Escape from War – A journey from Liberia to Faroe Islands
Far from the cash rich world of Madrid and Manchester, Patrick Toh plays football in the Faroe Islands’ Second Division. But he is perhaps as happy as anyone in the planet after how his life has changed through an unlikely journey from the Liberian Civil War. Jack Peters narrates his tale here at Goalden Times.
Patrick Toh plays for B71 Sandøy – a team struggling at the foot of the Faroe Islands second division. As a boy growing up in the midst of Liberian civil wars, Patrick solemnly vowed to follow his dream of emulating George Weah’s career. Only a few buts and what ifs have stopped him from mirroring his compatriot hero in reality. However, the 23-year-old attacker still hopes that the Faroe Islands (a remote, rocky archipelago somewhere between Norway and Iceland) will help him reach his Promised Land.
This dream, though far-fetched for now, is not as absurd as his journey to the Faroe Islands. This is a story of how his father’s lottery-win rescued his family from Liberia’s bloody civil war, to eventually wind up playing football in one of Europe’s obscurest leagues via the US college system.
It’s in Monrovia, capital of Liberia, where Patrick’s compelling journey in to the world of football started.
Escaping the Civil War
Patrick was born in Monrovia in 1992. During a period of two long and ruinous civil wars spanning from 1989 until 2003 a militia led by Charles Taylor toppled and executed Samuel Doe’s government, before rebel forces (backed by neighbouring Guinea’s government) battled back control of the country. An estimated 900,000 civilians were killed in the war.
At the same time, Liberia’s George Weah was dazzling the world with his ethereal skills for Monaco, Paris St Germain, and AC Milan; before curtailing his career for Chelsea, Manchester City, Marseille and finally one last lucrative pay-day for Al Jazeera, in 2003. Whilst George Weah could look back on a stellar career (winning FIFA Player of the Year, the Ballon d’Or and several league titles), the remainder of Liberia was left scarred by their brutal conflict.
George Weah’s legacy transcended his trophy cabinet to inspire children all over Liberia and Africa that the same was possible for them. It was in stark contrast to Liberia’s drugged-up child soldiers who carried out countless rapes and mutilations at the behest of their warlords.
Patrick’s father fled to Houston when he was very young, after miraculously winning the state lottery. Patrick was left to be raised by his mother and grandmother until their family could eventually reunite. In a city with mass-unemployment and illiteracy, it was perhaps even more fortuitous that his mother worked in an elementary school.
Patrick would spend most of his time with his grandmother, away from his mother whilst she worked long hours. There was a relentless sound of gunfire battles in the background, with rockets screaming overhead. During the months of peace – if you could call it peace – Patrick would dream of faraway glory whilst playing football on the beach; trying his best not to eat sand in the process. There was constant dread that the mood in this thick, tropical air would change at any moment.
Patrick’s father would send money back from Houston, so his family never struggled financially back in Liberia. However, rebel soldiers would steal anything they wanted and often took any of Patrick’s toys which were of value. Just before the civil war ended, Patrick’s father had finally saved up enough money so the rest of the family could finally come and reunite with him in Houston.
Finding peace in Houston
In Houston’s Tranquillity Park, there is a replica of one of the footprints left by Neil Armstrong on the moon. Patrick dreamt of great feats too. He decided from an early age that he would follow George Weah’s footsteps. Perhaps this long-shot dream would defy the odds, just like his father’s lottery win had.
Downtown Houston presented different battles on the playground. Patrick was bullied by other children throughout school and forever got into fights because of his Liberian accent. He had to learn very fast to get by. Patrick always found inner peace when he was outside, kicking a ball against the wall. Football once more provided an escape from loneliness and hardship. It’s remained a theme throughout his life. From the tropical beaches of war-torn Monrovia to the wind-lashed Faroese fishing village of Sandur.
While playing high school football, Patrick’s dream of following George Weah’s path began to develop green shoots of reality. Patrick scored 20 goals for his high school team in the 2009-10 season, which earned him a place in ESPN Rise All-American team in 2011. A football scholarship with the University of Memphis ensued. The efficient US college football system provides a route to the MLS draft upon completion of a 4-year-scholarship. He thought that perhaps this would be the next step toward his destiny.
College proved to become an unfulfilling and bitter experience for Patrick, with a perceived injustice to his undervalued skills. He did not get enough chances during his freshman year in 2011, but played 11 matches during his following sophomore year.
“I am very fast. I have not met anybody who is faster than me. I’m very skilful and technical. I’m a winger that creates easy chances for strikers, but the coach was not playing me. He would play the international kids even though they weren’t even as good. I needed to be playing to improve; besides to get drafted into the MLS you have to be attending a big University.”
The scholarship was cut-short, as was his following football scholarship at Houston Baptist University. In his first season for their team (Houston Baptist Huskies), Patrick scored three goals and provided four assists – playing in all 18 matches. The following season, in 2013, Patrick scored an impressive six goals in 16 matches, and was named Western Conference Player of the Week on October 7. Despite starting regularly, Patrick felt the demands of combining a football scholarship with his studies were too much for him to handle. So he decided to pursue his European dream via his own resources instead. This was a pivotal moment in his life. Patrick just didn’t know anybody at the time who could help him out. Until an unlikely opportunity came from a friend.
The Best Laid Plans for Denmark
“My friend’s brother played professional football in Denmark, and he reckoned I was good enough to play in the Danish Superliga. He said he could help me out, and landed me a trial with Aalborg BK”. Patrick had to work as many shifts as possible to save money for a flight to Denmark.
“I worked at a sports complex, called Legends, coaching children football, and afterwards would work the scoreboard for the basketball matches. I would be up there all day and night to save as much money as possible.”
“One of my sisters bought my ticket to Denmark. That was a huge saving for me because my parents couldn’t afford it. My family gave me money for Christmas to help out. Before I left, I had a little more than a thousand dollars for food, so I lived with my friend and his family in Denmark for a short while”. All plans depended on earning a professional contract with Aalborg BK.
Patrick was selected for Aalborg BK’s DS team, which competes just below the second-tier of the Danish league system. He would occasionally train with the Superliga squad and was promoted to play for the reserves. The trial period was insufficient to impress the coaching staff, so a professional contract never materialised. Would the same be the case for his dream?
“After playing there for a year, I realised it was not because I wasn’t good enough. I just didn’t have the right people in my corner. Some of the guys that recently got a contract with Aalborg BK played with me on DS. I knew I was better than them but they played their youth years with the club. I’d only been there for a couple months. It just takes one person to help get the right opportunity.”
Patrick’s analysis of his time in the college system and Aalborg BK are reminiscent of a journeyman boxer. Convinced that the only reason they haven’t had a ‘shot at the title’ is because they don’t have the right face for the promoters, or they need the right trainer to believe in them.
The very little money Patrick had soon run out. Patrick was determined not to ‘throw in the towel. Especially now he had one foot in the ring, Patrick remained in the hope of securing a contract with another Danish team. He temporarily stayed with his friends until he outstayed their generosity. To stay strong, he would rely on guest gym membership cards, and would also train outside on his own to keep himself fit. Every night he would cook plain pasta for his main meal, and rely on oatmeal for sustenance throughout the day.
“I did not want to keep calling my parents and family to ask for money, because I did not want them to worry about me. Sometimes, I would tell my older brother Andrew to send me some money through Western Union because I knew he wouldn’t tell my parents. I didn’t want to let them know I was struggling, and knew they would want me to come home.”
Pre-season soon turned into the start of the season in the Superliga. Unfortunately Toh did not get any contacts , let alone a trial. As winter drew in and the season moved on, the dark nights got colder and longer. The likelihood of a contract became lower and dimmer, until a faint glimmer of hope came from a Ghanaian agent, Emmanuel Attoh-Micah. An offer of a trial with HB Torshavn in the Faroe Islands. The remotest outpost of hope, and most unlikely of routes for this Liberian’s journey.
After playing there for a year, I realised it was not because I wasn’t good enough. I just didn’t have the right people in my corner. Some of the guys that recently got a contract with Aalborg BK played with me on DS. I knew I was better than them but they played their youth years with the club. I’d only been there for a couple months. It just takes one person to help get the right opportunity.
Hope in the Faroe Islands
An increasing number of foreign players are taking the outside-chance of playing in the Faroe Islands. Some believe that qualification for the preliminary rounds of the Champions League or Europa League will act as a shopping window for their talents. Others believe the Faroes can provide a next-step to the more prominent Scandinavian leagues, and so forth. Some players just want to be paid for playing football and see where the ball bounces next.
Patrick’s trial at HB Torshavn proved to be once more unsuccessful. The club were impressed by his sheer pace, but believed he didn’t have the all-round technical ability required for the Effodeildin.
After this unsuccessful trial, an offer of a contract presented itself from B71 Sandøy. “Emmanuel asked me if I wouldn’t mind playing a league below in the Faroes, for a season. I told him sure because I was already in Faroe Islands. After a week’s trial they would tell if they would sign me or not, but I was pretty sure they were going to sign me after the first day. I did well during the whole week of training, then scored in my trial match. So everything was a sure deal after the test match.’
Patrick finally had the professional contract and the promise of a regular chance in the first team that he so desperately desired.
While Patrick waited for approval of his VISA and registration, he was introduced to his new fans at B71’s first away game of the season. The introduction could not have been more foreboding. A devastating 7-1 loss at home to EB/Streymur.
“It was miserable sitting in the cold. And the opposition weren’t playing well either. We had to take a ferry the day before the match. It took us an hour and a half on rough waters, gale force winds and cold rain coming in from all angles. I wouldn’t wish that ride on anyone. I was thinking what have I got myself into.”
Living on the Faroe Islands
Sandur is quite a contrast to Patrick’s family home in Houston and birthplace of Monrovia. This small fishing village, on the island of Sandøy, has a population of 500 people, and is smaller than Patrick’s block in Houston. The average temperature here in the summer is 13oC, and the brightly painted Nordic houses are like a picturesque Christmas card scene.
A daily ferry service provides access to the Faroes’ main island, and plans have been proposed to connect these two islands with a transport tunnel. Many emigrate to the main island or Denmark for better opportunities; and they rarely returns. It’s hoped this connection will revive Sandøy’s declining population and dwindling economy.
“There is not much to do, living in Sandur. When I’m not training, most of the time I am inside watching Netflix or studying Danish. Everybody knows each other and are very friendly, but I prefer to either walk around alone or play football with the kids on the park.” This park scene is reminiscent of a young Patrick having inner peace when kicking the ball against a wall in Houston, or finding comfort in playing football on the beaches in Liberia.
Patrick’s transition into this new way of life has been helped by living with his Senegalese team-mate, Ibrahima Camara. “For the first three months Ibrahima wanted to go back to Africa. Now he is been here for over five years. It’s nice hearing about his experiences but we just have different end goals. I am looking to improve my playing environment. If I can play at least first division in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway then I would be content. I am always looking to improve myself, but he seems happy here, which isn’t a bad thing”.
The results have not improved for B71 Sandøy, with the club languishing in the relegation zone. A beleaguered Patrick needs a connection to the more prominent lands, just like Sandøy’s future depends on the proposed transport tunnel. Both dreams are reliant on the planning of others, yet Patrick’s dreams are in danger of being de-railed by his coach’s tactical deployment. As a player predominantly based on pace, Patrick is despairingly being played out-of-position as a defensive midfielder. By Patrick’s own admission he cannot defend. His destiny is evading him like the attacking midfielder he is supposed to tracking. It’s a desperate situation for a player who desires so much more.
Dreaming beyond the Faroe Islands
The homes are welcoming in the Faroe Islands but the wind is unforgiving. People invitingly open their doors to guests here, just as readily as the wind slams the door in the face of a dream. The departure lounge at Vargur airport is strewn with broken dreams. Dreams that are shattered for not making it to the first team. Players packing up their luggages with dreams of more than this land can provide.
So why do an increasing number of players believe their talent can be spotted by scouts in this most unlikely of football outposts? It’s akin to a literary agent finding an internet post of mine and then securing me a publishing deal.
The hardship of Patrick continues in midst of chilling winds, unlikely atmosphere and the pain of loneliness. But he remains undeterred as reflected by his own words:
“The biggest sacrifice I made was leaving my 3 years old daughter Jannie in Houston, who is four now. She is one of the main reasons I never quit when things get hard or are not looking promising for me. It is still a sacrifice for me, because if I do not end up in a top league then I would feel like I have failed myself and her”.
“I miss her so much, but I really just want her to be proud of me. I know some people do not understand why I would rather be away from her right now, because I will never get these years back. Sometime I ask myself the same question. Like, is it really just about me?”
“But I just feel like it is my destiny. I know I will achieve something great and she will achieve something greater through my sacrifices. When I talk to her sometimes it is easy because she is a happy child. She asks so many questions, so it’s never boring. It’s always interesting”.
“I try to tell her as much as she can understand about Denmark and the Faroe Islands. I do most of the listening. She wants to know so much. Sometimes she asks when I’m coming home, and that’s when the conversation is hard for me. Because I’m never really sure. I don’t want to get her hopes up, only for something to change. But thank God for FaceTime. I just hope at the end of the day my dreams and ambition will motivate her to do something bigger”.