A girl in a striking turquoise dress flies past the boys. The football, almost flat, never leaves her bare toes. A stream of sandy dirt puffs into the air as a boy crashes to the ground trying to tackle her. After she scores, the kids crumble to the ground laughing, dizzy in the heat. Girls have not traditionally played football in Liberia, so much so that the sport is referred to as ‘man-ball’ in many communities, but 10-year-old Jessica Quashie is helping change perceptions.
She comes from West Point, Liberia’s biggest slum community in the capital Monrovia, which sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is where I started playing football when I was six,” she tells BBC Sport, proudly pointing to a patch of dirt between a cluster of tin-roofed houses.
It’s an inauspicious springboard for a journey that has enabled her to learn to read, fly on a plane for the first time and develop dreams of a professional career. In the last month, she has also shown off her talents in front of scouts representing Manchester United and reigning French champions Monaco. Two years ago, staff from Monrovia Football Academy (MFA) were making their way through communities in Liberia searching for talent when they stumbled across Jessica.
The football academy is the first in Africa to be founded on gender equality, even if the Right To Dream academy in Ghana has admitted girls to join its male students since its founding in 1999.
“I love football very much,” Jessica says with a smile. “I fell in love with football because I want to be a good football player, like the great Marta.”
Having been crowned Fifa Women’s World Player of the Year a record five times, Marta Vieira da Silva from Brazil is the highest-earning and arguably best female footballer in the world. Yet making it as a professional footballer is tough. Fewer than 0.5 percent of young academy players in top clubs ever make it on to the first team — and when it comes to girls, the fight is even fiercer.
In many parts of the world, talented female players are lucky if the country they’re living in even has an academy that accepts girls in the first place. Nonetheless, MFA co-founder Sekou Dgeorges Manubah says his organisation wants to give girls access to opportunities that can hopefully help them secure professional contracts one day.
“In West Africa, female soccer is not well structured,” the former Liberia international tells BBC Sport. “They’ve got to go the extra mile. It’s a huge challenge for them but this is what we’re trying to change.” In October 2015, Jessica became one of 27 children to start at MFA when it opened. It now has 70 students — 41 boys and 29 girls — between the ages of eight and 13.
Jessica was in a government school before she joined the academy and recalls how the teachers did not come every day. Some government-run schools can have more than 100 children in one class, which is why Jessica believes that no-one really noticed she could neither read nor write. Two years on and her teacher says her transformation has been incredible.
“Last year, Jessica was not really at the top when it comes to the academic level but this year, she has improved greatly,” said Cecelia Tyler.
The goal of MFA co-founder William Smith is to become the best school in Liberia, with the American believing his academy is different to others in Africa.
“We are a school first, a football club second,” he tells BBC Sport.
“The whole concept was to use football as an incentive for kids to improve in the classroom and break down gender barriers.”
And it is not only in her education that Jessica is gaining life lessons. Earlier this month, she flew on a plane for the first time (“it was very scary”, she says) as the academy’s first team was invited to its inaugural tournament, which took place in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Sixteen academy teams from six countries across the region took part in an event closely followed by football agents and scouts from 11 European clubs, including Manchester United and Monaco. Just two players out of the 120 were girls — Jessica and team-mate Blessing Kieh, 13.
“It makes me proud,” said Blessing, standing beside a beaming Jessica.
MFA did not come close to winning the tournament but Jessica, Blessing and the academy in general were the talk of the week.
“We’re very young but if we can set an example in anything it’s bringing girls onto the pitch, having them train, play and study with the boys and giving the girls that sense of empowerment they might not otherwise have,” adds Smith.
As Jessica benefits, her mother Victoria — who supports the family by selling fish at the market — is astounded by her progress. “I never knew she could play football,” she says, adding that she always thought her daughter’s main prowess was dancing.
“She’s a dancer, she used to dance good,” her mum insists, nudging Jessica to get up and prove her point.
Sitting beside her mother, Jessica looks embarrassed at the claim, but she is hoping her twinkling feet can help her fulfil her dream — of one day playing for one of Europe’s top clubs. — BBC.