Asian Football Interviews

The ‘Lion’ that got away: An exclusive with Sirina Camara Part 2

If you haven’t already done so, check out Part 1 of the article!

The Unrealized Dream of Representing Singapore

Camara wanted to give back to Singaporean football because the S.League and Home United not only gave him the chance to pursue a professional career, which was something he probably wouldn’t have in France but also so many other opportunities. One such opportunity came in 2014, when Camara was selected to represent a Singapore XI against big-name teams like Atlético Madrid and Arsenal. To rub shoulders with these players was a dream come true for the defender. Camara explains that even though his family weren’t too keen on him acquiring Singaporean citizenship, he was ready to grasp it if it was presented to him.

“How can I say no to Singapore? If it wasn’t for the FAS and Singapore, I would have never had the chance to play against Juventus and Arsenal [as part of the Singapore XI]. I was so thankful for that opportunity.

Singapore became his new home, and he felt eternally grateful for the opportunities presented to him by FAS, Home United, Young Lions, and the fans. To this day, I do not know why he wasn’t given Singaporean citizenship but I am unsurprised. The Foreign Talent Scheme hasn’t been in force for a while now, and it is hard for foreign players to gain Singaporean citizenship through personal attempts. Just ask Singapore icon Aleksandar Đurić, who only gained citizenship after his third time applying. Camara understands that it was probably difficult for the relevant authorities to grant him citizenship but the thought of being unable to represent Singapore pains him.

Fan Favourite with Home United and Leaving on a Sour Note (but still Loving Singapore)

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

At the end of the 2012 season, Home United head coach approached Camara to secure his services for The Protectors. Camara was blown away when he realized that Lee represented South Korea during the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France and he felt that he could benefit a lot under Lee’s guidance. If truth be told, Lee is arguably Camara’s biggest influence on his footballing career because he helped the Frenchman’s best position at centre-back.

“I was a Left back in France. When I first came to Singapore, I played as a left-winger. [Lee] told me that based on my vision and speed, I would become his centre back and then you can cover everybody [in defence].

“At first, when he told me that he wanted me to play as a centre-back, I was questioning if I made the right choice but I really wanted to further my progress as a player under his guidance. For me, the first month [adapting as a centre-back] was very hard but it was really the local players who helped through that transition. A lot of the senior players like Noh Rahman, Jordan Webb, Hafiz Osman, and Sharil Jantan treated me like their younger brother.”

It would be a fair assessment to say that Camara excelled in his new position with his new club. In his first season with The Protectors, the club were runners-up in the league and won the RHB Singapore Cup. Camara didn’t do too badly that year on a personal level as well. His outstanding performances at centre-back merited him the 2013 S.League Young Player of the Year accolade. The defender is extremely thankful for Lee and considers 2013 his best year in Singapore. From a statistical standpoint, he isn’t wrong either. Besides the team achievements, he scored the most number of goals that season – 6 goals while playing as a centre-back no less.

Home United featured regularly in the AFC Cup after the 2013 season, and it was real honour for Camara to not only represent Home United but also Singaporean football in the continental competition. He fondly remembers how after a match against Persija Jakarta in the ASEAN zonal semi-final round, other fans of other S.League clubs were congratulating Home United.

Wiining the RHB Singapore Cup, picture provided by Sirina Camara

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Camara’s departure took me by complete surprise, partly because I only realized he had completely left the club the following season. Sirina concedes that he is unsurprised that many people didn’t know about his departure because he refused to give an interview to many media outlets detailing the exit of his club – that is, until now.

The end of his time in Singapore was a bitter experience, and it still pains him to his day. He even shared that sometimes he dreams that he’s still in the Southeast Asian state, only to wake up to reality and realize he’s back in Paris.

In October 2018, after months out with an injury and amidst his rehabilitation, Camara was asked to leave his apartment and move back to France. To understand why it had come to this, we need to take a look at the start of the 2018 campaign.

At the end of 2017, things looked good for the Frenchman. Then-head coach Aidil Sharin offered Camara the opportunity to become club captain, but the defender declined. He believed that he already was a leader in the dressing room and felt strongly that a local player should be handed the arm band. While one might think that was a sign of promising things in store for the player, that was far from the case.

Instead of featuring in the starting eleven, Camara found himself regularly on the substitutes bench. This setback didn’t deter him from giving it his all and he consistently either scored or assisted from the bench. However, Camara noted how there was tension between him and Sharin.

“I knew Sharin since 2013 when I first signed for Home United. I just wanted him to talk to me. I don’t know why I was treated the way I was. I was in the first team and everything was going well. Then suddenly, I don’t know, the coach who you know for 5 years already doesn’t talk to you and just puts you on the bench. But you’re expected to show him results when you come in as a sub. Even when you show him, you don’t understand why you don’t start. Till today, that’s something I don’t understand.

“I was very very lucky that my local teammates were there for me. I can’t just thank them enough. I felt like in my last year the coach and Home United were my enemy.”

Then tragedy struck when Camara suffered a long-term injury that sidelined him until 2019. Home United signed former Australia U-23 player Isaka Cernak as cover for the Frenchman, but as a fan I believed that Camara would be back in the squad the following campaign. Yet, that injury essentially marked the end of his time with Home United.

The biggest issue for Camara was the manner in which he was let go. While still in the middle of his rehabilitation, he was informed that he was released by the club via text messages. It infuriated Camara that the club didn’t inform him about his release face to face. He felt like he was treated as an outsider, “like a foreigner.” Home United were rushing him to go back to France and Camara didn’t want to kick up a fuss, so he packed his bags and flew back to Paris.

Picture provided by Sirina Camara

“I had a lot of opportunities presented to me but the way they ended things with me, I was very very angry. So I said, okay if you want to do these kinds of things with me, see you, bye-bye, au revoir.”

Talking to Camara, I can sense how his final season in Singapore was a bitter experience. It stings even more because time after time he rejected better offers that came to him, he was loyal to The Protectors and stayed with the club. When he first arrived at the club, management told him that compared to every other club in Singapore, Home United is a family. Up until that season, the defender truly believed that notion, and it was this family spirit that convinced him to reject advances by other clubs. He was even close with Sharin, so I guess it is rather baffling to hear how things panned out towards the end.

This is of course a one-sided narrative of the events that transpired, and I do agree that it is important to find out from Sharin and the then-Home United management what happened from their perspective. However, Camara’s story sheds light on how Singaporean Football is, at end of the day, a business.

2018 also marked the last year of Camara’s footballing career. He never fully recovered from his injury. Even today, he still says that he hasn’t completely rehabilitated so he isn’t 100%. The injury was supposed to sideline him for 3 months, and Camara thought he could rehabilitate in France after his release from Home United. However, in France, he hasn’t been able to receive proper rehabilitation because he lost some of his identity papers. It has been more than a year, and the defender still complains that the injury causes issues for him. During trials with clubs in France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, his injury acted up and it prevented him from continuing his professional career in France.

Life after Football and Hero Status in his Community

After concluding that the curtain had come down on his professional career, he took up a job as an animateur socio culturel or social-pedagogical worker in Mairie Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. Recently, he has also taken up a second job as a Under-6 and Under-7 coach at Red Star FC 93, the club where his footballing journey first started. Besides working in Paris, he also engages in a ton of community outreach programmes.

Camara has also become a hero in his own community, with many people wearing his Home United jersey. Often asked by his family to bring back jerseys for their neighbours and friends in the area, Camara claims he has brought back at least 100 of his jerseys yearly back to France. He still sees people around his area wearing his jersey, and that is a testament to how far he’s made it as a professional football player – from giving up on football entirely to forging a successful career that spanned 8 years in Singapore.

He looks forward to coming back to Singapore and seeing all his friends and eating his favourite Maggi Goreng again. Among his friends, he can’t wait to see Anumanthan Kumar, who now plays for Hougang United, and Song Ui-young, who remained with Home United (which has now become privatized and turned into Lion City Sailors FC). I look forward to the day Camara returns back home to Singapore and I am sure his former teammates and fans would like to catch up with him as well.

Besides his best friends, Anu and Song, he says he is grateful to a lot of people during his time in Singapore. He said he never got the time to thank all the fans, FAS, Home United FC, Young Lions before he left Singapore. He also wanted to thank his compatriots Khalid Bouhrim, Antony Aymard, Kamel Chaaouane, Selim Kaabi, Jean-Charles Blanpîn, Hadama Bathily, Franklin Anzinte, and Frédéric Mendy for making his time in Singapore all the more special. He also feels grateful to have his mother, his sister, Moussoukaye Goroye, and his brothers, Bilali and Youba, for supporting him throughout his entire footballing journey.

After my interview with Camara, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that he isn’t in Singapore anymore. France may have been the country where he was born, but it is clear as day that he wanted to call Singapore his new home. He is nothing but thankful for the opportunities presented to him, and his only regrets were that he couldn’t stay here longer and that he couldn’t represent Singapore and give back to the country. There are reasons as to why Camara did not get naturalized as well as why Home axed him the way they did. They may be good reasons and I am mindful of that. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what if. What if Camara was naturalized and he had gone on to play for the country? What if another club signed Camara instead? It is undeniable that he was a passionate footballer who clearly added quality to local sides. After all, Home United kept him for 6 seasons. The injury undoubtedly played a significant part in ending his stint in Singapore and it’s unfortunate that it did. I daresay that it wasn’t just Home United which lost an exceptional talent, but Singaporean football as a whole.

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