Lamin Conteh was 'the best player' Sierra Leone team-mate Mohamed Kallon saw

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Sierra Leone's Lamin Conteh in action for UAE side Al WahdaSierra Leone's Lamin 'Junior Tumbu' Conteh played club football in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia

Mohamed Kallon says his former Sierra Leone team-mate Lamin Conteh was the best player he ever played with or against - better even than World Cup winner Ronaldo.

It is a bold statement from Kallon, whose time at Italian side Inter Milan overlapped with the legendary Brazil striker, a three-time Fifa Player of the Year.

Conteh, a former Leone Stars captain also known as Junior Tumbu, died in hospital in the east of Sierra Leone on Thursday following a short unspecified illness aged just 45.

The forward'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 have seen in terms of ability; how to treat the ball, his dribbling skills, his magical touch, his intelligence and his game understanding. Put all that together he's the best," Kallon told BBC Sport Africa.

"Yes, I have played with lots of big names and against big names - but Conteh was unique.

"I saw how he made things easy and simple in difficult moments. He made difficult things very simple, that's why I admired him so much.

"He was a genius. Sierra Leone has lost a gem. We'll miss him."

Conteh 'needs to be honoured'

Lamin ContehLamin Conteh had a spell playing for German club SV Meppen

Conteh was considered as one of the best players Sierra Leone has ever produced, and was also seen by many as the best of his generation.

His team-mates and Sierra Leonean fans admired his touch, great dribbling skills and ability to take on defenders.

Kallon says that Conteh deserves to be recognised and honoured by Sierra Leone.

"Honestly Conteh needs to be honoured, deserves to be given a state funeral because of what he had done for Sierra Leone," an emotional Kallon said.

"He was a brother, a very close friend and a fantastic teammate. This is a very sad moment for me.

"That was the worst moment of my life. I wasn't thinking of losing Conteh at the moment 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 inadequate 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 field

Conteh made his senior international debut in a 1-0 loss to Senegal in a friendly international match in Dakar in December 1989 and went on to win 38 caps, scoring four goals.

His international career included a two-year break from 2000, following a financial disagreement with the country's football association, but on his return to the squad Kallon handed back the captain's armband out of respect.

Conteh's highlights came as he helped the Leone Stars qualify for the Nations Cup for the first time in 1994 - and return to the finals two years later.

He also helped Leone Stars win the now-defunct Amilcar Cabral Zone II West African tournament at home soil in 1993, his country's first ever silverware.

Conteh was also respected away from the pitch because of his humility and kindness.

"Junior is the nicest of all I have ever seen, he wanted everybody around him to be happy," explained Kallon.

"We used to call him 'United Nations' during his prime days because he treated everybody equally. We learnt lots of things from him. He was so generous, he wanted to help everybody close to him, he was so nice."

Conteh was at the Nations Cup earlier this year in Cameroon as part of Sierra Leone's coaching team, and at the time of his death was the coach of second-tier side Freetown FC.

Lamin ContehLamin Conteh was part of the Sierra Leone coaching staff at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon

Kei Kamara, another former Leone Stars forward, also paid tribute to Conteh, who he described as a "legend".

"This is shocking news but I believe he lived his dream and we have to celebrate him for that," Kamara, 37, told BBC Sport Africa

"I'm just very happy I got to be next to him at Afcon [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 is in tears but will celebrate him for the legend that he was."

Although Kallon played for French top-flight club Monaco as well as three-time European champions Inter, Conteh did not reach such heights.

His club career began at home with Old Edwardians, with whom he won the Sierra Leone league title in 1990.

The forward then moved to Guinean club Horoya AC before a switch in 1992 to Belgian side Beerschot VAC, where he scored 13 goals in 48 appearances over three seasons.

Conteh then went on to play for SV Meppen in Germany, Boavista and Varzim in Portugal, Al Wahda in UAE and clubs in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand before ending his career in his homeland at East End Lions.

Beerschot paid tribute the player, labelling him "a technically strong and arrow-fast attacker".

"Junior played his way into the hearts of our supporters when he dribbled past everyone and left them on the floor in a home game against Anderlecht," a club statement said.

"Beerschot expresses its deepest sympathy to his family and many friends."

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