Interview: Sierra Leone Coach Hoping AFCON Participation Starts New Era For Team

The nation is at the finals for the third time and first since 1996.

Sierra Leone are hoping to prove competitive and lay the foundation for future qualification as they compete at this month’s Africa Cup of Nations finals for the first time in a quarter century, coach John Keister said.

Having last qualified for the 1996 edition in South Africa in only their second appearance at the finals, the west African country returns hoping to become a more regular participant, according to their Manchester-born coach.

“What we're looking forward to is going into the Cup of Nations to compete,” said Keister, who played at Walsall and Shrewsbury Town in his playing days and also won caps for Sierra Leone, where his parents hail from.

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He has returned to the country to take charge of a dormant national side which has failed over the last 25 years to make an impact in continental competition.

“When I came into the job, it was about transitioning the national team. We’ve had a national team that has been there for over 10 years with the aging players and we needed to do something to try and bring back success,” he told Reuters in an interview, one week before the kick-off of the finals in Cameroon.

Keister, 51, said he has freshened up the team by introducing new players, including former England defender Steven Caulker, who has switched his allegiance just in time for the tournament.

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“Going to Cup of Nations now is about trying to build so that we keep qualifying. We're going to be competitive, that's for sure.”

Sierra Leone, ranked 108th in the world, are in a tough group, however, paired with defending champions Algeria and the powerful Ivory Coast, plus Equatorial Guinea.

Their opening game is in Douala on Jan. 11 against the Algerians.

“It will give us an idea of what it is like competing with the best in Africa, and obviously helps our players as well in terms of going forward in their careers,” Keister added.

VERY POSITIVE

“We don't want to go there just for the sake of participating, but go there and be very positive. And we want to go there and win games. I don't want to sound arrogant, but being competitive is about winning games as well.”

Sierra Leone have been preparing in their capital Freetown, unable to afford the Middle East training camps favored by most of the top teams headed to the Cup of Nations.

“You've got to work around the obstacles and make the most of it and get the best out of it. We might not be blessed with a lot of funds, but we have a group of very, very committed players. All we can do is just focus on the job and work as hard as we can.”

But the addition to the squad of former Liverpool and Tottenham defender Caulker and Dutch youth international Issa Kallon will be boost.

“I'm looking forward to the experience they’re going to bring and the mentality; the approach, the application towards work, because it will influence our boys in this part of the world. You know, that's very, very important. I think it changes things a little bit around. We're very pleased, because they’ll bring a different dimension to what we have been used to over the last 10 years. And that's what I'm looking forward to,” Keister said.

(Writing by Mark Gleeson)

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