AFCON 2021: Sierra Leone′s ′nearly men′ enjoying their moment | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW | 20.01.2022

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AFCON 2021: Sierra Leone's 'nearly men' enjoying their moment

For the first time since 1996, Sierra Leone are back competing in an African Cup of Nations. The Leone Stars have upset two tournament favorites in a remarkable comeback story.

The emotion gets to Musa Noah Kamara after scoring against Ivory Coast

Sierra Leone's success at the tournament is an incredible story

The African Cup of Nations is a tournament that always has stories, and this year Sierra Leone's might be the most remarkable of them all.

"In 2013, they're one game away. In 2015, it's impossible because of Ebola, and in 2017, they finally recover from the Ebola epidemic but fall just short again. And in 2019, they were disqualified because of a FIFA suspension... Really, Sierra Leone are the nearly men of African football over the last 15 years," Tom Legg, former Head of Performance for Sierra Leone, told DW.

After a stunning draw against Algeria, in part down to a man-of-the-match performance from goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara, Sierra Leone twice came from behind to draw with another tournament favorite, Ivory Coast.

Kamara provided heroics again, this time saving a Franck Kessie penalty in the first half. Sierra Leone equalized for the second time in the 93rd minute, with one of the most dramatic goals of the tournament so far.

"It's great knowing them as people and having spent time with them as people to see them achieving what they're achieving at the moment in Cameroon," Legg said. "I'm delighted for them."

History of challenges

This is a team whose strength is built off collective unity rather than individual ability. They had not qualified for the African Cup of Nations since 1996, with civil war, Ebola and floods hindering much in the country, let alone football development.

"There always seems to be something in Sierra Leone which inhibits the players, that squad, from reaching the heights they can do," Legg said. 

"The obvious one from the 2000s onwards was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Immediately you have a humanitarian and medical crisis which makes it very difficult for players to move around. Suddenly we had games played away from Freetown, away from home fixtures. In the European context, it's challenging when you're not playing at home, but in Africa, because of the logistical challenges that exist, it really does weaken your position as a squad."

Legg believes the 2012 generation he worked with would have reached the African Cup of Nations and perhaps even World Cup qualifiers were it not for circumstances outside of their control.

Indeed, in the middle of 2014 Sierra Leone had risen 21 spots in the FIFA rankings to 50th, the highest they've ever been ranked.

Things haven't been as easy since. The team came into this tournament off the back of a loss to fellow surprise qualifiers Comoros and are currently ranked 108th, but the core group of the generation that never got a chance is now leading Sierra Leone in Cameroon.

Thirty-four-year-old captain Umaru Bangura, John Kamara (33), Kei Kamara (37) as well as perhaps the next captain, Kwame Quee (25), are at the heart of this Sierra Leone team, for perhaps the last time too.

"What is testament to John Keister, the current head coach, is, the same way John McKinstry did before when we were in the staff, he is providing a sense of stability and calmness where the huge individual talent that exists in Sierra Leone is able to come together collectively and given a framework to perform at the highest levels of African football," Legg said.

The jubilant scenes on the streets of Freetown after the result against Ivory Coast show just how much it means to a nation that, for a while, must have felt its chance would never come.