By Ibrahim Sorious Samura
After a successful Premier League season, the national football team (Leone Stars) crashed out in the preliminaries of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Liberia in September, an opportunity many Sierra Leoneans had been longing for. Hopes and despairs for international football tournaments continue to characterize the country’s top sporting discipline – football. Football lovers have been wishing for a place in the AFCON after 22 years without participating, and to make a debut in the FIFA World Cup tournament, which is still a living dream.
With the pending 2021 Cameroon AFCON qualifiers, what is Sierra Leone’s fate for international football tournament, and a better national football league? Is there any hope for the country’s football? ‘Yes!’ The Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) confirms: “Football in Sierra Leone has taken a new trend where the interest amongst fans and the public is huge. The potential for success is there in the future and with clubs now ready to comply with the dictates of FIFA and CAF, we are poised for a new face lift”, according to Chris Kamara, General Secretary of SLFA.
But here is a quick tour of recent football developments in the country.
Sierra Leone football returned to an exciting moment in 2018, after years of persistent disrepute and quagmire between the authorities and stakeholders in the football family. The desperation and hunger to see the ball rolling was apparent on the faces of football loving fans. This was illustrated in the just concluded two-leg Sierra Leone Premier League, which ushered in an unprecedented amount of fans and left them spellbound. The 2018 league season returned after a four year spell.
In 2017, the Anti-Corruption Commission raided the SLFA headquarters in Freetown, arrested and set aside the President and Secretary General of the FA Isha Johansen and Christopher Kamara respectively relating to eleven counts charges on alleged corruption offences. They were detained and denied access to the SLFA Secretariat, a decision the world football governing body FIFA frowned at as an act of government or third party interference in football.
FIFA were left with no option but to place a ban on Sierra Leone on international football. The decision was received with mixed feelings; many believed the country couldn’t do without world football authorities, whilst others had backed the government’s decision to ignore FIFA and CAF.
The Executive Committee (EXCo) headed by Brima Manzola Kamara, in the absence of Isha and Chris, then appointed a caretaker body and set up the Premier League Board, headed by Lawyer Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai who later instituted the Sierra Leone Premier League, with the government of Sierra Leone funding it with a staggering Le 3.5 billion. The league was widely accepted with huge turnouts from football lovers. Clubs were able to generate revenue from sponsors and gate takings.
It generally was a successful league. The momentum was high. Few months to the end of the league, a High Court Judge, Justice Reginald Fyn acquitted and discharged the President and General Secretary of SLFA – Isha Tejan-Cole Johansen and Christopher Kamara respectively, on the 27th May 2019. The suspension on Sierra Leone was lifted by FIFA. The league ended with East End Lions being crowned champions and FC Kallon in second place, but none could participate in the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup respectively due to late registration.
Again, many became worried about the future of football with Isha as President of SLFA. Soon, FIFA announced the group stage qualifiers for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, but Sierra Leone had to play a preliminary qualifier against Liberia before joining other teams in the group stage. The Ghanaian Sellas Tetteh was appointed for the second time as Head Coach of the Senior National Men’s team (Leone Stars) for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2021 Cameroon AFCON qualifiers. Products from the home league were included in the squad but Sierra Leone was taken out of the qualifiers after losing 3-2 on aggregate against Liberia in a home and away basis.
The usual conflict between the SLFA and the Ministry of Sports emerged during the appointment of Sellas Tetteh as Head Coach. The Ministry claimed authority over the process while the FA maintained it was its sole responsibility to appoint. Both later agreed that it was the FA’s role.
Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is gone, what is left on the table for football fans in the country?
Chris Kamara the FA’s secretary gave insights of forthcoming assignments our national teams will be working on. They would include the 2021 Cameroon AFCON qualifiers and the WAFU Female Tournament to be hosted in Sierra Leone in December 2019.
Hopes are high that the country will return to the AFCON in 2021. There will also be more reforms in the forthcoming 2019/2020 Sierra Leone Premier League season, with 16, instead of the traditional 14 teams or clubs, two additional teams from the north after a decision by the Executive Committee (EXCo) of the SLFA. Meanwhile, the last Premier League Board’s one year mandate has come to an end with clubs have chosen their representatives to the Board, something done on a rotational basis. The new representative clubs to the Board are Eastern Tigers, Kamboi Eagles and FC Johansen.
“Based on tradition, the League Board mandate is for just one season. The Previous Board has done a good job but a new board will be constituted. The clubs have chosen theirs and the FA will announce theirs including the Chairman soon,” said Chris Kamara. As was the case in the just concluded league, the FA is looking for funds from the Government of Sierra Leone and corporate sponsors. According to Kamara, they “have started engaging the sponsors and government on the funding provision whilst we await the composition of the new board.”
There are other key issues; the need to go to congress to report on finance and also map out issues of interest to football stakeholders. The FA is hopeful of holding their first Congress this year “where the revised statutes, code of ethics will be adopted.” Football loving fans are expecting that the game of football is played by the country both at the local and international levels. The coming tournaments; the Sierra Leone Premier League, the WAFU Female Tournament to be hosted in Sierra Leone and the 2021 Cameroon AFCON qualifiers are to give hope to football lovers.
Players have started attracting the international market after their incredible performance in the last Premier League. The Sierra Leone international striker Kei Kamara is doing extremely well in the Major League Soccer (MLS). The Colorado Rapids striker is among few players with 100 goals and above. His performance gives hope to the young players in Sierra Leone.