National Writer: Charles Boehm

Exclusive | Kei Kamara on Sierra Leone’s AFCON heroics: "Our people deserve this"

This month Sierra Leone made their first appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations in a quarter-century and didn’t take long to become one of the most inspiring stories of the tournament.

The Leone Stars first held defending champions Algeria to a 0-0 draw in their Group E opener, a brave display of defensive resolve backstopped by 22-year-old goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara, who has yet to play outside his country’s modest domestic league. Then they seized on a last-second goalkeeping gaffe to snatch an injury-time equalizer against heavily-favored Cote d’Ivoire, drawing 2-2.

That’s given them a chance to book passage to the AFCON knockout stages for the first time ever with a win (and possibly even a draw) over Equatorial Guinea on Thursday in Limbe, Cameroon. It’s drawn global attention to Sierra Leonean soccer – and for longtime MLS standout Kei Kamara, it’s already made for a sweet swan song to his 12-year international career.

“I don’t know, man, I’m shocked myself,” Kamara told with a smile on Wednesday, as he and his teammates prepared for the big game in Buea, Cameroon, in the shadow of Mount Cameroon, the nation’s highest peak. “But this is the chemistry that we have as a team. The boys, everyone's really playing for each other, and the people – Sierra Leoneans around the world are really fuelling us, to keep going.

“So it's a massive one tomorrow, for all of us – for me personally, but for the country and everybody, but even for what we've done, because to have really good results against two of the biggest countries around Africa, now everybody wants more.”

Limbe lies in the southwest sector of Cameroon, the epicenter of the “Anglophone Crisis,” the smoldering civil conflict between English-speaking minorities and the central government that has prompted additional security for the Sierra Leone squad and other AFCON participants.

“This is actually in the red zone of what's going on, the conflict in the country. So as I speak to you there’s military guard on our hotel where we're staying,” explained Kamara. “But we’re protected. I mean, you don't really want to see that, you just want to focus on playing, but that's the situation we’re facing here.”

It’s nothing he and his fellow Leone Stars can’t manage, given their long journey to this point. Kamara turned 37 in September, which makes him the oldest player in the tournament, and the Leone Stars’ AFCON performances so far have given him “the best cherry on top” of a national-team career that has featured ample disappointment and no small amount of sacrifice over the years.

A year ago he found himself a free agent after playing out his most recent MLS contract at Minnesota United FC, and he elected to put the national team first, spending most of that winter in Freetown preparing for their decisive AFCON qualifiers last spring. That paid off when he scored the penalty kick that defeated Benin and clinched qualification in June. But finding North American options limited at that point, he quickly had to find a new club home to stay fit and sharp for the rest of 2021.

He signed with Finnish side HIFK for the stretch run of their domestic campaign, scoring five goals in 14 games to keep himself on course for the AFCON dream he’d chased for so many years.

“I cherish it, I really do. I celebrate it, as I think anyone that can dedicate the way I've dedicated myself to this deserves talking about because I love this game and I love this sport and just the competitiveness,” he said of his longevity.

“I got the opportunity to play in Finland and that league was a challenge because here I was going to another country, a league that was already halfway through and the team having to play, I think it was like 15 games in a three-month span. It was a challenge and I knew that if I can do that, then I'll really see where my body is, and how ready I'll be for the Africa Cup of Nations.”

Kamara grew up in Kenema, Sierra Leone before the country’s civil war made him and his family refugees during his teenage years. They eventually settled in Hawthorne, California, where he worked part-time at the LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park while attending and playing NCAA soccer at nearby Cal State Dominguez Hills.

A sterling MLS career followed, highlighted by All-Star, Best XI and joint top-scorer honors in 2015 and 130 career goals, fifth on the league’s all-time scoring list. Returning to his homeland to don its colors – he's also led a litany of community service initiatives there – was both an honor and a challenge, with plenty of long flights, painful losses and some clashes with Sierra Leone Football Association officials along the way.

“This is why this moment feels so special,” he said. “It's the first time we're in the tournament in 25 years and I've been here now 12 years representing the country.

“There's been a lot of downs – some ups, but a lot of downs – with me and everything that goes on around here. But this is the perfect way to really top it all off. Because our people, Sierra Leoneans deserve this, and even the next generation of players that's coming through the national team really deserve what's going on right now. So it’s perfect.”

Like Kamara, many members of the current squad hail from the country’s sizeable global diaspora, including Queens Park Rangers defender Osman Kakay and former England international Steven Caulker, which has amplified the euphoria surrounding a program long marginalized as one of Africa’s also-rans. The hope is that their achievements as a collective can draw attention to Sierra Leone’s soccer scene and open doors for their domestic-based colleagues.

“It's really good to be around this team at this moment,” said Kamara. “We're feeding off of this energy that's going on, not just in Sierra Leone, but with Sierra Leoneans all around the world, really, sending us messages and we are seeing them celebrate. I mean, we haven't won a game yet. But the celebration has been like we've won the first couple games.”

Kamara, whose wife Kristin and their three children Kierin, Kendrick and Kaelan are in Cameroon watching the action in person, jokingly calls AFCON 2021 his “victory lap,” as he’s already decided to call time on his international career following the tournament. But he aims to play a couple more seasons at club level and hopes to do so somewhere Stateside where he can “finish strong and call that place home” for the next chapter of life, perhaps with a transition into a player development role.

“I have multiple clubs on my table at the moment,” he said. “I definitely wanted my focus on playing this Africa Cup of Nations and see what options were there, but at the same time, US is home for me and right now my family's here with me … and those moments that I've spent with them started to really get back in my head that I need to be home and I need to be back in the US.

“So I have been in contact with a few teams in the US and hopefully something pops up that’s stronger in the next week or two or month.”