Tag Archives: France

The Longest Serving French Jaguar: A chat with Anthony Aymard Part 1

It would appear that I truly have a knack of tracking down former Étoile FC players…

To ardent Tanjong Pagar United fans, Anthony Aymard is not an unfamiliar name. The French defender spent 3 seasons with the Jaguars between 2012 and 2015. I managed to track down Anthony Aymard recently and interview the player about his time in Singapore and journey as a footballer. In part 1 of his story, I will look at how he makes the move to Singapore and plays for Étoile, his return to France, and how he managed to secure a contract with Tanjong Pagar – interestingly where he’d go on to become the longest serving French player for the club (and mind you, they had a number of Frenchmen between 2011 and 2014).

Beginnings in Central France

Like Sirina Camara and Jonathan Toto, Aymard came to Singapore through Étoile FC in 2011. However, unlike his peers, he never came from a professional youth set up. Born in central France, Aymard grew up in Saint-Étienne and rose through the age groups of Le Puy Foot 43 Auvergne. Back then, Le Puy was an amateur club, but it has since become a semi-professional outfit. The team currently plays in the Championnat National 2, the 4th tier of French football. After years playing at various stages of the youth football, Aymard managed to break into the first team set up in 2009. During one such first-team training session, his life was about to change.

Aymard Positioned Bottom Extreme Left. Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

Aymard turned up to training and noticed a new face, someone who was about to change his life. This individual was none other than ex-Gombak United player Johan Gouttefangeas, the man responsible for the creation of Étoile and launching the French-based club in 2010. Gouttefangeas actually came from the same city as Aymard. Even though he was not playing for Le Puy, he had been training with the club for a while. Soon, Aymard and Gouttefangeas became acquainted. Gouttefangeas, impressed with Aymard’s ability, discussed his impending project with Étoile.

“He told me that [since] I just started playing at the senior level at 20, I think [by going to Singapore], I could really do something. He said, ‘you could go there and try to see if you could break into the team. Maybe you could could come in as a substitute for games.’ Either way, he said it would be a good experience for me.”

Aymard was incredibly interested in the Étoile project, but he did not lie. Had you asked him where Singapore was on the map, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

As the Étoile project increasingly materialized, trials were conducted sometime in late 2009 for French players to be recruited for the club in Singapore. Aymard may have linked up with the 2010 side that won the S.League in their debut season. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury nearing the trials that sidelined him for a couple of months. As such, he had to miss the trials for the 2010 season.

Yet, in early 2011, an opportunity to play for Étoile beckoned once again for Aymard as the club held another trial at Toulouse. After the club’s success of clinching the S.League title, they wanted to continue their momentum but only retained a few players, with many either returning to France, joining Singaporean clubs, or transferring to other teams in the region.

“I remember getting a call on the 31st of December and I was with friends at Barcelona for holiday. The call was from Gouttefangeas and he asked if I could come down to Toulouse next week for a trial. And so I said okay.”

During the trials, Aymard really stood out because he realized that he came from the lowest footballing level. Other players had either played professionally or semi-professionally. He was the only player who came from a fully amateur background. Despite the gulf in level, Aymard shone brilliantly during the trials and Gouttefangeas rang him up a week later to offer him an opportunity to play in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

“I was still a student at that point and I had 6 months left for my degree. So, I had to discuss this with my friends. My dad told my I’m insane and questioned what I was going to do there [in Singapore]. I told him I needed the experience and justified the move saying I will come back learning how to speak English. The funny part was that, since I was only with the French players, I went to Singapore with zero English and I came back with zero English. The idea was to go to Singapore for a year and come back to finish the remaining 6 months of my degree.”

The First Season with Étoile and Return to France

Aymard left Paris and headed to Bangkok to link up with the Étoile squad for a training camp and played a series of friendlies against Thai sides, including Muangthong United. Playing in humid and hot temperatures was a challenging experience for the Frenchman.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“We played one friendly against Muangthong, a good team in Thailand. [The Étoile players] didn’t know each other but we could all see that there was quality in the team. I remember playing the match at 3pm. For the first 30 minutes, we smashed 2 goals past them. Then, after that, we were done. It was so hot and we were all exhausted. Then Muangthong scored a few past us and we lost something like 4-2.”

After a 10 day pre-season stint at Thailand, Aymard headed to Singapore for the Charity Shield against Tampines and was pleasantly surprised to find his name in the starting eleven. Usually playing as a centre-back in France, he played at right-back for that match but didn’t expect to start much later for the season, given his lack of professional experience. Yet, Aymard found himself playing quite a bit that season. In fact, he was the primary right-back for Étoile and played a total of 26 games.

Despite the significant game time, Aymard and co. were unable to repeat the momentous feat of their compatriots a season earlier. The French-based club finished in 5th position, which was disappointing to say the least. It would be the final season for Étoile in the S.League, and the club pulled out of the league altogether, opting to focus on grassroots football instead – something that Étoile is still engaged in. Aymard reveals that monetary issues led to the closure of the club. Towards the end of 2011, salary problems plagued the clubs for months, with the club paying partial payments of their salaries. In the end, Étoile managed to pay most players who came back to Singapore for the 2012 season. Yet, there were also some, like those that did not return, supposedly missing 2 to 3 months of their salary.

“You know, the last 2 to 3 games of the season. I remember that some players were talking in the changing room that if they recieve no salary, they would not play. The boss didn’t want word to spread around outside of Singapore. So, he would pay some money urging the players to play and promising them they will get the rest later on.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Johan Gouttefangeas was the chairman of the club but he was not the financier of the club. There was some businessman in Singapore financing it and so I remember filing a report with MOM (Ministry of Manpower) and in 2 to 3 months I received my money. I remembered before the report with MOM, I kept on emailing him and emailing him but there was nothing, no response. Then after the report, I remember the [financier’s] secretary calls me up and tells me they have the money and whether I could come on down to Raffles Place. I remember that. She gives me a cheque and I was kind of [uncertain] because when we were playing at Etoile, we would cash in the cheques [issued to us] but they would bounce back. There was no money.”

Aymard only received his owed salary mid-way during the 2012 S.League season when he returned to start his second chapter in Singapore. This time with Tanjong Pagar. Also it’s important to note that the financier is not associated with Etoile FC Academy run by Ludovic Casset.

Return to Singapore and The Quest to Find for a Club

After the end of the 2011 season, Aymard went back to France and waited patiently for an official contract from Étoile. The club officials had promised the players that the 2012 season would be better financially if the club kept going. However, the contract never came. Instead, an email explaining the club’s decision to pull out of the league entirely.

Unlike some of his other teammates, Aymard had limited contacts and had no chance to try his luck elsewhere in the region. Neither did he have a chance with other clubs in Singapore because they had mostly filled out their foreign player slots by the time Étoile’s decided to exit the league. Instead, he played for 6 months with Le Puy yet again and also juggled working at Decathlon during this period.

The goal was to try his luck yet again mid-way through the S.League in June. Aymard knew Sirina Camara was still there, and he often called Aymard to come to Singapore for holiday and to try. So he decided to try his luck in Singapore with no offers on the table. Thankfully, he did have friends in the country. Besides Sirina, he also knew Jonathan Toto, Franklin Anzité, and Frederic Mendy.

Franklin Anzité was away on international duty with Central African Republic when Aymard arrived in Singapore and gave his housekeys to Mendy so that Aymard could have a place to stay while searching for an opportunity.

“I prepared my CV but I really had no contacts whatsoever. Then I recalled something. In 2011, I remember one of the biggest sports channels in France came over to Singapore to do a documentary on Étoile. They followed us around and interviewed us and showed our game against Tampines. So I looked up the documentary on youtube and I saw a FAS representative who spoke in the video and I took down his name.”

This FAS representative was none other than Ridzal Saat, who was Deputy Director for Development and Planning in the FAS. In 2014, Saat would be headhunted by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to become its Services Manager for Asia.

“I tried to find his contact and I did. So I emailed him before leaving for Singapore, asking about any way I could reach out to clubs to ask about transfers. Three to four days later, 24 hours after landing in Singapore, [Saat] emailed me back. He informed me that he heard Tanjong Pagar was looking for new foreign players after letting go some of them. He gave me their manager details who I contacted and the manager asked me to come the next day for training at Queenstown Stadium.

“I remember telling Sirina when I landed I have no club. Sirina responded telling we could go to Hougang and here and there to try and get me a club. Then after Saat’s email the next day, I told Sirina I’m training with Tanjong Pagar. He was shocked at how fast I managed to get a trial.

“The coach at the time was Singapore legend Terry Pathmanathan and he was a very strict guy. You know, no smiles. But, he was a centre-back as a player and he was focusing on me a lot. There was another player on trial and that was Carlos Delgado. That time they already had 2 foreign players and Tanjong Pagar needed just two more to fill their foreign player spots. After 1 to 2 players, the assistant coach, Tokijan, told me to go and take the beep test.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Thankfully, Aymard managed to pass the beep test and he was offered a 6 month contract. What is truly remarkable is how lucky Aymard was. He returned to Singapore in June 2012 with absolutely nothing – no concrete offers whatsoever. He had a return ticket a month later. To him, if he had received a contract, he would stay. If not, he was going to enjoy this month long vacation with his former teammates before returning home and deciding what’s next. Yet, the stars seemed to have aligned in his favour and everything worked out just fine for the talented Frenchman.

In Part 2, I look at Aymard’s time playing with Tanjong Pagar and later on with Phnom Penh Crown Football Club as well as what he’s up to nowadays.

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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 […]

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

It’s Time to Start Appreciating Karim Benzema

Featured Image by WONJONGSUNG from Pixabay

The Frenchman is now getting his time in the spotlight, time that has been due for a while now…

What if I told you there was a player out there who is among the best in his position of his generation and we are not appreciating him nearly enough? A player who came out of one of the best academies in Europe, won several league titles and a league player of the year award with his boyhood club before earning a big money move to European giants Real Madrid. At Real Madrid, he won three league titles and four Champions Leagues, adding to his already crowded honors list. He is currently Real Madrid’s fifth highest ever goalscorer with 249, their top assister with 133, and one of only four players to score 20-plus goals in eight or more seasons for Los Blancos, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stéfano, and Raúl. He amassed those 249 goals and 133 assists in a little over 500 games, with a goals-to-game ratio of around .50, seemingly the golden standard of being a world-class forward. He has just wrapped up a second consecutive season of being his team’s arguably best and most important player, and he has helped Real Madrid to their first league title in the post-Ronaldo era.

And this player is being underrated seemingly to a criminal degree.

Yes, this is not a guessing game. You read the title, so you know I am referring to current Real Madrid and ex-Lyon striker Karim Benzema. You probably have your own opinions on Benzema, quite a few people do, but hear me out first.

Benzema has begun to earn his deserved praise this season. He was arguably Real Madrid’s most important player and easily their most important attacking player, scoring 27 goals and adding 11 assists in all competitions. With Ronaldo gone, Bale permanently stuck on the bench, and Hazard struggling to fully adapt to life in the Spanish capital, Benzema has been the main guy for Zidane going forward. In a team that does not score too many goals, at least compared to previous Real Madrid teams, Benzema is often the irreplaceable part of their attack. Los Blancos only scored 70 league goals this season, so Benzema’s 21 league goals and eight league assists by himself accounted for a little more than 40% of his team’s scoring output in the league. You could very well make the claim that Benzema had the best season of any player in La Liga not named Lionel Messi, and that would not be an outlandish argument to make. Real Madrid’s 2018/19 campaign was one to forget, but Benzema was also near this level that season as well, bringing in 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions and being responsible for around a third of Real Madrid’s league goals that season. He was seemingly their sole shining light from a dreadful year.

This praise has come in the last two years, but it is long overdue. Benzema is obviously shining now, and you can argue he is simply just stepping up in Ronaldo’s absence, but he has been an important player in previous years as well. He just never got the credit he deserved.

Benzema was an unbelievable player for Lyon. I would argue he remains the most talented player to emerge from their now-world famous academy. He earned his big-money move to Real Madrid, where, yes, he did initially struggle. He played second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuaín, and he had issues with his fitness. The first two seasons under José Mourinho were very tough, but he fought through and earned his place in the team. Mourinho himself gave all credit to Benzema for transforming himself as a player to fit into the team. Succeeding in the famed white shirt is quite difficult, even for talented players. Just look at Hazard’s struggles this season. There is a significant list of talented footballers who failed to adapt to life in Madrid and failed to live up to the weight and expectation that wearing that white shirt brings, so Benzema’s ability to overcome initial struggles to have the level of longevity and greatness that he has had is something that is not commended enough.

But let us move on past those first few years. Since then, Real Madrid added Gareth Bale to their strike force, forming the notorious “BBC” triad up front. They were one of the best attacking units in Europe, scoring and winning at a historic level. Despite this, however, Benzema was still the target of criticism. He seemed to constantly be the butt of the joke, with many viewing him as the ugly duckling of the trio. He seemed to be viewed as the less shiny and flashy player surrounded by two superstars. To be fair, it is hard to truly shine when an all-time great like Ronaldo did ridiculous things on a weekly basis, but the conversation seemed to be more than that. The discussions seemed to center around how good Real Madrid would be when they finally sold Benzema and replaced him with a “better” player. I will forever stand by the argument that not only would replacing Benzema not have made Real Madrid better, it would, in fact, have made them worse.

I am not going to roll out the generic “Benzema sacrificed for Ronaldo” line, as I do not feel it is nuanced enough to describe Benzema as a player and what made him so important for those Real Madrid teams. Benzema is a very well-rounded forward, able to use pace to get in behind defenses and use strength to hold the ball up and act as a target man. Possibly his best strength lies in his positional sense and passing ability, which saw him mostly deployed as a center forward or “false nine”. In this role, he is able to do everything I said above, but also be tasked with dropping into space between the lines to receive the ball and pass, as well as make movements and runs that move around and draw the attention of the defenders, often opening up space for his teammates to occupy or run into. It is similar to the role that Roberto Firmino plays for this current Liverpool team. Firmino has the ability to drop into space or play as a traditional number nine, and his ability to make dummy runs and occupy the center backs opens up the space for Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to get into good goalscoring positions and make dangerous attacking runs. This similar idea is applied here. This role, and his traits that perfectly fit the role, has allowed Benzema to turn provider on several occasions, often being Real Madrid’s leading assister and why he has so many career assists for a striker, and to make the runs or take up the positions that opens up space for Ronaldo and Bale to attack. This, many times, happened between him and Ronaldo, where he was able to hold the ball up slightly or make a dummy run toward the left that moved the center back or fullback wider, opening up space for Ronaldo to cut inside. He also had the ability to make runs wide and make plays from a wide area, which allowed Ronaldo to swap places with him and move into the 18-yard box, able to take advantage of his physical skills to score off of crosses or other center forward-like goals. This is where the “sacrificing for Ronaldo” narrative comes from, but it really does not give Benzema enough credit. Simply saying he is sacrificing implies it is something any striker could do instead of it being a use of Benzema’s skill set and high football intelligence that actively makes those Real Madrid teams better. His understanding of space and ability to make the runs or play the passes that gets his teammates in great goalscoring positions is a very unique skill that very few forwards possess at this level, and his ability to combine that with a very good end product is what makes him such an incredible player. He has done significant work as a player to bind that attack together and make them the cohesive unit that they were at their peak. Had Real Madrid decided to sell him, those traits would be gone, and they would not have been as fluid of an attacking unit. There are very few players that Real Madrid could have brought in to truly replace Benzema in that team, as there are not many that bring the specific skills and traits that allowed him to glue that attack together. It is Benzema’s well-roundedness as a forward that makes him such an elite player and so important to that team.

Also, let’s not pretend that he was simply there to run around and allow Ronaldo to score. He has had some statistically impactful seasons in that “BBC” trio. Bar two seasons, he has scored 20-plus goals in all competitions as part of that front three, as well as adding a minimum of five assists onto that total. He reached double digit assists in the league three times and never had less than eight assists in all competitions since Bale’s arrival, amassing 16 and 15 in all competitions in Bale’s first two seasons in Madrid. People talk about his five league goals in 2017/18, which seemingly indicates a poor season for a striker, but people do not talk about that he had double digit assists, being Real Madrid’s leading provider that season, and he had five more Champions League goals in nine games on the way to Los Blancos being crowned European Champions again. His worst season as a member of the “BBC” was still a fairly good season. And let’s not forget those milestones I mentioned at the beginning of the piece. He is Real Madrid’s fifth-highest ever goalscorer, leading assister, and one of only four Madridista players to have at least eight 20-plus goal seasons in the famous white shirt. He seemingly remained the butt of the joke until recently despite constantly and continuing to be one of Real Madrid’s most important players in every sense.

Now, let’s talk about big moments. Every great player has big moments they are remembered for, right? When talking about Benzema’s big moments, one definitely springs to mind for everyone: his famous elastico-assist against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League in 2017. However, many of his other big moments seem to be ignored. People laugh about his fortunate goal in the Champions League Final against Liverpool in 2018, but many forget it was his two goals against Bayern Munich in the semifinal that got them into the final. He scored two crucial goals against Valencia in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey in 2013. He scored goals in Madrid Derbies and in El Clasicos, including a notable equalizer in a 2-1 Real Madrid win over Barcelona in 2014 that came very close to being a title-deciding match. This is also ignoring him scoring possibly the goal of the season, his volley against Valencia, and assist of the season, his back heel pass against Espanyol, as part of his scintillating form at the end of this past season. Yes, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo, no one on planet Earth is. However, Benzema has had his fair share of incredible moments in a Real Madrid shirt, moments that deserve recognition for a near-legendary Madridista.

In another sense, maybe this is where some of the criticism stems from. Yes, he has had fantastic moments and scored important goals, but he has had very few spectacular, “wow” moments in his career outside of that elastico-assist. When he was playing alongside Ronaldo and Bale, who scored brilliant highlight-reel goals on a near-regular basis during their peaks in Madrid, he often looked like a member of the supporting cast instead of one of the main protagonists. Football media also latched onto the extraordinary play of other forwards, who shined brighter than Benzema at times. He often looks ordinary, while Bale and Ronaldo, Falcao and Lewandowski, Mbappé and Griezmann, looked extraordinary. His “ordinary”, and it is still quite unfair to him to call him ordinary, has not made him a bad player, however, but it unfortunately cast him in the shadow of the extraordinary moments of his teammates or others who caught the eye of the football world. It is that “ordinary”, however, that is what made, and still makes, Benzema so important for Real Madrid, and his consistency in that regard has allowed him to outlast many of the shiny toys Real Madrid brought in to star in their attack. Real Madrid, as a club, lack patience and know how rich they are, having the ability to snap up the best and brightest talent from all corners of the globe. Benzema was one of those players, but he arrived with little fanfare compared to Ronaldo and Kaká, who arrived at the same time. Since Benzema moved to Madrid, they have also brought in the likes of James Rodríguez, Isco, Álvaro Morata, and Luka Jović, meant to be the new bright star to go into their forward line and take it to the next level. While they had their bright moments, they all faded in time, while Benzema still remains. New York Times football correspondent Rory Smith called Benzema the “Low-Wattage Galactico”, and I cannot think of a better way to describe this idea. His game was never the flashiest or the most ridiculous or insane, but Benzema was, and still is, a world-class forward who was and is an integral part of the Real Madrid team. His light just so happened to be a little bit dimmer than some of the players that he played alongside, but it did not make him any less integral to the team.

I have shown you one of the best strikers of a generation. He is probably the most complete and well-rounded striker of his generation. He has won basically everything there is to win in football, he holds high accolades at arguably the biggest club in the world, and, when you get right down to it, he is an incredibly impressive and productive player statistically and has the skill set needed to bring a team together on the pitch. Other players rightly get praised for their ability to do exactly what he has been ignored for doing for nearly half a decade, and he is often criticized for not producing at a high level when, if you look at the statistics, he actually has been doing for basically his whole career. I have laid the case out in front of you; we have a player currently playing at a world-class level right now who is not being given nearly enough credit. He has done everything throughout his career to earn the title of “world class”, and his resumé and accolades include almost everything a footballer can win. As I said in the beginning:

It is time to start appreciating Karim Benzema, and we need to appreciate him for whatever time is left in his career. He more than deserves it.

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. Till 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 of 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. I initially 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 too badly that year on a personal level as well. His outstanding performances at center-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 stand point, he isn’t wrong either. Besides the team achievements, he scored the most number of goals that season – 6 goals while playing as a center-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 till 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 kind 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 neighbors 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 of 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 know 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 got 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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