“Never underestimate an underdog who is playing for pride” AK
Factual Opinion by Alpha Kamara-NYU Masters Graduate
The last time Sierra Leone participated in the African cup of nations was in 1996. I was in high school then when I watched the boys played live on TV. That was during the junta or military rule and the country was at war. As a teenager then, I was sad as I watched the team lost during the first rounds of the competition. I love watching African football than any other sports in the world. But yet I had to watch countless number of AFCON finals without my team, Sierra Leone in attendance.
Twenty six years later, the team qualified for the AFCON in the midst of COVID-19. The final match of the qualification was cancelled twice due to protests and COVID-19 related issues. The match was finally played in Conakry Guinea against Benin because our pitch in Freetown was ruled unfit to host the match by CAF because of its bad conditions at the time. The boys travelled by road to Guinea and struggled to defeat Benin to qualify. That qualification was celebrated like winning the AFCON trophy.
In the ongoing competition, we were placed in a group with the region’s football power horses, defending champions Algeria and Ivory Coast which was produced dozens of world class players for top international football competitions. We went in to the competition as the ‘under dogs’ of AFCON, hence the soccer experts were not expecting us to have respectable results against either Algeria or Ivory Coast. Are they surprised?
The Leone Stars coach John Keister boosted the team with a crop of foreign based players including London born Steven Caulker, Kei Kamara and Mohamed Buya Turay. He said the team is determined to go far in the competition, in his words-“Not only to show up but to compete”. The stars announced themselves in their first match against defending champions Algeria whom they held to a goalless draw. But that was not the news that captured the world’s attention, it was the performance of the young local goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara who won man of the match that captured the headlines. The young man made seven saves and stopped the defending champions from scoring a goal. He becomes the first Sierra Leonean to win a CAF man of the match award in history. That result sent fans into celebration mood in Freetown and abroad.
But the ‘Unbelieving Thomases’ still tried to twist the headlines in the international media. Some faulted the pitch, others blamed the hot central African weather. But the end result remains goalless draw. Then came the match against Ivory Coast with world class players from all major leagues in the world including from Manchester United, Real Madrid and the like. The match in Douala on January 16th ended in a 2-2 draw.
The fans as usual celebrated like never before with Kamara’s stealing the show. The team has five Kamara’s. Goal Keeper Mohamed Kamara, two goal scorers Musa Kamara and Alhaji Kamara and veteran striker Kei Kamara. The celebration turned to a Kamara affair as people with the surname Kamara from the country (like the writer) claimed (jokingly) the team should be named the Kamara Stars. On social media, ladies even fondly said “I want a Kamara boyfriend in my life. So if you are not a Kamara, please back off”.
The goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara performed extremely well and even saved a penalty in the early minutes of the first half. The Elephants of Ivory Coast were leading by 2 goals to 1 close to the end of the match. In the dying minutes, a miracle I can’t explain happened and Leone Stars levelled the score to 2-2 at full time.
For those football power house nations, two draws at AFCON is not news but for Sierra Leone the underdogs coming into the AFCON after 26 years, that is worth celebrating especially against football giants of the continent. Hence, the fans made it very clear to the team that they appreciate their performance and celebrated in Freetown like never.
Sierra Leone is now preparing for its third and final match in the first round of the AFCON against Equatorial Guinea on January 20th. It’s a must win match if we should move to the next group of 16 at the AFCON. It will be the clash of the underdogs as our opponents E. Guinea is also not a big football nation in the continent. But whatever happens in that match, the Leone Stars have sent a strong message to the region’s football power houses that gone are the days when you judge a nation based on past glory. Never underestimate an underdog because in the pitch of play, it’s eleven men against eleven men. Your determination and performance is all that matters not history.
Whichever way the results go on the 20th against Equatorial Guinea, the fans of Leone Stars will continue to celebrate the team and the respect it has brought back to the nation in international football.