Lamin Conteh was ‘the best player’ his Sierra Leone team-mate Mohamed Kallon has seen
Mohamed Kallon says his former Sierra Leone team-mate Lamin Conteh is the best player he has ever played with or against – better even than World Cup winner Ronaldo.
It’s a bold statement from Kallon, whose time at Italian side Inter Milan coincided with the legendary Brazilian striker, three-time Fifa Player of the Year.
Conteh, a former captain of the Leone Stars also known as Junior Tumbu, died in hospital in eastern Sierra Leone on Thursday following an unspecified short illness at the age of just 45.
The striker’s international career saw him play at the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 and 1996, while at club level he played in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
“Junior is the best player I’ve seen in terms of ability; how to deal with the ball, his dribbling skills, his magic touch, his intelligence and his understanding of the game. Put it all together, he’s the best,” said Kallon told BBC Sport Africa.
“Yes, I played with a lot of big names and against big names – but Conteh was unique.
“I saw how he made things easy and simple in difficult times. He made difficult things very simple, which is why I admired him so much.
“He was a genius. Sierra Leone has lost a gem. He will be missed.”
Conteh “needs to be honoured”
Conteh was considered one of the finest players Sierra Leone had ever produced, and was also considered by many to be the best of his generation.
His Sierra Leonean teammates and fans admired his touch, excellent dribbling and ability to tackle defenders.
Kallon says Conteh deserves to be recognized and honored by Sierra Leone.
“Honestly, Conteh should be honored, he deserves a state funeral because of what he did for Sierra Leone,” an emotional Kallon said.
“He was a brother, a very close friend and a fantastic teammate. It’s a very sad moment for me.
“It was the worst time of my life. I didn’t expect to lose Conteh just yet, but it’s the work of God and may his soul rest in perfect peace.”
Gianni Infantino, president of world governing body Fifa, expressed his “sincere and heartfelt” condolences in a letter to Sierra Leone Football Association president Thomas Daddy Brina.
“Words seem insufficient to express the sadness we feel for this loss,” Infantino wrote.
“His personality, his loyalty and his human qualities will not be forgotten, and he will be truly missed.”
A leader on and off the pitch
Conteh made his senior international debut in a 1-0 loss to Senegal in an international friendly in Dakar in December 1989 and won 38 caps, scoring four goals.
His international career included a two-year hiatus from 2000, following a financial disagreement with the country’s football association, but on his return to the team Kallon returned the captain’s armband out of respect.
Highlights for Conteh came when he helped the Leone Stars qualify for the Nations Cup for the first time in 1994 – and return to the final two years later.
He also helped Leone Stars win the now defunct Amilcar Cabral Zone II West Africa tournament on home soil in 1993, his country’s first-ever silverware.
Conteh was also respected off the pitch due to his humility and kindness.
“Junior is the nicest person I’ve ever seen, he wanted everyone around him to be happy,” Kallon explained.
“We used to call him ‘United Nations’ during his heyday because he treated everyone the same. We learned a lot from him. He was so generous, he wanted to help everyone. world around him, he was so kind.”
Conteh was at the Nations Cup earlier this year in Cameroon as part of the Sierra Leone coaching staff, and at the time of his death was the coach of second division side Freetown FC.
Kei Kamara, another former Leone Stars striker, also paid tribute to Conteh, who he called a “legend”.
“It’s shocking news but I believe he has lived his dream and we have to celebrate him for that,” Kamara, 37, told BBC Sport Africa.
“I’m just very happy to have been able to be by his side at the CAN [this year] and share a few words about the beautiful game. My prayers to his family, and I’m sure they will understand that the rest of Sierra Leone are in tears but will celebrate him for the legend he was.”
Although Kallon played for French top club Monaco as well as three-time European champions Inter, Conteh did not reach such heights.
His club career began at home with the Old Edwardians, with whom he won the Sierra Leone league title in 1990.
The striker then joined Guinean club Horoya AC before moving to Belgian club Beerschot VAC in 1992, where he scored 13 goals in 48 appearances over three seasons.
Conteh went on to play for SV Meppen in Germany, Boavista and Varzim in Portugal, Al Wahda in the United Arab Emirates and clubs in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand before ending his career in his native East End Lions.
Beerschot paid tribute to the player, calling him “a technically strong and quick striker”.
“Junior has carved his way into the hearts of our supporters by dribbling everyone and leaving them on the ground in a home game against Anderlecht,” read a club statement.
“Beerschot expresses his deepest sympathy to his family and many friends.”