Asian Football Interviews

The ‘Lion’ that got away: An exclusive with Sirina Camara Part 1

Sirina Camara is a familiar name to those that have been following Singaporean football closely in recent years. He arrived on our shores in 2011 with Étoile FC, a foreign team comprised entirely of players of French origin. Following the dissolution of the club in 2012, Camara and some other French players remained in Singapore. Slowly though, these players left the country and ventured elsewhere, but Camara remained. He played in the S.League for a total of 8 years, where he spent a season at Young Lions FC, followed by a total of 6 seasons at Home United. During that time, the FAS seriously considered naturalizing the defender, along with other promising foreign stalwarts in the league like Jordan Webb, Paul Cunningham, and Song Ui-young. Yet, nothing materialized. Camara continued to occupy the foreign player slot and put in consistent performances for The Protectors. Then, in 2018, Camara abruptly left Home United in October and was never heard from again.

Photo Credits: Junpiter Futbol. Follow them on Insta!

Camara’s departure has always been a mystery to me. As an idealistic fan or perhaps a naive youth, I was confident that the Frenchman would be a mainstay at Home, if not the S.League, and eventually gain Singaporean citizenship. I knew he suffered an injury mid-way through the season which ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign, but something was off. Why did he not feature for Home the next season?

I reached out to Camara and he agreed to share his experience with me. And boy, was it an experience.

Early Days with Étoile and Missing Home

In 2011, Sirina Camara was not a professional footballer and instead had been playing for the LB Châteauroux Academy. After 4 years, it didn’t seem like he was going to make the cut to the Châteauroux team and he was weighing his options. At 18 years old, he had completed school and was forced to make a difficult decision – should he continue to play in the academy and hang on to his footballing dreams, or does he quit football entirely and look for a job. Camara chose the latter, and he took up a janitorial job cleaning offices. He was a janitor for 2 months, but it was barely enough to scrape by. His mother had fallen ill, and the responsibility to provide for his family fell on him. Then, out of nowhere, a call from an agent comes along. The agent informed him that there was an offer to trial for a French club in Singapore, and he’d have to fly down to Singapore in short notice. Given the dire financial situation he found himself in, he decided to take up the offer without a second thought.

“I won’t lie. I didn’t know where Singapore was in the world. I have never been to Asia before. But it was an exciting time for me. I was only 19 years old and one of the youngest in the Étoile FC squad. For me, when I got that offer, I told myself okay, let’s just go with it and see where this will take me.”

Camara was supposed to complete the two week trial with the club, head back to France to spend sometime with his family, and then return to Singapore to start the season. Things didn’t pan out that way though, and his initial stay in Singapore turned out to last a few months instead.

“When I arrived, it was already the Charity Shield tie against Tampines. After the Charity shield the league started [soon after]. So, I didn’t get the chance to return to France to tell my family that I signed with a club in Singapore and spend some time with them. Instead, I stayed here after signing the contract.”

It wasn’t until months later in August when Camara was able to head up to France. It was his sister’s wedding and he couldn’t control his emotions when he reunited with his family.

“I had 10 days and when I was back, I cried and hugged my family like as if I was not going to see them anymore. When you’re young, you’re innocent. You don’t really know [the value] of your family. You just want to go outside and play. Even when I was at the [Châteauroux] academy, I was only 2 hours away. It wasn’t long. But when you take a 13-hour flight and when you’re that far away from you family, it is very different. I realized the importance of family.

“When i came back [to France], I didn’t want to go back to Singapore. It was my first year. I was scared and I was young, only 19 years old. Luckily, my family talked to me and then just took me, put me in the plane and sent me back over there to play soccer.”

Embracing Local Culture and “becoming” Singaporean

Photo credits: KO PO HUI. Follow him on Insta!

Étoile finished 5th that season and after 2 seasons in the S.League, the club withdrew from the competition and instead focused on grassroots football development. Together with Étoile teammate Jonathan Toto, Camara was snapped up by Young Lions FC, the national under-23 developmental side. It marked the start of Camara’s career in a local club, and it was also the first time he was properly exposed to Singaporean culture. In fact, his time at Young Lions was one of his happiest years in Singapore. However, he initially faced issues due to the language barrier.

“When I was in Étoile, I did not need to speak in English because everyone spoke French. At Young Lions, Toto was with me and he always helped me translate because his English was very good. However, after some time, Toto told me we needed to stop speaking French and to just speak English [instead]. It was only through [practice] that my English would get better.”

To make matters worse, Camara was a shy person, and some of his teammates mistook him for being arrogant because he always kept to himself or stayed with Toto. Looking back, Camara understands why people might have seen him as arrogant. However, it was a case of him not knowing enough English to strike a conversation with local players.

Thankfully, his Young Lions teammates soon warmed up to the defender, and he claims that it was the local players that opened his eyes to Singaporean culture. That marked a paradigm shift for the Frenchman as he started to see Singapore and Asia in a different light. As a Muslim, he found it fascinating how he could find Halal food almost anywhere in Singapore and was awestruck by the religious and racial co-existence in the city.

“When I went back to France during my first year with Étoile, I only had little things to share about Singapore with my family because I always stayed home. It was home, training, home, training. My second year when I returned to France, I had a lot of stories to tell my family. My teammates always brought me outside and I tried so many cuisines [that I hadn’t tried before in my life]. Now my favourite Chinese food is Chicken Rice. My favourite Indian food is Butter Chicken and my favourite Malay food is Maggi Goreng.”

Chicken Rice, Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay

Besides the cuisine, Camara also experienced the festivities of other faiths for the first time, something that he fondly remembers while at Home United FC.

“I remember [Ang] Zhiwei [invited] me over to his house and spend Chinese New year with his family. My other friend, Arvin, brought me over to his house for Deepavali and he gave me all sorts of spicy food. It hurt me the morning after but the food was so good. I also celebrated Hari Raya with my fellow Muslim players and that made my mother happy. She calls me every Hari Raya because she’s concerned about my well-being and always tells me that she misses the fact I’m not there [in France]. I tell her not to worry because the people I am with, they are like my family.

“I am so thankful to all the players for taking me in and treating me like one of their own brothers. It is not easy for a foreigner to come to a new country that has a different culture but all the players I play with and even the managers, I am so thankful to them for making my stay enjoyable.”

Camara wasn’t just content with sharing details about Singapore to his loved ones back home in France. He believed they needed to fully understand his experience and thus made it a point to show his family and friends life in Singapore. He showed his family and friends around whenever they came down for a holiday and soon they too loved the city-state. Camara even declares that like him, his family and friends who have visited Singapore agree that the country is the best place they have ever visited. Still today, Camara acts like a spokesperson for the country, urging those around him to visit Singapore.

From the start till the end of his Young Lions tenure, he thoroughly enjoyed his playing time. With all his team mates being in the same age group, it felt as if he was back playing in the academy once again. However, he would only stay at the club for a single season before moving onto greener pastures.

Photo credits: KO PO HUI. Follow him on Insta!

In Part 2 of this interview, I’ll dive into the details of his unrealized dream of representing Singapore, Camara’s experience at Home United and how that stint with Home started brilliantly but then ended on a sour note. Stay tuned for that article which will be published on Thursday! Until then, we will be publishing articles on the Premier League and other footballing articles so take a look!

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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