Sierra Leone got their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ preliminary campaign off to a perfect start on Saturday, beating Cape Verde 2-1 in their first Group B qualifier. Sheriff Suma scored the vital second goal for the Leone Stars, and the attacking midfielder says the team had been focused intently on that first challenge against the rising Blue Sharks.
"The game against Cape Verde was really important for us. But not only for the players, in fact, it was important for the whole nation because it was the start of our World Cup campaign," he said, adding that he was confident that the side could continue to do well. "I know and believe that we have a good chance to qualify for both the World Cup and the Cup of Nations."
Success has not come easy for the west African country. They have only twice, in 1994 and 1996, qualified for the continental finals, and they are still waiting for their first-ever appearance at the world's biggest footballing stage. Suma knows that the road is long for Sierra Leone. “To get to the standard we need to reach to compete at that level, we just have to build up our team as we are doing now. If we manage that, we will be able to compete with teams like Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire."
The team have only a week to recuperate before taking Saturday's match with Equatorial Guinea, and the Azerbaijan-based forward knows the trip to Malabo will be challenging both on and off the pitch. "It will not be an easy match, but we need to make sure that we stay in the running for a place at the finals,” said the 25-year-old. The co-hosts of this year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations beat Sierra Leone in the corresponding fixture in qualifying for the last FIFA World Cup, a campaign in which Suma was a mainstay. He played in seven of their eight contests as the Leone Stars stayed level with South Africa in a group that also contained Nigeria.
Mentored by a legend
Suma says that it is important for Sierra Leone to keep momentum before they switch over to Cup of Nations qualifying against Sao Tome e Principe on 16 June. The team had been slumping since the end of qualifying for the CAN, a preliminary campaign that saw them take four points off Egypt and draw with South Africa twice.
However, for Suma the matches are also about having the chance to come home to his country and see his family and friends. "Playing for my country is the most important thing for me, especially after being away for such a long time.” Having spent time playing in Scandinavia and Turkey, Suma signed for Ravan Baku and has not looked back since then. "Playing in Azerbaijan has been a good experience for me because it's a different style of people and play.”
Suma is already an experienced international, having played for his country's youth teams and at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Finland 2003 and as a regular for the senior team for the past six years. Coaching his team in Finland was Musa Kallon, and that was not the last time that a member of the major Sierra Leone football family would play an important role in his career. Suma had fled his war-torn country with his family in 1997 and moved to Gambia. In 2001, he was discovered in a local match and introduced to former Mohamed Kallon, who invited the midfielder to play for his club FC Kallon in Sierra Leone. Suma accepted the offer and from there embarked on a footballing journey that has taken him all the way to Azerbaijan.
Suma remains grateful to the former Inter Milan star, with whom he now plays in the national team. "He is someone who has played an important role in my career. Since I met him, I have been listening to him speak about football as a professional and how he woke up early in the morning to train while all others were still sleeping. I took the same steps and started working as he did. He told me after the game against Cape Verde that he was really proud of me. I just smiled at him and said to him: 'I have achieved everything with your support'."