DECEMBER 22, 2014 By Sahr Morris Jr.
Former head coach of the Sierra Leone national team, Johnny McKinstry, has told the BBC how the current Ebola crisis in the country cost him his job.
The 29-year-old Northern Ireland coach was shown the exit door after Sierra Leone suffered back-to-back defeats against Ivory Coast and DR Congo in the opening two matches of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
In an interview with the BBC’s Ben Smith, McKinstry – who had an impressive start with the Leone Stars, losing just one of his first six matches and leading the team into the top 50 of FIFA’s world rankings, above Cameroon and Senegal – explained how it all began for him before he was relieved of his duties.
“We looked at what little we could do as sporting heroes; could we put smiles on the faces of the nation?” McKinstry said. “Football is a second religion in Sierra Leone. So when the national team wins, the national psyche is buoyed, everyone walks an inch or two taller.
“We made a commitment to keep on winning to try to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations so that people in the country would feel a little bit better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to work out that way.”
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) ruled that Sierra Leone could not play games at home. A challenging task was becoming a near-impossible one. “In football, the home team tends to win 50% of the time. In Africa, the home team wins 65 or 70% of the time,” McKinstry explained to the BBC.
He said: “In my final game, against DR Congo, we had 17,000 fans just chanting ‘Ebola, Ebola, Ebola’ at us. It was upsetting for our players. The atmosphere was difficult. It made the players angry that people were mocking the situation in their homeland.”
Sierra Leone players found opponents unwilling to shake hands, hotels unwilling to check them in and governments uncertain on granting them entry.
“People fear things they don’t know,” he said. “Hotel arrangements were monitored wherever we went. There were daily medical checks for my players and, while that is not overly difficult, it can impact on players’ mental state.”
The poor preparations and results led to McKinstry losing his job and the Northern Irishman said quitting the Leone Stars job was very emotional for him.
He said: “Saying goodbye to Sierra Leone was very emotional, very difficult. I don’t keep my distance from things; I invest emotionally. The country has become part of me.”