Sierra Leone’s Mustapha Bundu on his rise from YouTube star to Afcon ace | Sierra Leone

Back in February 2013, a young footballer in Sierra Leone generated a brief ripple of acclaim on social media. The footage was slightly grainy but clear enough to see Mustapha Bundu taking the ball to the byline and, as a tackle flew in, chipping the Promising Stars Under-18s goalkeeper with an improbably angled rabona that swerved, floated and dropped into the far corner. There was a fleeting pause while those watching absorbed what they had witnessed; Bundu assured his coaches at the Craig Bellamy Foundation that he had meant it and they knew his oeuvre well enough to believe him.

Internet sensations come and go with dizzying frequency nowadays but Bundu, who was 15 at the time, has lasted the course. On Sunday he will start on the right wing for Sierra Leone against Ivory Coast in a match that could seal his team’s place in the Africa Cup of Nations knockout stage.

That is a remarkable billing in itself: Sierra Leone had not qualified for the tournament since 1996 with conflict, ebola and chaotic governance all intervening to varying degrees. But they held the champions, Algeria, to a deserved goalless draw in their opener and there is no reason to think the Elephants cannot at least be similarly troubled in Douala.

“We all received hundreds of videos of people back home celebrating,” Bundu says of the reaction to Monday’s game. “People expected us to lose 4-0 or 5-0 but we went and stood up against them. Our goal is to be here, compete and cause an upset, not just to take part. A lot of people probably didn’t know about us but now they can see we have talented footballers.”

An eclectic squad all have stories to tell. The goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara, named man of the match against Algeria, plays for East End Lions in the impoverished local league and cried upon receiving his award. A London-born contingent includes the ex-Chelsea scholar Kevin Wright, Osman Kakay of QPR, Wycombe’s Sullay Kaikai and their biggest-name recruit, the one-time Tottenham defender Steven Caulker, who made his debut in the Algeria game. Sierra Leone had played only 15 games in the past five years before this tournament and this year’s selection, coached by the former Walsall player John Keister, have had scant time together.

Mustapha Bundu playing for the Danish Superliga side Aarhus on loan from Anderlecht
Mustapha Bundu currently plays at Danish Superliga side AGF Aarhus on loan from Anderlecht. Photograph: Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport/Getty Images

Bundu’s path has been unique. The son of a successful local coach, he came through “six or seven trials” to be one of the initial 16-strong intake at the Craig Bellamy Foundation’s academy, which was set up by the former Wales international after he visited the country and was affected by its struggle to recover from the civil war that caused horrific grief during the 1990s and beyond.

“It was a massive four years in my life,” Bundu says of his time there under the guidance of Johnny McKinstry, who would later manage the national team, and a group of young British coaches including Tom Legg and Paul Westren. “Not only football-wise: we were taught how to be proper human beings.”

One of Bundu’s coaches remembers how, as he prepared to travel home from Sierra Leone, he found the player had got up at 3am to see him off. Another recalls that, after a poor week of training, a frustrated Bundu insisted on being given the captain’s armband and subsequently scored six goals in his next game. His nickname was “Baller”: a gentle, caring giant whose unassuming nature belied the steely edge required to progress.

The 2014 ebola outbreak caused football in Sierra Leone to shut down and it brought about the academy’s demise, too. It closed in 2016 and its finances were later investigated, but that had nothing to do with the work undertaken on the ground. Bellamy was not in it for profit: he had genuinely been trying to help and the national team is reaping the benefits. Mohamed Buya Turay, who starts on the opposite flank from Bundu, also spent time at the academy while 11 of the squad worked under McKinstry at some level.

Bundu left for England in September 2014, beginning a scholarship at Hartpury college in Gloucestershire, and quickly blazed a trail through the university football scene. He had not realised that he would be allowed to play senior football, too, but discovered that his work permit accommodated a stint in 2015-16 at Hereford FC, who had formed the year before after the demise of Hereford United and were in the ninth tier. A 26-goal season followed and so did an appearance at Wembley in the FA Vase final. It was far from Tombo, the village where he had caused jaws to drop with that flash of YouTube-friendly inspiration.

Mustapha Bundu has warm memories of his prolific season at Hereford
Mustapha Bundu has warm memories of his prolific season at Hereford. Photograph: Alex Morton/The FA/Getty Images

“It was special, crazy,” he says. “I like Manchester United and, the day before, I’d watched them beat Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final on TV with all those big stars. The next moment I was walking out there. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything.”

Among the flood of post-match congratulations on Monday were WhatsApp messages from friends made during that spell. Bundu has since forged a successful early career in Denmark with AGF Aarhus, where he is now back on loan from Anderlecht, but his time at Edgar Street left a firm legacy. Hereford Sierra Leone, an academy set up in the capital city Freetown, was formed in 2017 with help from dedicated volunteers connected to his old club and continues to thrive.

“There’s so much talent in the country and hopefully they can get spotted and change their lives as well,” he says. “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far as a footballer and hopefully I can make the next step, but the main goal is always to give back to Sierra Leone and the kids there, to find opportunities for them so they can experience the things I have.

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“We want people to see the positives in our nation, football-wise but also in other areas of life, so that when you talk about Sierra Leone you aren’t just mentioning war or ebola. The aim is to get more people playing in the top leagues, the Premier League or La Liga, and I think that will come.”

Rabonas or not, a repeat performance against Ivory Coast would bring that prospect closer to fruition.

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