Antonio Rudiger discusses his recent trip to Sierra Leone and the work he is overseeing to make a real difference in the country…

For some, the recent winter break was a chance to switch off and take a well-earned rest following the hectic football schedule throughout December and January. Yet for Rudiger, it was an opportunity to step up as he headed to Sierra Leone, the homeland of his mother, to launch a new foundation focused on driving change and improving the fortunes of those in the small west African nation.

Even though he lives in England, was born in Berlin and represents the German national team, Rudiger’s roots are firmly planted in Sierra Leone. His mother was born in the country and his parents recently moved back there after raising their family in Europe. He feels a sense of duty to use his profile and popularity to make a difference.

‘It was a wonderful trip,’ he told us after returning to Cobham. ‘It was the second time visiting the country for me, although this time it was a bit more intense with some busy days launching my foundation and meeting the president.

‘I wanted to do this for some time because it was very personal to me so when I heard we were having a week off, I was planning from there. My parents moved back four years ago and I haven’t seen my mother for ages so that’s why it was clear for me to go back to Sierra Leone.’

Rudiger’s charitable foundation has some ambitious and far-reaching aims centred on improving education, infrastructure and inclusivity in sport, as well as wider education and literacy in a country with a population of eight million.

While progress has been made over the past decade in improving prosperity throughout the nation, the poverty rate remains at 43 per cent according to the latest update from international development organisation World Bank.

‘The whole purpose of the foundation is to help the underprivileged move forward in the future,’ explained Rudiger. ‘It was important for me to do this in Sierra Leone because I wanted to connect with the people.

‘It’s not a one-man show. I want to partner up with people and organisations so we can work hand-in-hand to create a better future for the younger generation.’

Rudiger’s foundation builds on previous work he has done in Sierra Leone. As part of the Covid-19 pandemic response, the Chelsea defender sent food to frontline health workers in the country and provided 60,000 face masks to the wider population.

Earlier in 2020, he donated over $100,000 to Sierra Leone’s Free Quality Education initiative, which aims to support over two million children in primary and secondary schools, while recently he funded life-changing operations for 11 children with club feet. As part of his trip, the 28-year-old also visited the Sierra Leone Amputee football team.

‘That is part of our focus on sports inclusivity,’ he continued. ‘These people have the same passion and love for football as I do but unfortunately they have suffered some serious injuries.

‘I don’t want these people to go down in society. I want them to have the limelight as well so we have to get them involved and give them the attention. It’s the same with gender and women. I want it to be equal for everyone.’

African sport is enjoying the limelight as the African Cup of Nations reaches the latter stages, with Edouard Mendy’s Senegal recently booking their place in Sunday’s final. For Sierra Leone, who were involved in the tournament for the first time since 1996, it was a chance to show the world their strengths and attributes, even if they did miss out on a place in the last-16.

Rudiger also wants to keep pushing the agenda for Sierra Leone and his appointment as a football ambassador for the country is designed to continue the country’s rise to prominence on the international stage. On a more individual level though, it is the improvement of opportunities, hopes and dreams that matters most.

‘The boys deserve a lot of credit because they did great work to qualify for the first time in 25 years,’ added Rudiger.

‘It helps to put Sierra Leone in a different light because everything you hear about the country is the civil war or the Ebola virus. It’s mostly negative things so it was refreshing to see us in a different light.

‘Of course, to get honoured by the president is probably the biggest thing you can receive so I am really honoured and proud. The reception I received from the people was overwhelming and I really didn’t expect it.

‘Chelsea also plays a big role in that because when you come to a big club like this, your popularity grows. It’s so nice to see people walking around with my name on their shirts, or even making their own shirts with prints and everything. It convinces me to keep going.’