Kei Kamara has lived many lives in his 30 years. He grew up in the midst of a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone and was a refugee granted asylum in USA during his teenage years.
He went to university before becoming a professional footballer in his early 20s, bouncing around Major League Soccer with greater and greater success until given a chance to try his hand in England's top divisions. He became an idol in his native country after becoming a regular for the Leone Stars and scoring the first-ever Premier League goal by a Sierra Leonean before returning to the USA where he has added MLS Golden Boot favourite to his resume.
“I wouldn't change anything I have been through,” the live-wire Columbus Crew forward told FIFA.com recently. “It has made me a man today. My past made me respect my country and be prepared to make sacrifices. I don't want anybody to grow up in a situation like I did. I was blessed to come to the USA, and I appreciate everything I was given in America - the land of opportunity. Now I'm trying to use my situation to give back to my country.”
That wish is not always the simplest proposition given that Sierra Leone's national team have often struggled to put their best foot forward in the face of organisational and economic struggles. This has been particularly true since the Ebola epidemic left football activities in the country suspended and many players shunned around the world. But with reports saying the outbreak is now over, the national team has turned its hopeful eyes to the qualifying campaigns for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and of course the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, which begins in October with a two-legged tie against Chad.
It's an amazing feeling to be with the team. We click so much together. I know when the music is on in the locker room - that's when we start to connect.
Kei Kamara on his Sierra Leone team-mates
A caretaker coach in the form of Ghana's Sellas Tetteh has been brought in to shepherd the team through the end of the year, and although Kamara has had no contact with the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup winner, he is quick to speak of the side's potential.
“We always have a lot of talent, and the players are very committed to playing for the country,” he said. “We owe a lot to the supporters. We know where we've come from, how far we've gone and where we want to go, but maybe we haven't been given all of the chances we need.
"The pool of good players is big, but if you don't prepare for success, you're not going to get it. In the past, that's how it has gone. We've had growth, but when I think about what we could do with just a little more preparation...” After seven years in the national team set-up and a handful of appearances as captain, Kamara may be integral to helping his Sierra Leone squad get back to its best.
“I'm always ready to play for my country, and I try to be a bit of a leader with the Leone Stars," Kamara explained. "It's an amazing feeling to be with the team. We click so much together. I know when the music is on in the locker room - that's when we start to connect.”
Fighting for respect
If Sierra Leone are underdogs to return to their glory days of the mid-1990s when they reached their only two AFCONs, or even to hit the highs of earlier this decade when they climbed almost 80 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking after having the better of both South Africa and Egypt, Kamara knows they will have to fight for respect, which is something he is used to.
Despite scoring a league-leading 18 goals and adding seven assists in his 26 MLS matches to date this season, he was not picked for the starting XI of MLS's mid-season All-Star Team by either the fans or commissioner, losing out to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, neither of whom had even made a league appearance. But such is his nature that Kamara laughed it off and kept scoring goals. Likewise, his spell in England with Norwich City and Middlesbrough seemed too short, but he stresses the positives.
“It was one of the biggest achievements of my career, and it helped me improve so much,” Kamara said. “Everything happens for a reason. I'd have loved to stay and play more with Norwich, but soccer players never know where they'll end up. Now I feel like I'm in the prime of my career. I'm leading the league in goals and I couldn't be happier.”
His happiness comes through clearly in his playful interplay with fans on Twitter and in person, as well as in his elaborate goal celebrations. “I love connecting with people, and to do that I have to show my personality, and those celebrations are my personality. I love to have fun and enjoy myself.”
If Sierra Leone are in entering a period of question marks, Kamara is bullish about the Crew this term, saying the side is more than capable of winning their second MLS Cup. It would be a fitting end to a year that also saw him score his biggest goal: a new baby daughter. “She's amazing. She's my good luck charm at the moment.”