The Designated Player: The Indomitable Snowman, Part 2

For Part 1 of Graham Parker’s interview with Kei Kamara, click here.

“Vinnie Jones … ”

Kei Kamara is shaking his head and laughing.

“Oh man, Vinnie Jones.”

He’s saying it like I might say, “Hammer Pants.”

“I love seeing him in movies and going to my friends, ‘You know that’s a soccer player, right?’ I mean we have Aurelien Collin, and some of the stuff he does I’m like [peeks through his fingers] ‘Don’t do that!’”

Another incredulous “Vinnie Jones … ”

We’re talking about this year’s U.S. Open Cup final, and in particular the moment early on when Osvaldo Alonso, seen pregame as key to the hopes of the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders, dove into a full-blooded tackle on Kamara. I ask Kamara about that “reducer” and when he looks confused by the term, I happen to mention the moment that’s often seen as synonymous with the term: the crunching third-minute tackle by Jones to take out Steve McMahon, which legend has it changed the course of the 1988 FA Cup final:

When Kamara has finished shaking his head and laughing at the thought of such dinosaurs walking the earth in unfeasibly tight shorts, we return to that moment in Livestrong Park. From the start of the match, it looked like the Sounders’ game plan hinged on stopping Kamara. Alonso in particular was a fired-up presence early on, as Seattle tried to wrestle the initiative from a Sporting team playing in front of their own fans. I ask Kamara how it felt to be targeted that way.

“I love it. Seriously, I love it. I think I play at my best when I feel targeted. When I feel like a team’s game plan is to get rid of me, that shows me that I’m doing something good. The first five minutes, Alonso hit me so hard and I just hit the ground. But that just woke me up. I said to myself, ‘You know what? Wake up, this is going to be a tough game.’ It’s Alonso, one of the best midfielders in the league, and he doesn’t come out of any tackles. But I like the fact that it wakes me up. Period. My coach tells me, ‘If they’re going to go for you, you’re going to go wide, you’re going to run down, mix it up, you’re going to go deep. You’re going to come into the middle, get a touch, go back wide again.’ I switch with CJ (Sapong), I switch with (Graham) Zusi on the other side. I have to find another way.”

The Sounders are coached by Sigi Schmid — Kamara’s first MLS coach at Columbus, and a man perhaps familiar with a rawer and more easily provoked Kamara than the one who got up and got on with the game without notable retaliation. Instead it was a keyed-up Alonso whose complaints in the wake of the tackle saw him carded and forced to play the remainder of the game as a much more muted version of the box-to-box warrior he typically is. To compound a miserable night, Alonso missed a penalty in the eventual shootout.

When I mention that early clash between Kamara and Alonso to Kamara’s coach Peter Vermes, he agrees about its significance.

“There’s no doubt they came in there to try and get the first blow in and intimidate us. They had more experience, they’d been in that final three years in a row and won. What I loved about that situation was we really kept our composure. Individually for Kei, I think moments like that actually motivate him a little bit more. Sometimes there’s something in the game that can really wake him up quickly and a minute later you see him being like a completely different guy. Sometimes it’s me yelling at him, but that’s the way it goes.”

In the 82nd minute Kamara scored a penalty to put Sporting in the lead, only for Seattle to equalize just two minutes later. Before the match, Kamara had been conspicuously buoyant, interacting cheerfully with the fans, even applauding the double rainbow that had appeared in the wake of a thunderstorm that delayed kick off. But the ebullience had masked a real uncertainty within a player who had not yet won a trophy in his MLS career.

“I thought I was cursed before the U.S. Open Cup win. Every team I’d been in had either won something before I’d got there, or something after I left … we came to penalty kicks and, standing there, when we missed a PK, I was just like, ‘Am I ever going to win anything?'”

Kamara could have been forgiven for thinking he was cursed, when Michael Gspurning saved Paulo Nagamura’s penalty in the shootout. But then referee Ricardo Salazar, having spotted the keeper off his line, ordered the kick to be retaken. Sporting had a lifeline, but having scored his own penalty, Kamara could only watch:

“When I took my first PK in the regular time, I didn’t realize it, but they said the keeper moved way off his line. So before we had to take the PKs, my goalkeeper, Jimmy Nielsen, gave me a head’s-up: ‘Hey make sure you let the referee know that that keeper moves too much off his line.’ He touched mine before it went in — I guess he moved again, but I didn’t know. So when Nagamura went and took his, the ref had been watching it over and over, so … it was a really big step. He blocked it and it [the decision to retake] was given … but at the same time, it’s PKs so when someone has to take it over again, you’re never sure.”

Kamara tails off and shakes his head.

“ … I don’t know what was in my heart at that moment. I was just relieved. And after winning that, I had tears of joy and I finally realized this is the year we definitely make a change.”

Vermes, too, was struck by the change in Kamara from the Cup win. “When you get a taste of that, you crave it so much more as a competitor. You have a road map to get it again. He did that within the context of the team, not in the context of himself. That’s not what people see. I think that’s maybe a misconception around him because of the celebrations and all these other things, but that’s just the creativity within him, that’s his personality. They see him score and think he’s all about himself, but that’s not his world. He wants to win. He wants the team to win.”

On the day that we’re speaking, Sporting are about to play and win a vital road game in New York. Preparations have been less than ideal. A nine-hour travel delay had gotten the team into New Jersey in the early hours of the morning of the game. Despite this, little has changed from the usual buildup to the match. Our interview is put back half an hour, but other than that, the organization, and Kamara in particular, seem remarkably relaxed.

As he points out, the challenges of traveling to play for a severely underfunded Sierra Leone team put such inconveniences into perspective. “It’s taught me so much. Like our travel day, yesterday; I’ve gone through that thinking, It’s just another day, instead of being stressed about it. When I’m in Sierra Leone, those are the things I go through a lot. It takes a long time, the fields aren’t the best. So when I do come here, I appreciate what’s been given to me so much more.”

I remind him that in October the U.S. Men’s team will be playing their crucial final World Cup qualifier in his backyard in Kansas City. (“Right. Great,” he deadpans.) As a U.S. citizen now, but having elected to play for Sierra Leone, does he feel any regrets about missing out on the chance to contend for a place on the U.S. side?

“You can say that … you can say that. Yeah, I could have played for the U.S. I remember Bob Bradley was inquiring about me for the Olympic team, in 2008, I think. But right from the time I came to the U.S., I always had in my mind that I wanted to play for Sierra Leone, because the buzz around football in Africa is just different from soccer in America, and I just wanted to be part of that. But people would talk to me and say,’Would you play for the U.S.?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah.’But this was before I got my citizenship. After I got my citizenship I was going back home, back and forth. My family appreciated what I was doing so much, but they’d never seen me play. And for them to see me play I had to come back for my national team and wear my country’s colors. I won’t say I regret it. Maybe later on in life, but not right now.”

Despite the passion that shows through for his homeland, you could forgive Kamara for feeling some ambivalence about playing for the Leone Stars when you consider his difficult relationship with the country’s federation, which for more or less opaque reasons has banned him on more than one occasion, only to reinstate him (and other high-profile players critical of the regime) under pressure from his peers.

“I’ve been banned. It’s just a common thing to do, I guess. It’s just like, ‘Oh yeah? We’re suspending you.’ I have really strong teammates who will go to the national team and say, ‘We’re making a stand and we’re not going to play if these guys are suspended, because we know they didn’t do anything.’ To me, with the national team, I’m just trying to implement some of the things we learned from here [in the United States]. Things like the players union that we have. Players there have rights that they don’t know about. Obviously we’re playing in Africa, so there’s a lot of control in Africa. They just want to control every single thing you do. How you sleep, how you wake up; every single thing. So there’s a lot of focus on a lot of things, but there’s not enough focus for us to prepare for the game.”

In the Copper Pot Pictures documentary KEI, there’s a scene in which the country’s president is addressing a tired-looking group of players prior to a crucial African Cup of Nations qualifier with Egypt. It’s one of those speeches that seems long on expectation, short on details, and primed to extract maximum political capital with minimum investment. The players look like they could do without the distraction. The fact that they perform well in the subsequent game seems to be despite rather than because of the political grandstanding going on around them.

“Three years ago Sierra Leone were 160-something in the FIFA rankings, to 59 now. If whoever’s in control of the federation, or the team, could appreciate that we’re doing the right thing … The little time I can get to play, I just want people to say when I’m done, ‘Yeah, he helped do this. He helped set up this for the other guys that are coming back to play.’”

Kamara’s commitment to the region extends to his involvement with Schools for Salone. He is currently trying to raise money to build a school and orphanage in Freetown, and he has campaigned extensively in Kansas City and elsewhere to realize the project. Aside from the long-term goal, Kamara has reaped his own benefits from the project: It has tightened his relationship with the fans in Kansas City, and it has added a further element to the mentoring that’s been so crucial in his life.

“When I go back home to Africa, I have these kids who I talk to, and even though it’s really hard in Africa, people have dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer. I’m like a dad, sometimes you’ve got to lie to your kids sometimes, just keep them going. I’m keeping the little ones that I know back there going, pushing them, paying their school fees, and hopefully a little bit later on things can change and maybe they can have more opportunities out there and they can reach their dreams.”

This is not to make out that Kamara is unique in doing work like this. MLS produces a lot of young, college-educated players who participate freely in the charitable activities of the league — but Kamara seems to need to do this. He’s one of those people who seems to thrive on connecting with others, wanting to be at the heart of everything and wanting to have his presence matter. It seems less about ego or vanity and more about how he becomes animated through such contact and feels more secure because of it. There’s a recurring theme in our conversation about how short life is, let alone a sporting career, and while soccer has given him a path, a sense of belonging, he seems very aware of how provisional that belonging is, and for the need to make meaningful connections, if not put down meaningful roots, while he can. Again, that doesn’t make him unique — every athlete is faced with the reality of life after sport. But not every athlete looks to address that by counting his blessings and tending to the wounded.

Thinking these grandiose thoughts, I ask Kamara if there’s anything else he wants the fans of Sporting Kansas City to help him achieve. He enthusiastically sidesteps his halo:

“I want to go on Wipeout! I want to go on Fear Factor! I want to play on a celebrity basketball game because I’m a big basketball fan. I want to set the annual snowball fight up with the Sporting fans. We weren’t able to do it this year, because it didn’t snow as much. So I’m sure the fans are going to be tweeting me and we’ll be getting that going, but If I could just win an MLS Cup in front of Kansas City fans … ”

You’d fill the cup up with snow?

“ … it would be the biggest snowball fight ever in the history of snowball fights.”

Graham Parker leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: Graham Parker, MLS