Former England defender Steven Caulker says he has a strong connection with Sierra Leone as he awaits FIFA clearance to play for the Leone Stars. The former Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool centre-back, who played for England in 2012, has a link with the west African country through his paternal grandfather.
"My granddad was from Sierra Leone - he told me stories when I was younger," the 29-year-old, who plays for Gaziantep on loan from fellow Turkish club Fenerbahce, said.
"When I was old enough and had enough money, I went to visit myself. I went to places where he grew up, I spent some nights in the villages there and some nights in Kambia, Bo and (the capital) Freetown.
"I feel a connection with the country, so for me to have the opportunity now to represent them at international level is a huge honour." Caulker, who made several visits to Sierra Leone before deciding to switch his allegiance, says he has already given back to the country.
"I visited Sierra Leone many times in the past and I have built a school in Kambia," he said.
"My plan from the age of 19 was to give back to Africa, in particular Sierra Leone. I'm doing so, and I plan to build more schools. I was helping during the period of the Ebola outbreak [2014-2016] in the country, so this is another exciting part of my journey."
Caulker made a single appearance for England in a 4-2 loss to Sweden in November 2012, managing to also get on the scoresheet that night. But he is allowed to swap countries under FIFA regulations as his cap came in a friendly.
He says it was an obvious choice for him to make when he was approached by the Sierra Leone FA, and is now eyeing the chance to play at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon in January.
"I had some time to think about the possibility of playing for Sierra Leone, what it feels like, what it will look like," he said. "I played for England at the age of 20 but since then I haven't played.
"The chance to come to Sierra Leone and play in the Nations Cup, and get behind the nation in this exciting moment, it became an easy decision to make. I am just really happy I made it."
Caulker, who also played for Cardiff City and Queens Park Rangers, was called up by Sierra Leone for the first time for friendlies in Morocco earlier this month. Although he is still waiting for clearance from FIFA, he played in one of the friendlies - a non-FIFA sanctioned match against a team of locally-based Moroccan players, which Sierra Leone lost 2-1.
Caulker believes the Leone Stars have good players and hopes the team can impress when they return to the Nations Cup after a 25-year absence. "I was with the team for a few days in Morocco and watched them in action against South Sudan and The Gambia," he said.
"I think we have a lot of qualities. We have a good young coach [John Keister], a good set-up and a lot of boys who are hungry to achieve success with the national team. I want to be part of that and I hope we can be successful in the Nations Cup.
"We all know that it's going to be difficult but I believe in the team, in our coach and we are all working hard to be best-prepared for the tournament. Off the pitch, I hope to inspire children all around the world - in particular, in Sierra Leone - to play football, to feel the joy that we all feel when we put on the national shirt."
Before Caulker's solitary cap with England, he played every single minute of Great Britain's campaign at the London 2012 Olympics. He describes the Games as a "fantastic experience", but thinks featuring in the Nations Cup could outrank it.
"It's funny because when I made the decision to come and play for Sierra Leone, there were great comparisons made by my dad around the Olympics and the Africa Cup of Nations," he said. "As he described to me, looking back the Olympics was such an amazing experience but the Nations Cup could be even better.
I think it's going to be great, especially after such a hard time with the coronavirus. So, I'm excited, my family is excited and I hope we can be successful."
Sierra Leone have been drawn in a challenging Group E of the Nations Cup, alongside defending champions Algeria, 2015 winners Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea. Caulker is hoping his clearance comes through far in advance of the tournament's start on January 9, and might be dreaming about still being involved when the final takes place on February 6.