KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While most of Major League Soccer was taking a well-deserved breather last weekend, Kei Kamara was witness to one of the most bizarre events in world soccer's recent history.
With Kamara’s Sierra Leone and rivals South Africa tied with eight points in their African Cup of Nations qualifier group, both countries trailed group-leaders Niger by a single point. On Saturday, the Leone Stars and Bafana Bafana met at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa, for their final qualification match, which finished in a 0-0 draw.
Niger, meanwhile, lost 3-0 against group-worst Egypt to finish qualification with three teams tied on nine points. South Africa erupted in celebration, convinced that their group-best goal differential had seen them through qualifying.
What they apparently weren’t aware of, however, was that the first tiebreaker for teams tied on points was head-to-head results. Niger earned six points in their four matches against Sierra Leone and South Africa; Bafana Bafana earned five from their matches against Sierra Leone and Niger.
“Their celebration was awesome,” Kamara said of South Africa. “It was brilliant watching all the dances and all that. After we got back to the locker room, we heard that they didn’t qualify, which was also awesome and brilliant.”
With five head-to-head points as well, Sierra Leone’s only chance of qualification was to play for the win, but Kamara said South Africa wasted time during the last 15 minutes of regulation in a clear attempt to salvage the draw that they assumed would put them through.
Still, just like everyone else in Mbombela Stadium, Kamara said he and his teammates simply assumed that South Africa had qualified by the skin of their teeth.
“We had no idea,” he said. “They said Niger lost and South Africa qualified. We just laid down on the field and soaked everything in [while they celebrated]. It was beautiful but unlucky for them. But the way they played the last 15 minutes and celebrated, I don’t feel bad.”
Sierra Leone have not qualified for the tournament since 1996, but Kamara said the future is only getting brighter for a country whose development has been stalled by of civil war and internal unrest.
“I can’t say we’re disappointed that much,” Kamara said of failure to qualify. “We worked really hard to put our country in the position we’re in right now.”
The work only continues for the Leone Stars – World Cup qualification begins in January with a match against the Cape Verde Islands. But hopes are high as well. Their relative success in ACN qualifying has moved the country into 68th in the FIFA rankings and into 16th in Africa.
“We’ve showed signs for the future,” Kamara said. “Hopefully, we can qualify for the next [Cup of Nations] or the World Cup coming up. We have our hopes up. The team is very young and we have a good coach so we’re just looking to keep building.”