FREETOWN (Reuters) - A boys’ soccer team from Sierra Leone won silver at a tournament in Sweden, but were hailed as champions in their poor West African homeland — because they all came home.
Sierra Leone is bottom of the U.N. development rankings and its athletes frequently vanish when traveling abroad for sporting fixtures in order to seek asylum, meaning many Western countries now simply refuse to let them in.
“It’s rare for a whole team of Sierra Leoneans to go abroad and come back,” Kweku Lisk, legal adviser to their club, FC Johansen, told reporters in the capital Freetown Friday.
“It goes to show what Sierra Leone can do when it puts its mind to it. We have managed to stick a feather in the cap for the country,” he said.
More than 250 teams entered this year’s Mittnorden Cup in Sweden, but Freetown’s FC Johansen was the first African team to compete in the tournament’s 27-year history, thanks to the club’s main supporter, the eponymous Swedish Honorary Consul Arne Johansen.
The club is made up of underprivileged children, many of them orphaned during the country’s savage 1991-2002 civil war.
But Johansen assured authorities in Stockholm he would take personal responsibility for their safe return, and Sweden agreed to waive its ban on issuing visas to Sierra Leonean athletes.
“I didn’t want to disappear, I want to come back here because I like my country and I want to play for the national team,” said Issa Koroma, 13, who lost both his parents in the war.
Having scored six goals, Koroma was the tournament’s top scorer.
“I got the golden boot, and it makes me want to play more,” he told Reuters on his return. “They were good goals ... I want to be like (Brazilian footballer) Ronaldo.”
Editing by Giles Elgood