'Back with the big boys' - Sierra Leone ready for AFCON return

Sierra Leone's national team during a past football match. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Ranked 108th in the world, Sierra Leone twice held Nigeria in qualifying, including coming from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 away, and pipped Benin to secure a berth at the finals.

Sierra Leone could not have asked for a tougher start to their first Africa Cup of Nations in quarter of a century than a match against holders Algeria on Tuesday, but coach John Keister says simply being in Cameroon is a step on the way to making the country competitive again.

"It is very important for the people of Sierra Leone that we come here and represent the country," Keister said in Douala on Monday as the west African nation appear at the continental tournament for the first time since 1996.

"As a nation, if we want to be coming to this competition every two years we have to come here and play against the better teams in Africa.

"It helps our development but we are looking forward to it and we are going to be competitive, that's for sure."

Ranked 108th in the world, Sierra Leone twice held Nigeria in qualifying, including coming from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 away, and pipped Benin to secure a berth at the finals.

They will also play the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea in Cameroon and the format is such that one win might be enough to reach the last 16.

"Where we end doesn't really matter. For us it is about growth. We want to be back with the big boys," added Keister, who was born in England but was capped by Sierra Leone as a player.

"We don't want to put pressure on ourselves and raise hopes about where we will finish."

They will face the reigning champions at the Japoma Stadium in Douala on Tuesday in the heat and humidity of an afternoon kick-off.

"We know they are one of the better sides in Africa but football is about who wants it more on the day and we are prepared for that. Records are there to be broken," said Keister.

There are few household names in their squad but Sierra Leone can call on Steven Caulker, the 30-year-old London-born centre-back with Turkish club Gaziantep.

Caulker was capped once by England in 2012 when on the books at Tottenham Hotspur but qualified for Sierra Leone through his grandfather and changed international allegiance when the opportunity arose to play at the Cup of Nations.

"His background speaks for itself and as a coach, when you have a player of that calibre you are always going to welcome him with open arms," Keister said.

"He will bring a lot of experience to us, a lot of know-how, and it will improve the image of Sierra Leone football as well."

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