Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone was agog with jubilation as thousands of people, especially youths, streamed into the streets to celebrate, after the national team, Leone Stars made everybody proud by beating Benin in the Africa Nations Qualifier in Conakry to make the final competition of AFCON 2022
As soon as the match, which was shifted to Guinea’s Lansana Conte Sports Stadium in Conakry, ended, thousands of Sierra Leoneans in the Guinean capital swarmed into the streets to celebrate. Simultaneously, the streets of Freetown were soon seething with jubilation by Sierra Leoneans, some of whom stormed the dide gate of State House to celebrate.
Later, President Maada Bio, with a long motorcade, came on to the streets to join in the jubilation.
Sierra Leone won the match 1-0 with a 16th minute goal netted from the penalty spot by professional player, Kei Kamara, who plies his trade in the Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States. The fixture had transfixed the nation since last week as the country prepared for the all-important fixture that had been put off when it was originally scheduled in Freetown in March, but was put on hold when Benin refused to play after 5 of their players had been declared Covid-19 positive by Sierra Leone’s health authorities.
Benin protested against the results which would have seen them field a weakened team in Freetown and surprisingly the Confirmation of African Football ( CAF ) ordered that the match be replayed in June. Last week, CAF also ordered that the match be switched over to Conakry because the Sierra Leone stadium lacked basic facilities for an international match. Controversy continued to haunt the tie when Sierra Leone too refused to play on Monday because 6 of her players were declared Covid positive by the Guinea health officials. CAF then had the game postponed to today pending another re-test of the players. The match was finally played today, though 5 Sierra Leone players were still declared positive.
For Leone Stars, it had been an unending ordeal. On Friday on their way to Conakry by road, Guinean immigration officials stopped them from entering Guinea because they did not have Covid test results. The players were stranded at the border for over 10 hours and were seen sleeping on stretchers under a mango tree. This got the social media buzzing with Sierra Leoneans complaining bitterly against the treatment of the players both by the Guinean immigration and the Sierra Leone government, who, knowing universal Covid protocols, should have ensured that the players had their Covid results with them. The players later tendered Guinea only to be greeted by another imbroglio–the positive COVID tests that they disputed.
But it was all’s well that ended well for Leone Stars as they put up a magnificent all-round performance against the Beninese. Though they had some anxious moments, Leone Stars were the better side throughout the game.
The jubilation swamped the city of Freetown and will likely lead to more when the players arrive in Freetown.
It was Sierra Leone’s third time qualifying for the Africa Nations Cup but they have been out of the competition since 1996 when they last qualified.