Sierra Leone showcased their talents to the African continent for the first time in the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations.
A 16-year-old boy scored the winning goal against Burkina Faso in their first match of Group B.
That youngster wore the No 10 shirt and played at Lugano, Switzerland. His name is Mohamed Kallon.
Alhaji Kamara kept Sierra Leone’s AFCON hopes alive with a stoppage-time equaliser
He scored in injury time to make it 2-2 against the Ivory Coast in Group E clash on Sunday
At that time he was the youngest footballer to ever score in the AFCON and would end up becoming the best Sierra Leone footballer of all time.
The legacy he left is so significant that his name is still linked to Sierra Leone football and its national team.
Two players of the current squad at the disposal of coach John Keister come from FC Kallon, the club founded in 2002 by the former Inter Milan and Monaco forward.
Kamara played for former Inter Milan and Monaco forward Mohamed Kallon’s (right) FC Kallon
Some others have grown up there or spent some seasons at the club. Among them Alhaji Kamara, the man who scored the unexpected equaliser against Ivory Coast in Sierra Leone’s second Group E match this month.
Kamara grew up in Lungi, in the Kaffu Bullom Chiefdom district. He started playing football on the streets just like every other kid of that area, situated next to the Freetown International Airport.
He had even formed a junior non-division team with his friends called ‘Young Lions’. His career changed when he joined FC Kallon. He made his professional debut while playing for them, fulfilling a dream that every aspiring footballer in Sierra Leone would like to achieve.
‘I wanted to be part of FC Kallon because Mohamed Kallon was a legend and his club offered a lot of opportunities,’ Kamara told Sportsmail.
‘They had the best facilities back then and many scouts circled the team. We also used to travel to Italy to play the Viareggio Tournament. Opportunities in Sierra Leone are very small, so you have to be part of one of the teams that can bring you better chances and showcase your career.’
FC Kallon is not only about football. ‘It’s a platform where, before you leave, they make you understand how to live alone when you go overseas and how to play football as a professional player,’ said Kamara, who was nicknamed after a Kallon former team-mate, Adriano Leite Ribeiro.
But Kallon hadn’t just given his name and money to the team. He was interested in the progress of the kids who joined his club.
Kamara was denied playing in the Champions League due to a heart condition but returned
‘Every time Kallon was in Freetown, he used to tell us about his life,’ recalls the current Randers striker.
‘He explained to us how he started in Europe, how to be humble and disciplined and have a strong character while being in a foreign country.
‘FC Kallon means a lot of experience that I can’t even mention. All those lessons made me improve my career.’
Although he recognises that learning never stops, Kamara feels like a mature man today who doesn’t need too much advice.
‘Once in a while me and Kallon catch up, we have a good relationship,’ he said.
‘I’m still 27 and can learn a lot, but Kallon is not giving me advice. Now I’m a man and know what’s good and what’s bad.’
This maturity also stems from an unpleasant episode that Kamara had to face and which made him grow faster.
In fact, Kamara could have missed this year’s tournament and the excitement after the goal he scored against Ivory Coast could have remained just a dream.
Sierra Leone face Equatorial Guinea in their final group-stage clash on Thursday afternoon
In 2016, when he was 21, he underwent some tests required by UEFA which found a congenital heart defect. IFK Norrkoping, the Swedish club where Kamara was playing at, were preparing for their first appearance in the Champions League since 1963, but the Sierra Leone striker had to give up taking part in that historic event.
UEFA wouldn’t allow him to play, and the Swedish champions decided to terminate his contract. Sierra Leone’s football association also had to close its doors to Kamara, because they couldn’t afford to guarantee the prompt and professional medical attention to him in case of an incident on the pitch.
‘Life is challenging,’ Kamara admitted.
‘There aren’t easy roads. Whatever you do, there must be an obstacle, and that was the obstacle that came in my career.’
He tried to stay positive, because he had never felt any symptoms while playing football and other different sports. But above all he didn’t give up.
‘It obviously was a shock for me, but I told my agent that I needed to try other options, to listen to other doctors,’ he said. ‘So, together with him, I chose to go to the US.’
Striker Kamara was given a lifeline by DC United after medical tests and now plays for Randers
Fortunately, DC United came on board and made him undergo different kinds of tests. He finally got the approval to play and his career restarted after doctors determined that the congenital heart defect wasn’t serious enough to prevent Kamara from playing professionally.
‘I’m happy and excited that I didn’t make the decision to stop my career back then. I wouldn’t be part of this team now,’ he pointed out.
‘Not being able to play for my country when they found my heart problem was the worst moment, but I looked at the positive side. That wasn’t my time. My time is now and I feel blessed for that.’
Six years later, the scare of quitting football has eventually faded away and Kamara has been able to write a wonderful new chapter in Sierra Leone’s turbulent football history.
After taking advantage of Ivory Coast goalkeeper’s mistake, Steven Caulker served him a ball that only needed to be pushed into the goal. Kamara’s is only the fourth goal of the Leone Stars in the AFCON but it was a goal that retained the hope of qualifying to the knockout phase for the very first time.
He was left speechless. ‘I experienced a mix of emotions and feelings that I can’t describe,’ he recalled.
Kamara is now fulfilling his dream by playing and scoring at the Africa Cup of Nations this year
‘I started watching the AFCON from a young age, and it has always been my dream to play the AFCON with my country’s national team one day.’
The opponent’s name also contributed, adding: ‘I couldn’t believe that I had just scored against Ivory Coast.
‘It’s a team that I used to watch when I was a kid, because I admired Didier Drogba very much. It was an extraordinary feeling to score against them and for my country, because millions of Sierra Leonean people around the world were watching us.’
Fourteen out of 28 players are plying their trade outside of the African continent, filling the experience gaps Sierra Leone were suffering from.
All this acquired experience will have to be applied one more time on the pitch to be able to beat Equatorial Guinea and get through to the last 16, but the result doesn’t really matter to Kamara.
‘We are happy to be here,’ he claimed. ‘It’s been 26 years since last time and, no matter what happens, we will be proud because we are a small nation taking part in a big tournament and facing big teams.
‘The game against Ivory Coast has given us even further motivation. Now we just need an extra push to give a new smile to our people.’