Very few things unite Sierra Leoneans like the game of football does.
This unity was on display on Tuesday, June 15, when the country made history by securing a place in next year’s African Nations Cup football tournament.
The crunch match was played against West African neighbours Benin.
Wild celebrations erupted across the capital, Freetown at the final whistle. Young men and women took to the streets singing and dancing in praise of the Leones Stars, the Sierra Leone national team.
On social media, where everything happens these days, it was all about football. Leone Stars. Kai Kamara (the US-based Sierra Leone international whose 19th minute penalty kick gave Sierra Leone its winning goal), unity, were the trending words.
Renowned Sierra Leonean activist, Alfred Charles, summed up the general feeling with a facebook post.
“[I] have never seen my people this united for many years. Let’s play more football to keep us united,” he wrote.
A visibly happy President Julius Maada Bio took time out of his schedule to make a brief appearance at the entrance of State House, where a large crowd of jubilant youths had gathered to celebrate.
In a short video released by the presidency later, he spoke about the significance of the accomplishment and the lessons in its for the nation.
“When I promise I deliver. I promised to take the Leon Stars back to the continental stage. So it didn’t come to me as a surprise,” he said.
Tuesday’s match, which was played in the Guinean capital, Conakry, was the last qualifying match for the continental tournament that’s scheduled for Cameron in 2022.
But the road to Cameron for Sierra Leone has certainly not been all cozy. In fact it has been been so divisive that the reactions were a perfect source of relief. The journey had been characterized by endless controversies, largely occasioned by the country’s never ending domestic politics that permeate every aspects of life, and then in this later part Covid-19.
On the one hand, there was the infighting among stakeholders in the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA). On the other hand, there was the fighting between the SLFA and the Sports Ministry. The combined effects of all this made this week’s reality unimaginable five years ago.
There were instances when the team almost didn’t honour its international fixtures due to row as to who was in charge, between the SLFA and the Sports ministry.
The experience of the winning goal scorer, Kamara in the last six years provides a perfect illustration of the problem that surrounded football in the country to this day.
Regarded as the country’s best striker, Kamara announced his retirement from international football twice in the last eight years, and in both occasions he blamed the lack of progress of the national team, which he blamed on the fighting within the FA.
There were player’s strike, amid allegations of maltreatment of home based players.
When the Leone Stars play their first match in Cameron next year, it will be their first in 25 years since Sierra Leone was last represented at the continental tournament.
During that tournament in 1996, which was hosted in newly liberated South Africa, a young Brg. Julius Maada Bio was head of State. As an elected civilian president since 2018, Bio had spoken repeatedly about his desire to see the country return to the continental tournament under his watch.
And to ensure this, he made a pledge to give each player US$10,000 plus a plot of land if they defeat Benin.
But along the way came Covid-19, which further complicated matters. The match against Benin was first scheduled for Freetown on March 30, 2021. It was called off after the Benin team protested Covid-19 test results that found five of its key players positive for the virus.
The Beninese alleged that the result was cooked up by the Sierra Leoneans to deprive them of their star players.
The Confederation of African Football (Caf) would reschedule the match despite requests by both sides to be awarded the three points needed to win the second spot from Group L, which also included Nigeria and Lesotho. Nigeria was the first to qualify from the group.
Benin later filed an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), challenging Caf’s decision. CAS upheld Caf’s ruling.
But even though it was Sierra Leone’s home match, it would be played on a neutral ground, the court declared, noting that Sierra Leone’s only national stadium of international standard – the Siaka Stevens Stadium in Freetown – did not meet the required standards to host the Nations Cup decider.
Guinea, a neighbour to Sierra Leone, was subsequently selected by the CAS in a final ruling on June 11.
As it turned out, more troubles awaited the Leone Stars.
On Saturday, June 12, pictures of Leone Stars players sleeping under trees at the border with Guinea emerged, provoking outrage among Sierra Leoneans. The team had been refused entry by Guinean authorities because of lack of Covid-19 test results.
Sierra Leone’s National Covid-19 Response Center (NaCOVRRC) had delayed the delivery of test results.
When the results where out eventually, three Sierra Leonean players tested positive. Three reserved players were swiftly transported to Conakry to replace the infected players.
Then on Monday, June 14, the day the match had been scheduled for, less than an hour before kick-off, news came in that results of a rerun tests came back with six Leone Stars players testing positive.
The team was already within the General Lansana Conte Stadium in Conkary, warming up, when they got the news.
Tension ensued, as the Sierra Leoneans refused to play.
Caf later called off the match and rescheduled it for Tuesday.
For 90+ minutes of the game, the much ancipated game finally kicked off, Sierra Leoneans held their breath.
And at the end of the day it was worth it.
And as President Bio succinctly put it in his statement, albeit the self-praise that must have put off his political opponents, the story of the Leone Stars’s journey to Cameron is an illustration that outside the football field the country can achieve its dream “to international level.”
“I believed in the boys and I had inspired them enough.
This is the same way I want to inspire the nation, so that we can aspire for higher heights. No more small dreams,” he said, adding: “I knew they had a potential, I helped them unlock that potential. I did it over 20 years ago and I have done it again.”