Will the Leone Stars qualification jinx end in Tunis?
Amidst the euphoria of the display of political party colours all over the country ahead of the November 17 coming elections, Sierra Leoneans will once again be unified in giving their traditional and adoring support to the national football team Leone Stars as it locks horns with the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia in a decisive African Cup of Nations qualifier this weekend.
It is no doubt that the ordinary Sierra Leonean will be very unconcerned with the current imbroglio surrounding the state of football management in the country. With a 2-2 draw from the 1st leg result, I can imagine how people have already started invoking their religious beliefs, wishing that a miracle would unveil itself on the advantage of Sierra Leone; whilst football realists may be doing the necessary mathematical permutations to predict all the possibilities for a Leone Stars qualification. Well, any such triumph that will take Sierra Leone to the 2013 continental championship in South Africa will not come with a piece of cake.
As it is with some people at the moment, a blend of my personal instinct and knowledge of Sierra Leone’s football history does make me jiggle that qualification to yet another African Cup of Nations since 1996 might not be achieved. A flashback on our darling Leone Stars’ performances in the past years indicates that the hearts of Sierra Leoneans have been broken many times especially on the final day in qualifying campaigns.
In the 2004 Nations Cup qualifiers, I vividly recall how Leone Stars came so close to qualifying after doing well in the Group 7 matches. It had already bagged 10 points in 5 games, needing an away win in Gabon to strongly contend for the best runner-up spot with Zimbabwe who had also earned 10 points in 5 matches. The latter stood a better chance of qualifying because they were to play a very weak Eritrean side at home, whilst Sierra Leone was hoping to see a miracle as usual from the likes of Mohamed Kallon, Junior Tumbu and others in Libreville – which is the French word for Freetown but where the boys never had a ‘free game’. As it happened, poor travel arrangements saw the team arrive in Libreville few hours before the match and so a 2-0 loss coupled with a win for Zimbabwe was more than enough to knock Sierra Leone out.
The 2006 and 2008 qualifiers were nothing to write home about. We did not make it to the second round of the 2006 campaign and the 2008 series turned out to be one of the most dismal performances in history after registering just a point and a Mohamed Kallon goal, and conceding 14 goals in 6 matches.
It was better in the 2010 qualifiers, though marred by another heart break. The qualifiers doubled as the qualification stage for both the Nations Cup and the World Cup. Sierra Leone advanced to the second round of the competition beating Guinea Bissau 1-0 on aggregate. However, Sierra Leone had a difficult task because any passage to the next round meant they would have to snatch as much points as possible from the likes of the Super Eagles of Nigeria and Bafana Bafana of South Africa. Having secured 7 points in 5 matches, a winning score in Abuja would have sent Sierra Leone to the third round where 20 teams would be pooled in 5 groups of 4, with the winner advancing to the World Cup and the first three in each group qualifying for the Nations Cup in Angola. It never turned out to be good. Recalling from the events of the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, it was challenging to guess whether the Nigerians would show pity to their ‘sister Anglophone country’. In that series, Sierra Leone was grouped with Nigeria, Sudan, Ghana and Liberia. After a superb Sidique Mansaray header gave Nigeria a shocking 1-0 loss in Freetown, it was difficult for them to understand how and why Sierra Leone could easily lose 2 legs to Liberia; results which seriously undermined their campaign. In the end, Nigeria advanced by the skin of their teeth after securing 16 points, which was just one more than Liberia. Eventually, Hell broke loose in Abuja on the 11th of October, 2008. The Nigerians showed their scoring prowess with an emphatic 4-1 win and sent Sierra Leone home to wait for another moment.
Then the 2012 qualifiers came. Up to this day, many football loving fans would continue to bite their fingers in frustration and ask themselves how come we were tied on 9 points with Niger and South Africa and yet could not make it. Well, I just remembered that the 0-0 1st leg draw with South Africa on the 10th of October 2010 in Freetown cost us dearly. At the time of the last round of matches, Leone Stars had earned 8 points and it had a realistic chance of going through in the event of a simple win over South Africa. Sadly, this was not the case as the same score line in the Mbombela Stadium on the 8th of October the following year meant the Mena Stars of Niger were better off.
With all these, Sierra Leone has made remarkable success in the past two years which has seen her catapult to 67th in the FIFA world ranking and even better some months ago. This is in no way unconnected to the motivation and commitment of the boys in doing better this time. Similarly, the decision by the Sports Minister Paul Kamara to keep head Coach Lars-Olof Mattsson can only be termed as a wise decision which has created a positive turn around for the team. Considering the fact that the team has scored an impressive 10 goals in its past 4 matches, it is only a joker who would not take the current Leone Stars squad seriously. The performance against Egypt two years ago in the 2012 AFCON qualifiers does give one some hope that Leone Stars can cope with the pace of any North African side.
However, the recent 2-2 draw in Freetown does not seem to suggest that. Personally, I think for a side like Tunisia which is well ranked and has a strong pedigree of 15 Nations Cup appearances and with consecutive qualifications since 1994-a year in which Sierra Leone made its debut in the tournament, such a result is a fair one. But when one considers, that this is a golden ticket at stake, I can only infer that for Leone Stars to gain a 3-3 draw (or more) or a win in Tunisia is more than a herculean task.
After throwing away a possible victory in the 1st leg right in our own backyard and just few minutes away to the end of the match, I can hardly vouch or rather ‘eat brade’ for our defence line. Even though the team has some 10 goals in its last 4 matches to their credit, I just checked my statistics and discovered that they equally conceded a significant 7. By all standards, this fact has already prepared me to gracefully accept whatever outcome in Tunis on Saturday. Like on many other dates in October when Sierra Leone had crashed out on the last day of qualifiers, the match to be played this weekend is on the 13th of October. Oh God !
As we anxiously wait for Saturday’s showdown, can Leone Stars make history this time and outwit the Carthage Eagles in front of their thousands of fans on Saturday? If it does happen, it will be a very big surprise package. Somehow, my mind tells me that in the modern game of football anything is possible. However, my head tells me the truth that on paper, Tunisia are favourites and no matter how long the battle will be in Tunis, the Carthage Eagles will triumph.
Together as a nation, we pray that the jinx of the Nations Cup qualification will be broken on Saturday. It is never impossible to eliminate Tunisia. Go on then Leone Stars and do your country proud!
Alhaji Abu Komeh, MSc. Economics, University of Birmingham
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