Sierra Leone's English core underpinning historic AFCON campaign

Regardless of what happens in Sierra Leone's final Africa Cup of Nations group game on Thursday -- vs. Equatorial Guinea in Limbe -- this campaign has already been an unexpected success story for the Leone Stars and their English core.

Featuring in their first AFCON tournament in 25 years, the Leone Stars had to face reigning champions Algeria and star-studded 2015 winners Ivory Coast in their opening two matches, and they remain firmly in the hunt for qualification after taking two points from the big boys.

Among the key characteristics of this Leone Stars side have been their rugged competitiveness and their unity -- despite players from disparate backgrounds -- with coach John Keister's nascent English recruitment policy giving the team attributes that are serving them well in Cameroon.

"They are competitors, they are guys who work really hard," veteran former Middlesbrough and Norwich City striker Kei Kamara told ESPN about the squad's England-born players.

"I respect them a lot and the communication keeps on getting even easier.

"Even though they grew up in England, they're Sierra Leonean, and for me just to have that connection with them, having played in English football a little bit, makes communication a lot easier."

- Africa Cup of Nations bracket and fixtures schedule
- AFCON kit rankings: Who has the best jersey?
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

Ex-England defender Steven Caulker is the most high-profile addition to the squad, but he's joined by Queens Park Rangers full-back Osman Kakay, Sullay Kaikai of Wycombe Wanderers, Wealdstone's David Sesay, Bradford-born Daniel Francis, Londoner Idris Kanu, and former Chelsea academy talent Kevin Wright.

Even one-time YouTube sensation Mustapha Bundu undertook a scholarship at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire before signing his first contracts with Newquay and then Hereford.

"It's very good to have them around," former Bolton Wanderers midfielder Medo told ESPN.

"English football is very tough, and the players from the Championship are used to it.

"You can see it with Osman Kakay up against Wilfried Zaha. On another day, it would have been an easy day for Zaha, but Kakay is used to it so he's very competitive."

Kakay agrees, suggesting the robust grounding of the rough-and-tumble Championship has prepared him well for the challenges of the Nations Cup.

"I'm playing in the two toughest competitions," he told ESPN.

"[Here] and the toughest league in England, so it's great for my experience as a young player.

"You want to play against the best players, so it's a great experience and I'm happy I got to be a part of it."

Kamara, 37, insists the new arrivals, many of whom made their Sierra Leone debut only in 2021, have been helped by the squad's older heads to integrate into the squad, and get to grips with international football.

"We're doing it together; Steven [Caulker], myself, our captain Umaru [Bangura]," he said.

"We're making sure the guys enjoy the experience but don't get lost in the moment.

"[Against Ivory Coast], they're playing against guys they see playing for Arsenal and Manchester United but that doesn't mean you can't compete with them. When the whistle blows, you're all equals."

Kaikai, who made his debut last year, has also paid tribute to Manchester-born head coach Keister, who has overseen the Leone Stars' increased integration of dual-nationals having spent almost the entirety of his career in the English lower leagues.

"It's easy for us to communicate with the manager because we understand English football and the way he wants to do things, so it's a good blend," Kaikai told ESPN.

"Some of those guys have been in the national team for a lot longer than the foreign-based players, and they also understand how the manager wants to play, having worked with him for several years.

"Seeing players [such as Caulker] join us is such a boost.

"The more players we can get of that calibre will help us moving forward."

For now, however, the Leone Stars are looking to reach the AFCON knockout stage for the first time in the country's history.

They will progress with a victory over Equatorial Guinea, while group leaders Ivory Coast, who have already secured their spot in the knockouts, face Algeria in Douala in Group E's other Thursday showdown.