Taking Sierra Leonean Football Forward After AFCON 2021

Synopsis: Journalist Adama Juldeh Munu reflects on how Sierra Leone’s national football team brought the country together during its comeback tournament, and what it will take to bolster the sport in the country.

The African Cup of Nation’s tournament 2021 ended with Senegal winning its first title in the competition, against seven-time reigning champions Egypt. Much like the finale, the starting line up of teams included countries that were either making appearances for the first time in the competition like Gambia or others that were making a comeback, like Sierra Leone- my ancestral home.

Sierra Leone’s run came to a conclusive end in their game against Equatorial Guinea on Thursday 20th January. They had lost 1–0 to Equatorial Guinea, and only needed one goal to make it through to the knock-out stages. It was a heartbreaking and monumental anti-climax for a team that qualified for the tournament for the first time in twenty six years and caused a few surprise upsets along the way. And yet, what was more profound for me as a football fan was witnessing what it did in rejuvenating a sense of national pride among Sierra Leoneans that I had not seen before in my lifetime- one which crossed political, ethnic and regional lines. Here, we could all agree on one thing, we wanted Sierra Leone to win and to go all the way to the finals, despite the odds the national team faced. There have been few other times when Sierra Leone’s international reputation has been important of late, until the Africa Cup of Nations.

From the onset, Sierra Leone along with the Gambia (who made their debutante) were underdogs. The nineties marked Sierra Leone’s golden era in AFCON, having qualified in 1994 and 1996, but the Sierra Leone Civil War, the Ebola Crisis in 2014, and Sierra Leone’s Football suspension in 2018 suspension by FIFA meant that the national team has had very little experience in competing at the top level in recent times. And they were not alone. Their fellow West African nation, Gambia, was making its debutante to the competition. Sierra Leone however was placed in a Leone’s sophomore appearance, they were placed in a group with some of African football’s heavy weights including defending champions Algeria and Cote D’Ivoire both of whom have won the tournament twice within the last 30 years. These odds were echoed in a commentary on Sky Sports by African football commentator Janine Anthony, before the tournament. When asked if Sierra Leone would ’cause problems for Algeria’, she replied in jest: “Quite frankly, they would cause problems for a few minutes, but for the long haul, I think Algeria would just about nick it.”

She could not have been more wrong. Alone in my apartment in Istanbul, I could not have felt further from my ancestral home physically, but I felt spiritually connected when I heard the national anthem broadcast around the world- it was the first time that I, or anyone under the age of 27 watching would have witnessed it. I became even more emotive when when I saw thirty seven year old Leone Stars veteran player, Kai Kamara weeping at the end of the anthem Sierra Leone drew 0–0 in their opening game with defending champion, the defence team lead by former England defender Steven Caulker saved a flurry of potential goals and goalkeeper Mohammed Kamara, who saved a penalty goal from was declared AFCON man of the match.

While the Washington Post stated, “For just one day, a 22-year-old goalkeeper who plays for East End Lions in Freetown, Sierra Leone had the better of Manchester City’s Mahrez and the rest of Algeria’s powerful forward line.”Sierra Leone then drew 2–2 against the Ivory Coast, picking up two goals in the second half, the last in the last few minutes of the game. At this point, they had only drawn games, but videos on platforms such as Twitter showed crowds cheering and erupting at the scores on both games.

‘We de yagba dem’ (‘we are going to cause them trouble’) ‘We dae win’ and other terms in Sierra Leonean krio were splattered all over social media, particularly on Twitter and Meta. These along with memes of lions, Sierra Leone flag emojis, Sierra Leone’s football jersey teams and videos posted of fans erupting in the country’s national stadium, restaurants and streets. Popular Sierra Leone social media influence and entrepreneur Vickie Remoe, who created an AFCON Sierra Leone playlist said in her blog:

“Those of us who watched will never forget it. We will reference it for years to come, both for how as the underdog, our team held back the reigning champions and also because of how it brought us together.

“Beyond the destruction of life and property that a decade of civil war left Sierra Leone, it also robbed us of common national ground and identity. In the hours and days since the match, I’ve retweeted every tweet and devoured every article praising Team Sierra Leone. I never get to brag like this…”

There have been some promising moves on the part of the footballers and team to galvanise an interest in the country’s football culture, in the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s exit from the competition. On 29 January, 28 year-old footballer, Antonio Rüdiger, who plays for Chelsea FC and the German national team, launched the Antonio Rüdiger Foundation in Sierra Leone, an educational charity that will promote and increase sports literacy. This has its benefits beyond the scope of mastering the art of soccer on the field, which according to the World Bank can promote physical education.

But it is going to require serious concerted moves on the part of the government and Sierra Leone’s Football Association if the country is going to make a much more substantive mark on the sporting world, particularly in football. And it will not be easy given Sierra Leone’s fragile economic projection.

But a long-term plan is key.

One of the ways it can do this is for the government to support local teams on the ground and to invest in resources. Part of that includes ensuring that footballers have access to good quality training kits, good quality coaches (preferably Sierra Leonean or continental African at the very least) and good quality football grounds. Efforts such as refurbishing the only stadium in Freetown, the Siaka Steven’s Stadium is a start. In January the newspaper, Swit Salone reported that Ibrahim Nyelenkeh, the Minister of Sport said the country’s National Stadium in Freetown will be refurbished in February. Last year, Africa’s football governing body, Confederation of African Footballs said it does not match international standards to host matches there, and that the stadium, which was constructed in 1979, is in a poor state. So far it has been the main venue for all senior international matches in Sierra Leone since its construction. Sierra Leone’s football infrastructure is not exactly unique. In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, former Cameroon coach Volker Finke said that he knows of “no flourishing local league. At some point they call themselves professionals, but the pitches that they play on are catastrophic.”

Secondly, the development of football requires a professional and commercial culture which is largely present in European and South American football. As Adam Rodgers Johns explains in the Capitalist Game: Football in Africa “the privatisation of domestic football clubs will lead to increasing levels of professionalism and a move away from political corruption in the football sector.” A number of articles and essays have shown illegal political interference is a major tumbling block to the development of football on the continent. Leone Stars were a victim of this in 2018, when Sierra Leone was suspended by FIFA, following government interference in the organisation and the country’s football association.

The viability of any sporting team in any respective nation has the incredible power of delivering unity and respect on the global stage- something that Sierra Leone got a small taste of, albeit short-lived. There are a number of scathing issues that the country has faced and continues to do so. But if the national football team is to have any success in venturing further in continental or international competitions post-AFCON 2021, then it will require a long-term plan that protects the integrity of the team and all that it requires to take them to a real win.

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Journalist with an affinity for all things ‘African Diaspora’ and Islam. You can @ me via adamaj.co.uk or twitter/@adamajmunu