Sierra Stars down but still not out
It will take a kind convergence of circumstances to see African upstarts Sierra Leone into the quarter-finals of Finland 2003. Coach Musa Kallon will be hoping the fates favour his boys – so cruelly mistreated in their first two matches. As they kneel in prayer around the centre circle arms outstretched toward the heavens before the match with Korea, perhaps there will be a plea for mercy in their hearts.
Starting slowly in their first FIFA finals match against Spain, they somehow managed to surge back from the doldrums and turn the tables around to 3-2. But despite their best efforts, the newcomers had their hopes dashed late in a long period of stoppage time. Substitute Xisco swooped to head home at the near post and steal the full three points from the talented Africans.
After the match Kallon always maintained his understanding of football’s sometimes-fickle cruelty.
“Football is football,” he said leaning over a table at the press conference beneath the Lahti stadium. “You have to expect the unexpected…and it is always a sad thing to give up a goal so late.”
But a point against UEFA European U-17 Championship runners-up Spain is certainly no disgrace. And with marvellous captain Samuel Barlay leading by example, the youngest squad in the tournament and their coach must have been looking ahead to better things in the second match – against the USA in Lahti.
And after dominating the Americans everywhere on the pitch for the majority of the match, they for once let pint-size superstar-in-the-making Freddy Adu slip through their fingers and out of their grasp in the 89th minute. Getting on the end of a flicked header, he raced behind his man, around Patrick Bantamoi and slotted home to crush Sierra Leone’s hopes at the death yet again.
“We were not expecting to concede a goal,” said Sierra Leone’s Obi Metzger - one of the revelations of the tournament. “I could not believe that we had lost the match.”
“I wanted at least a draw,” said Kallon. “We will recover and try to do better next time.”
With 25 shots to the Americans’ 12, Sierra Leone led the USA in every statistical category, save the only one that matters – the score.
“Compared to some of the teams here, Sierra Leone is just a little dot in Africa,” said Kallon – always proud of his boys. “We do not have good pitches, we do not have the infrastructure, and we are still recovering from a long war…but we are always trying to reach higher.”
Understanding the game of football, ex-professional player Kallon admits he must wear several hats with his very young squad. The average age of the Sierra Leone team is just over 16 years and one month.
“I must be the coach first of all,” said Kallon with a smile. “But I must also be their older brother, their father. They are very far from home and I have to keep their spirits up and keep them believing in themselves.”
Certainly it will not be easy to keep the boys’ spirits up for a final Group D match with Korea Republic after such a tough run of luck – despite fine form.
Needing a resounding win - to have even a slim chance at a spot in the quarter-finals, Kallon will be hoping that the footballing gods have mercy on his young team whose bright smiles have begun to dim a bit around the edges.
“Of course we will change our style, he said. We must win so we will throw everything we have at the Koreans.”
The Koreans will be no pushover though, as the wounded Taeguk Warriors will be looking to leave the tournament with an ounce or two of dignity. But with attacking players the likes of Obi Metzger, Alimamy Sesay, Samuel Barlay and Sheriff Suma, coach Kallon can have some faith in getting the goal avalanche his side need – and hope a potentially Adu-less America can beat Spain to stall the Iberians on four points.
The odds are slim, but as Kallon himself always says “football is football.” And you truly never know what to expect.