From the Editor’s Keyboard

Leone Stars need a fresh start

12 February 2015 at 05:40 | 1523 views

By Koyie Mansaray,Guest Writer, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

I dare say that our darlings, the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone, need not hang their heads in shame because they failed to qualify for the recently-ended African Cup of Nations (AfCoN) tournament in Equatorial Guinea.

They came a long way by eliminating Sao Tome & Principe, Swaziland and Seychelles. At the group stage, they found themselves in the toughest side with the stronger boys, Cameroon, D R Congo and Côte d’Ivoire.

To make matters worse, the outbreak of the Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) and the attendant ban for our team to host any of the three qualifying home matches on the soil of Sierra Leone imposed a further obstacle on the team’s ability to perform.

I hereby describe Cameroon, D R Congo and Côte d’Ivoire as the stronger boys because all these countries had won the African title at least once. Cameroon were past African Champions in 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002; Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire, were champions in 1968 and 1974; and Côte d’Ivoire, eventual winners this year, were champions in 1992.

Their past records aside, their individual performance at this year’s tournament demonstrated their prowess as soccer powerhouses. With the exception of Cameroon, who failed at the group stage, DR Congo went as far as the semi-finals and ended up winning this year’s bronze medal. The victor over D R Congo at the semi-final was no less a team than the Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire, who emerged the ultimate champions this past Sunday, 8 February 2015.

I was in Abidjan when the Leone Stars played Côte d’Ivoire at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium and the Leone Stars outplayed them and we led them 1-0 up to the end of first half.

On resumption at the second half, the game was well balanced up to the 65th minute when the Ivorians, fearing disgrace, resorted to rough play in a bid to salvage their image. This they succeeded in doing by scoring two quick goals and the match ended 2-1 in their favour.

We went on to lose to DR Congo twice, amid Ebola provocation, but drew with Cameroon and narrowly lost to them at the second match all played in Yaoundé.Team spirit was already down and out by the time we played our last match in November last year. Even there we were at half time one goal apiece. The four goals scored later at second half by the Ivorians resulted from a number of unfortunate issues like fatigue, lack of concentration and poor communication as well as realizing that the team had nothing to lose, though it had a lot at stake.AfCoN 2015 is now history and we should be preparing the team for the 2017 tournament in a country yet to be announced as Libya is no longer an option.

Now here are my suggestions: In the first place, all football stakeholders are to bury the hatchet and all those footballers and people involved with football who were banned on allegations of misconduct should have the bans lifted. We need every useful hand on deck and the game of football needs solidarity at every stage from the SLFA, the Sports Council, the clubs and the individual players and the fans.

SLFA should now organize a mission to those countries where the majority of the Leone Stars team members are plying their trade. More searches should be made for up and coming Sierra Leonean footballers in any part of the world. Already we are losing some Sierra Leonean players who have adopted the British nationality. A case in point is Jonathan Chollabah who recently moved to the French Ligue 1 side ,Bordeaux and the French press refers to him as an English player. Here in Abidjan, at one of the soccer academies, there is one Abdulai Jalloh being prepared as a future Leone Star.He is proud to be a Sierra Leonean and willing to represent his country any time he is called upon.

Most importantly, if we really wish to put our country on the soccer map of Africa and the world at large, we need to make the right kind of investment by recruiting an expatriate coach and then to operationalize the football academy constructed with FIFA funding with the aim of preparing future football professionals.

In effect, I am suggesting that we should be prepared to invest a lot of money and prioritize football just as was done in the mid-1990’s when we had the youthful military regime in charge. If that momentum had been sustained, our FIFA ranking would have continued to be very good, always within the first ten best at the level of Africa and within the first fifty globally. Such high rankings pave the way for our footballers easily landing lucrative contracts in countries like England, France and Germany.

I have no doubt that we are, like Côte d’Ivoire, a soccer-mad nation. For Côte d’Ivoire to prepare well and win this year’s competition, the authorities spent more than 5,000,000 EUR to cover camping in Abu Dhabi and attendance at the tournament in Equatorial Guinea. On winning the trophy, each of the twenty-three team members was offered 45,000 EUR plus a villa of equal value. The coach was given an incentive of 114,000 EUR.

We also have home-grown talents. All we need to do is nurture them and create the conducive environment for showcasing them appropriately. According to one report, diaspora remittances account for billions of dollars for most African countries and footballers are the providers of a good chunk of this informal source of funding.

Over to you the state authorities, SLFA, Sports Council, clubs and all stakeholders in football for appropriate, timely actions.

The author, Koyie Mansaray.