A decade and a half since hitting their high-water mark on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Sierra Leone are climbing the ladder once again. With a leap of 24 places after one of the most famous victories in their history, the Leone Stars have moved up to the 68th position in the world and 16th in Africa. The boost in the rankings comes courtesy of a good run in qualifying for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and a home win over giants Egypt that has the often turbulent country unified in spirit and the team looking ahead to better things.
The west African side have had just a few high points to cheer about since the mid-1990s when they reached consecutive continental tournaments and were ranked 51st in the world, but the Stars have won their last two matches and are in with a shout of reaching January’s AFCON to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. They are also anxious to build on their good showings as they head into qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, where they will try to best Tunisia and Cape Verde Islands for a first appearance at the showpiece event.
If that sounds far-fetched, it is worth remembering that few gave Sierra Leone much of a chance when they were drawn into Group G in 2012 qualifying, which included not just Egypt, but South Africa and Niger as well. However, right from the start, the Stars punched above their weight, drawing 1-1 in Egypt last September to kick off the campaign. They then got the better of Bafana Bafana in Freetown, but could not prevent a scoreless draw before splitting a pair of matches home and away with the much-improved Nigerians.
The 3-1 away loss in Niamey, which the Stars led until after the hour mark, is their only defeat so far in the campaign, although they are now faced with a must-win trip to Port Elizabeth in the final round of preliminaries. Winning in South Africa will be a tall task for a team that was ranked 123rd at the start of 2011 and has clawed their way back from 172nd just four years ago. But after putting the final nail in Egypt’s illustrious coffin and eliminating the three-time defending champions, the Leone Stars are brimming with hope.
New horizons for rising Stars
Despite the fact that the Pharaohs essentially sent their Olympic team to the match at the National Stadium, the Leoneans struggled to see off their visitors after Marwan Mohsen cancelled out Sheriff Suma’s early goal. However, with the clock edging towards 90 minutes, the inspirational figure of Mohamed Bangura stepped up to convert the winning penalty in the dying minutes after Ibrahim Bangura was felled in the box. It was a dramatic moment that kept alive their hopes and leaves them second in the table on eight points, equal with South Africa and one behind Niger.
We are focused on winning as a group which is our key principle now.
So whether Sierra Leone manage to pull off another shock in the final round of qualifying to reach their first African finals in 15 years, they have proven themselves no soft touch - particularly at home - and they have a collection of fine young talent that could blossom into a golden generation to replace the likes of Mohamed Kallon. Swedish coach Lars-Olof Mattsson has led the team for less than a year and his future is uncertain, but he sees potential in the side. “I think we have a very strong side at the moment,” said Mattsson, who is the second Swede to coach the Leone Stars after Roger Palmgren who led the team to their last AFCON finals. “I've been following the progress of Sierra Leonean footballers in Scandinavia and other countries in Europe. Most of these players are young, and that's good for the Leone Stars.”
This burst of young talent starts with Mohamed Bangura, called ‘Poborsky’ back home. The bustling 22-year-old forward moved to Europe at the start of last year and recently signed for Scotland’s Celtic after being recommended by Swedish and Bhoys great Henrik Larsson, who saw him playing in Sweden last season for AIK Stockholm. Mattsson, who is familiar with both players, compared the two in style and even went so far as to say that Bangura was ahead of Larsson in development at the same age. At AIK, Bangura had been combining well with his namesake and countryman Ibrahim, who has also since moved on to Turkish club Bursaspor, and Leone Stars supporters are anxious for the two to continue their good form at the national team level.
The other great hope for the emerging side is midfielder Rodney Strasser, who is on the books at AC Milan, but is currently on loan at Lecce, where he should get regular playing time. The 21-year-old said recently that the team were coming together in important ways. “We respect each other and see ourselves as Sierra Leoneans with a common objective,” Strasser said. “We are focused on winning as a group which is our key principle now.”