After years of internal unrest and a civil war that couldn’t help but bring football largely to a halt, Sierra Leone coach Christian Cole believes that the current Leone Stars team can rise above their past and erase bitter memories to qualify for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
They face a mammoth task after being drawn into Group G along with seven-time African champions Egypt and former continental conquers South Africa. Although it might seem a fantastic goal, Cole’s ambition is born of a desire not only to bring footballing glory to Sierra Leone, but to script a new chapter for the country that has for many years been associated with negative stories. This potential fairytale of qualifying for their first AFCON in almost two decades started on a romantic note when they defied expectations and held Egypt to a stunning draw in Cairo.
A month on from that promising result, and they face yet another hurdle when South Africa comes to Freetown for their second qualifier this weekend. But Cole's attitude remains bullish and he fancies his side’s chances against the more decorated opponents. "We defeated them in Freetown in the last qualifiers, and this is a feat I am determined to repeat. I watched them during the World Cup they hosted, and in other competitions they have played in the past, and I know they are a very good side, but we are ready to upset them in Freetown,” he said.
Such is a voice of a man not only confident but driven by a strong motivation to elevate his charges to the next level. Despite that famous 1-0 victory in the summer of 2008 - a result that condemned Bafana Bafana’s Cup of Nations qualifying campaign and marked the beginning of an end for former South Africa coach Joel Santana - the Sierra Leoneans gathered just seven points and were never a serious threat to reach the Angolan edition of the event.
But the west Africans are slowly carving out a reputation for being tricky and dangerous opponents, particularly in their backyard in Freetown. In the preliminaries for 2010, they won three of their four contests at home, losing only to Nigeria 1-0. However, they have only reached the Cup of Nations twice, in consecutive tournaments in the mid-1990s, and in the meantime have either not competed due to civil war or failed to qualify.
A hard trip for visitors
This weekend Freetown will come alive again when Sierra Leone welcomes a wary South African team for a qualifier en route to the 2012 AFCON in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The capital of Sierra Leone might not enjoy the same spotlight compared to other African hotbeds of football like Cairo, Accra and Johannesburg, but visiting teams travelling to play the country’s national team have often found a visit to the city daunting. The first hurdle for visitors is that, upon landing on an island a few miles away from the city, they have to be ferried to the other side of the town by boat. While this might sound like a simple exercise, it has its intimidating aspects.
“Let me put it this way, it’s a bit uncomfortable,” said South African skipper, Aaron Mokoena, who visited Freetown for that eventful match in 2008. “If you have been flying for over eight hours, you want to take a bus to the hotel, not a ferry. For someone who hasn’t been there, you will never understand. The thing is, I believe it also played a psychological role, it’s an unsettling feeling. I’m sure the home team doesn’t mind that.”
AC Milan’s Rodney Strasser, Sweden-based Mohamed Bangura and veteran journeyman Mohamed Kallon are some of the most prominent faces in this side. Kallon, the 31-year-old veteran and former captain, remains the Leone Star’s all-time leading scorer with 19 goals to his name. The former Inter Milan and Monaco player is also an owner of a football club back home, but now based in China PR, he has struggled with injury and conflict with the Sierra Leonean FA. Bangura, who now lines up for AIK, is a question mark for the match after a recent personal tragedy.