Africa's diamonds in the rough
When a friend recently asked me what I associated with Sierra Leone, football was certainly not the first thing that sprung to mind. The sport may be the West African nation's most popular by some distance, but I had already replied with "civil war", "blood diamonds" and even "Kanye West" before he interjected to discuss Sierra Leone's football credentials.
The national team has undergone a resurgence of late and, currently standing ahead of reigning African Nations Cup (AFCON) champions Egypt in the race to reach next January's tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, a first appearance at the finals in 16 years beckons for a country whose recent history, in both a footballing and political sense, has been tumultuous.
The friend who posed the aforementioned question works in the capital, Freetown, in an engineering sector that has continued to expand since the ten-year Civil War ended in 2002. Indeed, my initial responses when asked about Sierra Leone were entirely justifiable: the internal conflict there was widely broadcast as one of the bloodiest ever witnessed on the continent and the unusual abundance of amputees provides a tangible, distressing reminder of the atrocities.
However, the United Nations finally lifted its last remaining post-war sanctions against Sierra Leone in September 2010 and despite reservations remaining about corruption and its position at No. 161 of 172 nations on the UN's Human Development Index - measuring a variety of factors including levels of education, income and life expectancy - the economy has experienced substantial growth and the country appears to be on an upward trajectory.
Parallels can be drawn with the national football team, which has also begun to show marked improvement after suffering through a period of stagnation for a number of years. Paradoxically, Sierra Leone's greatest successes on the international stage came when the country was deep in political turmoil: helped by a hefty injection of cash from the ruling military junta, the Leone Stars qualified for successive African Nations Cup (ANC) in 1994 and 1996, their only two appearances in the competition to date.
Football provided many Sierra Leoneans with an escape from the harsh realities of life in the country during the Civil War but former national team boss John Sherington, who coached the side in 1996, believes that despite some notable accomplishments, the conflict was detrimental to the sport in the country.
"Football went on, we never stopped playing, only during fighting," Sherington told ESPNsoccernet. "It was hard to train and play as a team but we played when we could with whoever was around. Yes, the conflict has set the whole country back, but we are getting back to the standard we were before the war and we hope to be better again."
AFCON 1996, in particular, captured the public's imagination in a manner now only reserved for the fanatically-followed English Premier League. An 89th-minute winner from 16-year-old striker Mohamed Kallon - who went on to play for Inter Milan and remains Sierra Leone's undisputed footballing hero - gave the Leone Stars a 2-1 victory over Burkina Faso and their only three points, thus far, at the continental finals.
There was a genuine, though significantly rose-tinted, belief among Sierra Leonean supporters at the time that Kallon could emulate the likes of Abedi Pele and George Weah and become Africa's next global superstar. The forward never lived up to those lofty expectations, though, and his career declined dramatically following his departure from Inter in 2004. Even his nine years at the San Siro never yielded regular first-team football and he was farmed out to six other Italian clubs before exiting.
Kallon was expected to be the first in a long line of exciting Sierra Leonean players as interest in the national team reached its zenith in the mid-90s, but after climbing to a record-high FIFA ranking of 51, it appeared Sierra Leone could go no further. There was to be no production-line of new Kallons and, by the end of the Civil War, financial support had been stripped back considerably, with reductions in national team funding continuing as priorities understandably turned to reviving a ravaged infrastructure.
Subsequent African Nations Cup qualifiers brought heartbreak after heartbreak: a withdrawal in 1998 and disqualification in 2000 because of the internal struggles were followed by first-round exits to Togo in 2002, Congo in 2006 and a haul of just one point from six qualifying games in 2008 - a campaign in which they crumbled to a lowest ever FIFA ranking of 172.
However, a positive showing in 2004, when Sierra Leone needed a win against Gabon in their final group match to advance to the finals but fell at the final hurdle, provided a glimmer of optimism. That glimmer burned even brighter five years later as the Leone Stars achieved their biggest result since that memorable night against Burkina Faso in 1996. Kallon was the man to again provide the fairytale touch as South Africa were beaten 1-0 in Freetown.
It was the highlight of a qualifying campaign that again ended in failure but served to provoke a greater interest from fans who had started to become disillusioned with both the national team and domestic league, preferring to watch Manchester United and Chelsea on television than Mighty Blackpool and East End Lions in person.
Sierra Leone's new young, hungry squad then showed more than just potential with an encouraging start to 2012 AFCON qualifying, drawing their opening games with traditional continental powers Egypt and South Africa. The Leone Stars now have a number of foreign-based players in their ranks, with the likes of Partizan midfielder Mohamed Kamara, AC Milan's Rodney Strasser and AIK pair Mohamed and Teteh Bangura among those plying their trade in Europe.
The connection with Milan has obviously placed huge pressure on the shoulders of 21-year-old Strasser to replicate the success of Kallon, but it is the Banguras who has been hitting the headlines recently, with Teteh's Swedish goalscoring exploits in particular reportedly attracting the attention of Newcastle United. For former Sierra Leone coach Sherington, the increasing numbers of players honing their trade abroad has been key to the development of the national team.
"It will be difficult to qualify, but can we do it? Yes, I believe it is possible," Sherington said. "We have players like Rodney Strasser, who is very talented but he needs time. He needs to become stronger and learn more. Playing with people like Seedorf at Milan will be good for him.
"Many of our players are having experience in Europe now and they are able to train and play in the right way. We have talented players in Sierra Leone but we need the facilities to improve. That is how we will move forward."
But just as enthusiasm for the national team was growing once again, a disappointing 3-1 defeat away to Niger in March appeared to signal that the wheels were in danger of falling off. Politics have unsurprisingly permeated Sierra Leonean football for some time and the battle between the country's Sports Ministry and Football Association (SLFA) has often been a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, with both sides tending to have very different ideas about how the game should be run.
The latest chapter in this discord contributed to the Niger loss, as sports minister Paul Kamara replaced popular head coach Christian Cole with Swede Lars Olof Mattson just four days before the crunch fixture, without consulting the SLFA. The Leone Stars' preparations were thrown into disarray, with the SFLA refusing to recognise Mattson as the new boss and arguments continued in the build-up to the return fixture with Niger in Freetown in June, culminating in a bizarre face-off when both coaches announced squads for the qualifier.
Ibrahim Sesay, the team affairs manager of domestic giants Mighty Blackpool and the national team, is one of those who opposed the Swede's appointment. "We are not happy," Sesay told ESPNsoccernet. "We had our plan, we went to Egypt and got a draw and again against South Africa at home and then we lost against Niger when he came in. Our plan now is broken. We have our own man already and we will be back in charge soon."
Sesay's final assertion looks a little optimistic, though, as Mattson has been offered a contract to take him through to the end of AFCON qualifying. Just before the Niger game in Freetown, Cole attempted to heal the growing schism in Sierra Leonean football by standing aside to allow the Swede to take charge. A 1-0 victory followed, courtesy of a goal for the highly-rated Teteh Bangura, and Cole's compromise in accepting a demotion to assistant helped preserve the Leone Stars' chances of reaching the 2012 finals.
"Working under him (Mattson) is no problem, he is a good coach," Cole told ESPNsoccernet after the Niger win. "We are working together and we are confident for the future. We can qualify, we are playing well and we have already had good results away in Egypt and against South Africa. It will be difficult for us after our loss in Niger but we will try. We have a young side and we will be strong for the future."
A turbulent past both on and off the pitch suggests it is impossible to predict just what that future holds. Final qualifying matches at home to Egypt and away to South Africa await in September and October, and a less chaotic build-up is necessary if Sierra Leone's football diamonds are to get their chance to shine next January.