Sierra Leone’s footballers are motivated by a sense of betrayal by fellow Africans over the Ebola virus that has led to a near pariah status and forced them to play all their games away from home.
Only players based outside Sierra Leone were allowed into Cote d’Ivoire for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying game in Abidjan on Saturday. And it was only under a threat of being expelled from the competition that the host authorities permitted the game to go ahead.
The Ivorians attitude to the plight of their fellow Africans has deeply upset the Sierra Leone Stars.
Nearly 2,100 people have now been killed in the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa, with about a quarter of the deaths in Sierra Leone.
Many African governments have sought to isolate Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the worst hit countries, including their sports men and women.
“The way we are treated is like we don’t belong to the African planet,” said 21-year-old Jabbie Kahalifa, who plays for Turkish championship side Balikesirspor.
“People don’t even want to see us. The way they treat us when we go to airports ... as soon as you say ‘I’m from Sierra Leone’, it’s like I’m from an alien planet.”
“People start pushing themselves away,” he told news agency AFP. “It’s embarrassing to us Africans to be treating another African that type of way. It’s just hard to take sometimes.
“You reach a point like, I’m about to lose it.
“We feel alone, like the whole African continent turned their back against us. This is not how things should be done.”
Team-mate Kei Kamara saw things as a young boy he would rather forget during the 1991-2002 civil war that left 50,000 dead in a country with a population of five million. But he says that during the conflict people could at least run away and try to hide. You cannot hide from the silent killer virus with no known cure.
“We have to play not only for ourselves but also for Sierra Leone.
“Now we are playing for the cause of Ebola, to try to make history together,” said the 30-year-old who played with English club Middlesbrough but who wants a contract in the US MLS league.
“The last time going to Seychelles, South African Airways stopped all the players, took them off the flight from going.
“We have to feel depressed. We play in Europe, where things go smoother. And we come here, we want to do our best, we want do do well for our nation, but we’ve been just going through a lot of struggles recently and for us not to have the help of other African nations, it’s really difficult.
“We approached Ghana to help us host the games in Ghana. We were turned down. Seeing all these things, it is really difficult.”
Kamara has not lost anyone close to him yet but he comes from Kanama, one of the areas most badly affected by Ebola and feels any death in that region as personally as if it was a relative.
“Thank God, I haven’t had any of my family members affected with Ebola,” he said.
“In one of the big hospitals where I was born, I heard seven nurses died helping patients because they got infected. It’s really tough when you hear that. I feel like those are also family to me.”
Sierra Leone’s young Northern Irish coach Johnny McKinstry said that when his players run out onto the pitch against one of the football powerhouses on the continent they will be playing for much more than just three points.
“It’s something that we agreed that we need to be the positive sort of focus for the nation,” said the 29-year-old, who took charge in April 2013.
“If the national team wins, it can build the confidence of a nation. If we can do that, we’ll win on various fronts: for us in a sporting context but also to help lift the mood of the nation.” (AFP)