By Kabbie Menday Kunda :
Sierra Leone’s national team, Leone Stars, played bold , brilliant and immaculate soccer in the first half as an excited President Ernest Koroma and 50,00 other fans watched with sustained interest at Brookfields Stadium last evening , but in what turned out to be a comedy of errors, the giants of the Lion Mountains gifted Tunisia the opportunity to twice claw back into the game for a disappointing 2-2 draw to set up a gruelling second leg in Tunis that the Sierra Leone side must win at all costs if they must play once again in the African Nations Cup Competition since 1996.
With the Head of State and a whole nation behind them, Leone Stars did not disappoint at the beginning. They took the game to the more experienced Tunisians , with Sheriff Suma, Mohamed Medo Kamara , Mohamed Pobosky Bangura and Kei Kamara looking sharp and dangerous , forcing Tunisia to play desperate defensive soccer while equally looking dangerous on the break.
And the Leone Stars’ magnificent start was rewarded in the 8th minute in the first howler of the day with a Tunisian defender making a rash , lazy and mistimed clearance that fell kindly into the path of Sheriff Suma who brought the stray ball under control before despatching a blinding shot over Goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi .
The goal brought the excited crowd on its feet to cheer and from then on the ovation became louder as the throng of home supporters dared the boys on. But Leone Stars could not extend their lead while the Tunisians fought doggedly to find the equaliser. Leone Stars took a cagey 1-0 advantage into halftime but the expectant crowd expected something better in the Second half.
They were disappointed when the battling Tunisians at last levelled scores 20 minutes into the second half . At the end of excellent exchange of passes between the Tunisians , Fatheh Garbi swung in a shot that in the days of the late Amadu Kargbo or Brima Atuga Kamara would have seen the goalie parry or at worst punch over his crossbar . But Christian Caulker showed his vulnerability with high balls as the shot beat him to make it 1-1.
Yet the Leone Stars were minded not to disappoint the massive crowd that kept spurring them and the knowledge that President Koroma, the nation’s no.1 fan, was watching them must have goaded them on to continue pressing and in the 84th minute it looked like they had presented the nation with a much-appreciated victory, however narrow. They benefited from an awful goalkeeping blunder by Aymen Mathlouthi whose half-hearted punch was pounced on by Alhassan Kamara to send Sierra Leone into a 2-1 lead.
With only six minutes left, a more experienced team would have tightened up and protected their lead. But Leone Stars demonstrated a manifest inability to see off the final minutes . What was more, their left wing defence showed timidity in their tackling as they allowed a Tunisian player to cut in and hold off the weak tackling backs until he got the ball to the touchline and while barely keeping his balance , squared the ball deep into the goalmouth where the other defenders had also gone to sleep, allowing Youssef Msakni to finish past the helpless goalkeeper.
There were only four minutes left plus stoppage time but realizing that the draw enhanced their cause , the Tunisians defended stoutly to prevent any more goals and return to Tunis with the assurance that even a goalless or 1-1 draw at worst will see them through to the African Nations Cup on away goals advantage after netting twice in Freetown.
Expecting a very experienced and well-oiled Tunisian team to lose to Sierra Leone in Tunis on October 13 is the height of over-optimistic thinking but then soccer is a game of surprises and unpredictability. And Leone Stars play better away than at home.