Sports

SPORTS COMMENTARY: Wanibo Toe: ‘Great Football Wizard’ 52 Years Later

January 2019 marks the 52nd anniversary of the death of Liberian football legend Wanibo Toe.  The Liberian Age newspaper of January 13, 1967 carried the sad news under the caption “Great Football Wizard Dies.” Toe’s death shocked football fans across the nation.  An illustration of the public reaction is the six-stanza poem entitled “A Lament to Wanibo Toe” published 1/17/67 of the same newspaper. Excerpts read “Who knew Toe would ever give way to death At so early an age of twenty-five . . . Wanibo Toe the Great . . . control the ball with your brilliance and show. . . Toe who could surpass the fame of Pele of Brazil . . . Oh! Oh! Wonderboy Wanibo Toe is gone forever!”

A picture of mourners at Toe’s funeral was published 1/17/67 also in that newspaper. The caption stated: “With casket held high and the streets crowded with mourners and avid football fans, the throng marched to the graveyard.”  The crowd “was nearly 35 thousand.” The newspaper recounted the story of an “innocent bystander” in the crowd who wondered if the “large procession” was a “State funeral.” He got a sharp rebuttal: “Why don’t you know? . . .” This was “no ordinary player”; he was “the king of dribblers. . . You think we will ever get another like him? Never!” The innocent bystander responded that the last time he witnessed such a throng was during the “Queen’s visit,” a reference most likely to British Queen Elizabeth’s 1962 presence in Liberia for the Independence Day celebration.  A YouTube of that visit shows swarms of Liberians along the streets singing, cheering, and chasing the open car carrying the British monarch and President William V. S. Tubman.

Toe was indeed “no ordinary footballer”.  According to the newspaper, he was buried at “Palm Grove Cemetery”.  Today the largely neglected Palm Grove with desecrated graves belies the fact that it is the nation’s oldest, recognized burial grounds. One tombstone at Palm Grove belongs to Joseph J. Roberts.  So, one of Toe’s grave-mates is Liberia’s first president!

But who was this Wanibo Toe that shares graveyard with dignitaries including a president and whose mourners are compared in size to the crowd that welcomed royalty?  Barely three months prior to Toe’s demise, the October 13, 1966 Daily Listener newspaper printed a letter from a Toe’s admirer.  The writer praised the newspaper for “picturing Wanibo Toe in your paper” because Toe is the “symbol of sports news” and his “name is more popular than any of our Lone Star players.” This was no small compliment: the Lone Star had talent.  Take the following players (all deceased): The bulky about 6 feet forward Garretson Sackor, nicknamed “Bulldozer” by fans who admired his tendency to physically overpower defenders and score; George, his highly skillful ball-handling brother known for his dribble and hence dubbed “Stanley Matthews” after the English football legend; the naturalized Gambian-Liberian center forward Mass Sarr, called “18 yards”; his signature play was to flip the ball over his head with his heel while running and volley it thunderously past the goalie; and Jackson Weah, known as “32” for his memorable bicycle-kick goals. (Real Madrid fans say Ronaldo’s 2018 bicycle-kick goal against Juventus was the greatest; they didn’t see Weah’s 32!)  Notwithstanding their individual talent, Toe was recognized as the best.

Dribbling was Toe’s wizardry, and scoring was his game; he played almost effortlessly with poise and finesse. Accounts from this period are scarce.  Fortunately, onetime Lone Star player Benedict “Mama Musa” Wisseh gave me The Daily Listener of 7/28/65 which described Toe’s goal against Gambia on 7/26/65: “The ball went out for a corner kick for Lone Star. Davies took the shot . . . and Toe ran in for the shot, quickly released a perfect grounder that kissed the net for Liberia’s lead.” In spite of Toe’s popularity, he was modest. His calm demeanor, at a time when fighting during games and aggressive plays, or “eating bone,” were common, made Toe more likable. A line in the aforementioned poem described Toe thus: “Easy-going, humble, tactful, lovely …” And the President of Liberia Football Association, Mr. Leonard DeShield, referred to Toe as “a devoted football star, a keen sportsman” in The Liberian Age newspaper of 1/13/67.

But death cut short Toe’s incredible career; he died in his early- to mid-twenties. Born in Ghana to Liberian parents of Kru/Grebo descent, Toe was among the Liberian footballers in the West African Diaspora who returned reportedly around the 1960s; another was the “32” Jackson Weah.  It is said that in Ghana Toe played for the Premier League side Real Republicans, though I do not know whether he was a member when the team won the 1962/63 title. In any case, Toe is clearly identified in the iconic photo of Lone Star believed to have been taken in 1964 during the epic game with Ghana Black Star.  Though Lone Star lost 4-5, the team was praised for its stellar performance against the Black Star, then the reigning African Cup of Nations champion. Thus, when Toe died he had played in Liberia for six years at most or as fewer as three years.

Details of Toe’s death are scant. The Liberian Age of January 13, 1967 noted only that Toe passed away at the Catholic Hospital of “kidney troubles.” A detailed and more popular account was recounted by Toe’s team mate, Josiah “JNJ” Johnson. In 1967 Toe was hospitalized after sustaining an injury to the rib in a game between Barrolle and a Ghanaian team. (Toe had initially joined Invincible Eleven, IE, and later Mighty Barrolle.)  The injured Toe was taken to the Government Hospital on Front Street. But during the decisive Game 5 of the UTA tournament between IE and Barrolle (and the latter trailing 0-1), the ailing Toe sneaked out of the Hospital, went to the Antoinette Stadium, and was included in the game. Though injured, the “King of Dribbler” heroically dismantled IE’s defense and threaded a perfect pass to teammate Mass Sarr (18 yards) who hammered in the goal to tie the game. Toe collapsed afterwards and was taken back to the Hospital. It turned out that he had gravely aggravated his injury. President Tubman intervened and Toe was to be flown to Britain. Unfortunately, the “Great Football Wizard” died about a day or so before the flight.

Wanibo Toe would have been in his 70s this month. Liberia must not forget Toe: he “was a Great Hero” as eulogized in a song.  Happy anniversary, Waniboe Toe, the “Great Football Wizard”!

Let me thank the two Liberian Football icons, Mr. Josiah “JNJ” Johnson and Mr. Benedict “Mama Musa” Wisseh for sharing material on Wanibo Toe.  My appreciation also goes to Mr. Charles Freeman, 2017 history graduate of the University of Liberia, for identifying sources.

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