8:40 pm - Monday November 16, 2015

Ebola-hit Sierra Leone football team faces arduous struggle

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Sierra Leone's national soccer team players attend a training session at the Felix Houphouet Boigny stadium in Abidjan

Ebola-affected Sierra Leone faces an uphill struggle to reach the African Nations Cup finals for the first time since 1996 with just 14 players training ahead of their opening qualifying match against the Ivory Coast on Saturday.

Their task against the African giants was a daunting one before factoring in their threadbare squad and even eternally optimistic coach Johnny McKinstry stressed the situation was far from ideal.

“A few of our players ultimately only arrived in the last couple days, and some today again for the game on Saturday. So those have been challenges,” 29-year-old Northern Irishman McKinstry said on Friday.

After initially refusing to host the match, the Ivorian government reversed its decision amid assurances from Sierra Leone’s Football Association that none of its European and American-based players and staff had visited the country in the previous 21 days, the incubation period of the virus.

However, several Sierra Leonean-based staff members were prevented from travelling to the Ivory Coast, which has banned air travellers and all incoming flights from Sierra Leone.

Of the affected countries, Sierra Leone has been the hardest-hit, with 1,107 confirmed cases – including 430 deaths as of Thursday – according to the World Health Organisation.

The outbreak also means Sierra Leone will be forced to play all their matches at neutral venues with Wednesday’s ‘home’ qualifier against the Democratic Republic of Congo to be held in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi.

McKinstry insisted his players would use the situation as motivation.

“We want to make sure that there is a positive image of Sierra Leone displayed,” he said.

“And there wouldn’t be a bit more positive image displayed than the Leone Stars being in Morocco in 2015 to bring the world’s attention on Sierra Leone for the right reasons.”

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