Steven Caulker may only be two games into his international career with Sierra Leone, but the one-time England defender is already enjoying a remarkable start to life with the Leone Stars at the Africa Cup of Nations.
After a fine performance and a goal-denying block on debut — a 0-0 draw against reigning champions Algeria — the former Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool man contributed a 93rd-minute assist on Sunday as the West Africans held Ivory Coast 2-2 in Douala.
It’s a result that keeps the Leone Stars, ranked 108th in the world, firmly in the hunt for place in the AFCON last 16, and coach John Keister has lauded the impact the centre-back is having in the squad.
“It was easy to bring Steve in,” the Manchester-born coach told ESPN. “He’s a bonus for us, and brings quality to the squad.
“We have the same background, which is a good factor as well, and over the years he’s done a lot of work for Sierra Leone, for underprivileged kids.”
Caulker, who was raised in Hounslow, West London, represented England at youth level, was part of the Great Britain side at the 2012 Olympic Games, and made his full Three Lions bow alongside Raheem Sterling later that year, netting on his debut against Sweden.
The 30-year-old, currently playing with Turkish Super Lig side Gaziantep on loan from Fenerbahce, failed to build on that maiden England appearance, with disciplinary issues slowing his progress, and finally received FIFA clearance to switch allegiance to Sierra Leone last month.
“Everything happened with England, but he’s more mature now than when he played for England,” Keister continued. “That maturity makes a difference.
“We were so pleased to bring him here to help us. He brings leadership to the squad, and how he plays himself, it’s helping us greatly.
“We’re a small country, so having someone like that, with the experience we have already, makes for a good mix.”
Caulker was part of a strong rearguard performance to keep Algeria at bay in the Leone Stars’ opener, and then — charging forward as the West Africans threw caution to the wind — was the first to react to goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare’s howler for the Ivory Coast, passing across the goal for Alhaji Kamara to tap home a 93rd-minute equaliser.
“Steve is a big plus for us,” added experienced ex-Bolton Wanderers midfielder Mohamed “Medo” Kamara. “He’s adapted so well to being with the other lads, and he’s one of the senior players now.
“He contributes a lot and advises the boys, it’s a big lift for us and we’re delighted to have him around.”
It’s an opinion shared by some of the squad’s younger heads.
“Caulks is an amazing guy,” 24-year-old Queens Park Rangers full-back Osman Kakay told ESPN. “I’ve played with him at QPR before and playing with him now is a great experience.
“I’m so happy he’s part of our national team.”
Sierra Leone conclude their group stage campaign against Equatorial Guinea in Limbe on Thursday, where a win would take them into the knockouts — potentially as group winners — and a draw might also leave them with a chance of escaping the group stage for the first time in the nation’s history.
Algeria and Ivory Coast meet in Group E’s other decider in Douala, where reigning champions the Fennecs need victory to ensure their progress to the last 16.
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