Mustapha Bundu’s journey from war-torn Sierra Leone to Wembley

Mustapha Bundu is in dreamland. Warming up on the Wembley touchline, the forward’s appearance from the bench triggers the cacophony of noise to go up another decibel. Decked out in the white and black of Hereford, the 19-year-old doesn’t appear fazed by the occasion as he prepares to take his place in front of thousands of fans to play in the FA Vase final.

The teenager isn’t showing any signs of the nerves that have blighted more experienced players as they make their bow at the home of English football. But then why would should there be? The pressure of playing football is nothing compared to where he’s come from.

Just eight years ago, an 11-year-old Bundu was living in the heart of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, a city still picking itself up from a devastating civil war that rumbled on for more than a decade. Opportunities are understandably hard to come by in the West African country and Bundu made the heart-wrenching decision to move away from his family and chase his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Now, after a whirlwind few years that have seen the lightning-quick forward find a new home in England, Bundu’s appearance under Wembley’s grand arch is vindication for his sacrifice.

“It’s sad leaving your family to play football: to go away into a different country, a different place and a different environment,” said Bundu in September 2015 when interviewed for XtraTime West. “You need to adapt quickly so that you can feel like you’re at home. Initially, it was three months away then two weeks back at home, followed by a further three months away.

“If you’re going to be successful, you sometimes have to do things you don’t want to do, like leaving your parents. You just have to get used to living on your own. My dad was saying things like, ‘he’ll be fine, he needs to go and see the world’, but I think my mum was a bit scared because I was really young.”

Ranked as the world’s eighth poorest country in the United Nations’ Human Development Report in 2011, Sierra Leone is far from the perfect place to launch a football career. But after Bundu was noticed by The Craig Bellamy Foundation, the former footballer’s charity which operates in the war-torn country, the youngster has never looked back and a move to England soon followed – although not immediately for a playing career.

Instead, Bundu got a student visa to study at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire and starred for their widely respected football team before being snapped up by Hereford.

Bundu isn’t the first Hartpury student to combine his studies with playing in non-league and hopes to follow in the footsteps of other graduates from the South Gloucestershire college. When Ghanaian international David Accam was named in the Black Stars squad for the 2014 World Cup, the forward’s progression from Hartpury graduate to global stage was complete.

The only problem Bundu faces is that his student visa doesn’t allow him to play professionally in England and he currently can’t play any higher than step five in the non-league pyramid. So, while his teammates are preparing to play in the Southern League Division One Central (three tiers below the Vanarama National League) next season after winning promotion, Bundu needs to find another club.

Despite the setback, Hereford boss Peter Beadle believes the winger has a bright future in the game. “Hopefully he’ll finish what he needs to do education-wise and then go off to do bigger and better things,” said Beadle. “His potential is very good and hopefully he’ll achieve great things. With any luck, he’ll soon be playing in a league that is more suited to his potential.

“It’ll be difficult for him to do it in the UK with the laws on his visa, but he can go abroad. He could certainly play top-level football somewhere in one of the smaller Scandinavian countries to start with and, as he gets older and gets more experience, the sky’s the limit.”

Although Hereford lost Sunday’s FA Vase final 4-1 to Morpeth Town – for whom 45-year-old defender Chris Swailes became the oldest scorer in a Wembley cup final – Bundu’s Wembley experience may act as a springboard for better things. If so, he would join a select bunch of Sierra Leoneans to reach the big time.

Only three of Bundu’s countrymen have ever graced the Premier League – former Norwich City striker Kei Kamara, and ex-Watford duo Al Bangura and Jason Jarrett – so the Bulls forward will carry the nation’s pride if he realises his dream. Wherever Bundu does end up, non-league football will have played a key role in his development.

“The experience students like Bundu get from playing men’s football and non-league at this age is great,” explained teammate Mike Symons, who combines turning out for the Bulls with lecturing at Hartpury College. “From a mental and physical side, it’s brilliant and will help them develop in the future.”

If he’s right, a steady stream of future international stars could soon be arriving at a non-league ground near you. Whoever is lucky enough to snap up Bundu this summer will certainly have a huge talent on their hands next season.

Mustapha Bundu’s journey from war-torn Sierra Leone to Wembley
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