INTEREST in football in Sierra Leone has been rekindled following the country’s participation in this year’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon for the first time since 1996.
Having drawn with reigning champions Algeria (0-0) and Cote d’Ivoire (2-2), the Leone Stars failed to make it to the last 16 when they narrowly lost 1-0 to Equatorial Guinea.
But there were jubilant celebrations throughout the country after the underdogs defied the odds and played out of their skins during the tournament.
There is a strong English football influence among members of the Leone Stars: Steven Caulker, Daniel Francis, David Deen Sesay, Osman Kakay and Sullay Kakai were born in England of Sierra Leonean descent.
Others born in Sierra Leone ply their trade in English and European football leagues.
Apart from this foreign influence, the progress of the Leone Stars could also be put down to the Sierra Leone Peoples Party government of current President Julius Maada Bio who made a promise while campaigning for the 2018 election: ‘I will place football firmly back on the national map.’
On Friday, three footballers with Sierra Leonean connections visited the Sierra Leone High Commission in London to see how they could help to take things further.
Meeting the High Commissioner, Dr Morie Manyeh, his deputy, Yvonne King-Odigboh, and other members of staff were David Sesay, who represented Sierra Leone at the recent AFCON, Abdul Cole and Carlton Cole.
Abdul Cole, who played for the Leone Stars in the 1980s, is among the list of top goal scorers for the national side.
For seven years he was on the pitch with the best of his generation, representing Sierra Leone.
After his playing days, Cole relocated to England where he established a soccer club in the heart of Peckham in South London, calling it the Leone Stars.
This community football club contributed to the making of stars like current national team coach John Keister, and continues to nurture talents from among the huge pool of Sierra Leoneans in the UK.
England-born Carlton Cole, whose mother is from Sierra Leone, was a striker who played in the English Premier League, scoring 52 goals in 289 appearances, and also represented England at youth levels.
He is now a coach and continues to show and active interest in football in Sierra Leone.
The discussions between the three footballers and the High Commission staff focused on building sustainable systems and structures; establishing short- and long-term goals; encouraging the youth; and scouting for new talents that could be developed through a programme that is adequately funded and extensively supported.
It was generally acknowledged that the work of the Sierra Leone FA can only succeed if everyone, from top to bottom, continued to work together as a team.
‘That is the essence of progressive nationhood,’ said Deputy High Commissioner King-Odigboh.
High Commissioner Manyeh noted: ‘Football can be a potent magnet for uniting people and it is also a key instrument for stimulating growth.’
He added that the ‘national enthusiasm’ for football in Sierra Leone was an ‘indicator of the level of fervour displayed by President Bio, [and] is something that needs a concerted push from well-meaning Sierra Leoneans from all over the world.’