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Duration:03:58
Uploaded:2022-01-18
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In which John tells the incredible story of Sierra Leone's qualification for the African Cup of Nations, and the miracles that followed.
Learn more about PIH's work in Sierra Leone at http://pih.org/hankandjohn
Learn more about the Leone Stars:

Video of the players training and discussing what it means to play for their country at AFCON: https://youtu.be/hlwOa9zLtp4
Mohamed Kamara's ridiculously brilliant game against Algeria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTx7828T5i4
Highlights of the Cote d'Ivoire miracle: https://youtu.be/neGdMx7HuW4
Celebrations in Freetown: https://youtu.be/1TLiH7Fff0w
Sierra Leoneans discussing what it means to qualify for the tournament: https://youtu.be/ClbQQ351KIA


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John: Good morning, Hank. It's Tuesday. I was struck by something the Sierra Leonean footballer Mustapha Bundu recently said to a reporter. He said, "We want people to see the positives in our country football-wise but also in other areas of life, so that when you talk about Sierra Leone, you aren't just mentioning war or Ebola."

And over the years of working to support a stronger healthcare system in Sierra Leone, we've focused a lot on the real and important injustices that led to the country's impoverishment, but today I wanna tell you a joyful story - a soccer story. Okay, quick background: So, every four years, all the best men's national teams in Africa play each other in the African Cup of Nations, which Sierra Leone had not qualified for in 26 years.

The Leone Stars, as they are known, are currently ranked number 108 in the FIFA national rankings, but after a couple big results in qualifying, by June of 2021, they found themselves one win away from making the African Cup of Nations. They just needed to beat Benin. The hero of that game would be Kei Kamara, who began his career playing for a team in Freetown before coming to the U.S. as a refugee when he was 16, where he played college soccer and then had a long and distinguished career in MLS.

Kei Kamara had long dreamed of representing Sierra Leone at the African Cup of Nations, but by the time of the Benin game, he was 36 years old. He knew this was his last chance, and he came through. The Leone Stars won a somewhat controversial penalty, and Kei Kamara scored, and back home the celebrations erupted around the country, because Sierra Leone had qualified for its first major tournament in 26 years.

Just making the tournament was a huge accomplishment. As the national anthem played before their first game last week, Kei Kamara and several of his teammates had tears in their eyes. Nobody thought they had a chance in the tournament itself. Like, most experts ranked Sierra Leone 23rd or 24th out of the 24 competing nations, and in the group stages, they had to play two of the best teams in Africa, Algeria and Côte d'Ivoire. Both those countries have 11 players who play their professional football in Europe's top leagues; Sierra Leone has none.

If you're not into football, it can be hard to understand just how huge of an underdog Sierra Leone is in this tournament, but think of it this way. Their starting goalkeeper, 22-year-old Mohamed Kamara, plays for East End Lions, a professional team based in Freetown. In his first game in the African Cup of Nations, he faced shots from Riyad Mahrez, who just won the Premier League with Manchester City.

And yet, Mohamed Kamara stopped those shots. In fact, he stopped every shot in that game, which Sierra Leone tied 0-0. Never has a tie felt so much like a win. After the game, when he was handed the Player of the Match trophy, Mohamed Kamara burst into tears, and all around Sierra Leone, people poured into the streets, honking horns, waving flags, and singing the anthem.

Four days later, against Côte d'Ivoire, Mohamed Kamara saved a penalty using the brilliant and somewhat unconventional strategy of standing behind the goal line before the ball was kicked, but even so, in the last minute of the game, they were down 2-1, and it seemed quite hopeless. And in my head, I was already writing this video about how they lost the game but they did their country proud, but wait, no! The opposing keeper made an error, and Sierra Leonean striker Alhaji Kamara somehow recovered from a stumble and dinked the ball over a defender and scored, and it was 2-2, a second miraculous draw in as many games.

Again, the celebrations reverberated throughout the entire country, celebrating the result, yes, but also celebrating the heart of their players, their tenacity, their belief. This is a country that is growing, and growing together.

On Thursday, the Leone Stars will play Equatorial Guinea, and if they can somehow win, Sierra Leone will complete the impossible: qualifying for the knockout stages of the African Cup of Nations. The world will be watching and, hopefully, celebrating with the people of Sierra Leone. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.

David Sesay: We're gonna go out there, and we're gonna put our hearts on the field. We're gonna put our bodies on the line for Sierra Leone.