to a late spot kick by Aston Villa’s Jonathan Kodjia. Sangare was off the pitch by that point, having been substituted just before the hour mark.
“To be fair, after the way we performed against the Ivory Coast, I think that team can qualify next time,” Sangare asserts. “That team is young. Everyone just needs to understand each other a little bit better. If we have a game, everyone should go a bit earlier – play some friendlies, and then play the qualifying game. I think that team, next time, will 100 per cent qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. I said to everyone: ‘Listen, this is a positive result.’ Knowing the team can perform like that means we have a chance next time.”
Sangare tucks away the winning penalty in this season's dramatic Checkatrade Trophy victory over Macclesfield Town at St. James' Park
It’s likely to be the back end of the summer, at the earliest, before Sangare plays for his country again, when attention will start to turn to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and, a little further down the line, the task of making it to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
If his appetite for the big occasion has been whet by the game in Kinshasa, though, then there is plenty for Sangare to look forward to in the short term; at the time of writing, United’s Under-23s have secured a play-off spot in the Premier League 2’s second tier, as well as a place in the Premier League Cup final against Everton.
As has been the case throughout, however, Sangare is forthright in his assessment of how his last nine months in a black and white shirt have panned out.
“I think this season’s been more of a disappointment for me, as a player,” he says. “Last year, I was training with the first team week in, week out. This time, I’ve never trained with them – I’ve not been up (to the first team’s training centre) yet. I don’t want to say too much on that, but I’m a lot better than that – I’m a lot better than what I’ve done this year. I’d say now, thank God, it’s better than it was a few months ago, but it’s still not as good as I want it to be.”
With the recording app having been switched on for nearly an hour, this is – by far – the longest Sangare has been kept in conversation by one of the club’s media staff. He remains responsive, though, as we revisit the topic of family life one more time.
He speaks to Massability every day, either on the phone, or via FaceTime. He keeps in similarly close contact with his two siblings; Faisu, now 16, is on the books at Wolverhampton Wanderers. “He’s doing well,” Sangare says. “The good thing about having me as a big brother is that I’ve realised everything and he can come to me. I give him advice, because I’ve been through it and he hasn’t. He’s following my footsteps. I’ve been away from home before him – I’ve been away for a while now. And I can say to him: ‘This is what you do.’ That’s what I needed at the start, but I didn’t have anyone to do it.”
Peacetime in Liberia has now – in one sense of the term, at least – lasted for more than a decade and a half. It’s almost 17 years since Lassana disappeared, but Sangare has not given up hope that, one day, he will discover what became of his father.
“I mean, it’s possible, and it’s not,” he says. “The mentality I have now, maybe that’ll give me a chance to go and do some more research and whatever. But whatever’s happened has happened and there’s nothing you can do to change what’s happened.
“But yeah, I would like to try and find out, and I think I will. Because I want to know.”