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Leone Stars: The End of the Road

By Isaac Massaquoi

Barring some miracle at which even Prospero would marvel, Leone Stars are out of the running for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. I don’t believe in miracles, so I don’t think anybody should shun hard work in the hope that a miracle would occur and with respect to this World Cup qualifying series, all our opponents, especially Tunisia, would collapse so perilously close to the finish line, while lucky Sierra Leone would come from the dead like Lazarus and claim top spot. There are very few Cinderella stories these days and there is no reason to believe the next fairy god mother will appear in Freetown.

Tens of thousands of football fans who thronged into the National Stadium on Saturday afternoon were shocked and disappointed that Leone Stars took the lead twice and like in their last encounter with the Tunisians in Freetown, they lost concentration and discipline and allowed the Tunisians to force a draw – which was all they expected from the match. Their body language told us that in the first half of the match.

The last time I wrote something about Sierra Leone’s World Cup qualifying campaign in this column, I suggested that this country should take another look at its approach to the game that many Sierra Leoneans love and find new ways of bringing joy to those thousands of mostly young people who paid good money to cheer the national team to victory but only to be treated to the technical nightmare that characterised Leone Stars performance, particularly in the last quarter of the match. I make bold to say that Sierra Leone cannot dig itself out of the hole in which it’s now buried.

As far as I am concerned, everything was in place for this match. All the players who are on holiday from their clubs were in town on time, the government provided the cash; the football association and their allies in the Ministry of Sport put in place reasonable organisation to make it easy for fans to access tickets and seats at the stadium; they hired a young coach who is eager to win something; the weather was great and the fans were ready.

I have heard talk of disciplinary troubles in the camp over which players made the final team. That is not peculiar to Sierra Leone. The players on the field on Saturday have no excuse for failing to bring down a Tunisian team that only came alive when they realised early in the second half that they could be at the end of a serious beating if they didn’t dig deep and try to spring some surprise attacks at Leone Stars particularly when they suddenly noticed that the Leone Stars goalkeeper was out of his depth on that big stage and his nerves were getting the better of him.

The overall performance of Leone Stars was good but at some vital moments in the game a few things went wrong which compels me to put my thoughts on paper in the hope that somebody will take notice and work on them going forward.

Here’s my take. There was nobody in the team to provide leadership that is so vital at crucial times in a game like that. I saw players grumbling at each other when they made the wrong moves, essentially holding their colleagues up to the scrutiny of the more than thirty thousand spectators. In those final minutes of the game when Leone Stars surrendered the lead a second time, had there been a leader on the pitch, he would have dictated play and killed off the game. The team needs a leader. Obreh did his best but it wasn’t good enough.

Instead of playing the ball out of defence in typical Barcelona style in the first half, Mustapha Dumbuya was always on the centre line forcing the goalkeeper and central defenders to play long balls that gave the opponents a 50% chance of winning the ball and playing their own game.

Sheriff Suma was great going forward but the left side midfielder, George Davies was more of an entertainer than a man looking to destroy a formidable opponent. The Tunisians realised his folly and neutralised him. With the aerial power of Kei Kamara and Poborsky, a lot of damage could have been done with Davies whipping in crosses especially in the first quarter of the match when the visitors looked jaded.

The centre of the pack on the Leone Stars side was interesting. John Kamara proved to be a great addition to the team. In fact he was substituted just at the time the Tunisians did their own substitutions to try and counter him. That brought huge pressure on Medo who for much of the game looked tired and ordinary. His technical ability coupled with his passing skills were largely absent for much of the second half.

Poborsky was very powerful in the air and he dominated his space in the opposition area very well but the link with the midfield was not always active.

The other players in the team contributed what little they could. In the second half Mustapha Dumbuya was a better player as he linked up very well with his colleagues in attack resulting in some telling crosses from the right that the Tunisians struggled to deal with.

Let me now deal with the goalkeeper. As I have said elsewhere in this piece, Tarawallie was totally unable to handle a game as big as that and that happens with even great professionals. There were close to thirty-five thousand people in that stadium all calling for the slaughter of the Tunisians and the thought that our qualification for Brazil 2014 depended on the outcome of that match was enough to drive fear into him. He was very nervous.

The partnership between Obreh and Zaingallay worked well in the goalkeeper's favour. He was very well protected. However he created the mess that led to the first goal. He left his line at the wrong time and once the Tunisian attackers pressed he pulled back and in the process of clearing the danger, Obreh handled the ball in the area and the referee rightly ordered a penalty. I prefer not to say much about the second goal because it was an absolutely disgraceful performance by the goalkeeper. He reminded me of Rob Greene's disastrous error that led to England's draw with the USA in the last World Cup in South Africa.

I take away two things from the problems Leone Stars had in goal. First, the new goalkeeper failed to take that great opportunity to establish himself in that position in the absence of Christian Caulker whose many mistakes have angered many fans anyway. The new goalkeeper's confidence level should be at rock bottom right now and with Cape Verde coming up, I can't imagine how he will cope.

Second, Sierra Leoneans were taught a lesson in why it's always good to have contingency plans in place. For all the time Christian Caulker has been in goal, very little effort was made to prepare another goalkeeper just in case Caulker fell ill or even died. And it didn't help that the SLFA kept giving conflicting signals regarding his availability for the match. The psychological preparation that Tarawallie needed for that great role was disrupted by the on and off nature of Caulker's supposed availability for the match.

As for Coach Jonathan Mckinstry, I have always seen his appointment as one for the future. He is a young man who wants to make his mark in coaching. I wish him well. I think he should forget about this magic that will fly Sierra Leone on the Arabian mat to Brazil and use the next two games trying out some other players.

He will then be able to make a well-informed decision about which players can still hold their places in the team. I expect him to be brutal - everybody must earn their places.

This business of players influencing the inclusion of their friends and even determining which positions they play on the field is partially responsible for the quagmire in which we find ourselves today.

For me Sierra Leone's journey to Brazil has ended. The next destination is Morocco and there is a lot of time to plan for that one.

(C) Politico 11/06/13