x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Kei Kamara is helping Norwich City make big waves in Sierra Leone

With Kei Kamara now at the English Premier League club, football fans from his native country are packing the cinemas to watch him in action, writes Ian Hawkey.

Kei Kamara is at Norwich Cityon loan.
Kei Kamara is at Norwich Cityon loan.

Kei Kamara evidently has a nice line in light self-deprecation. One evening last year, in the Midwest American city of Kansas City, the footballer took up a microphone to address an audience of locals, and announced, as if it were the Oscars: "It was a pleasure working with George Clooney and Denzel Washington on this movie."

The guests burst into laughter. They had indeed gathered to watch a film, but not a blockbuster; rather a moving, mid-budget documentary made about a sportsman with a captivating backstory, and one who in the past three weeks has made a strong impression on the English Premier League.

Kamara, who joined Norwich City on loan from Sporting Kansas City in the winter transfer window, caught the eye in his first minutes as a substitute against Fulham; he then scored the equaliser against Everton last Saturday and helped set up Norwich's late winner in the same match.

He would be entitled to think he should get more than 20 minutes on the pitch against Manchester United this afternoon.

In his native Sierra Leone, Kamara predicts, today's fixture will be anticipated even more enthusiastically than most United games.

Fans of the Premier League in the scarred west African country are plentiful. English is the official language in the former British colony, and football is beloved. Cinemas cater to that enthusiasm, with subscriptions to the cable-television services which deliver the English league.

They are accustomed to big audiences when the likes of United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool are in action. Now, Norwich are suddenly more interesting for having a Sierra Leone star on their roster.

Kamara was not being boastful when he told reporters "there will be a bunch of yellow shirts with my name on".

He knows he comes from a country better known, worldwide, for conflict, a nation familiar to many more people as the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio's 2006 film Blood Diamond than will ever learn about it by watching Kei, the documentary about him he was sharing with his audience in Kansas last year.

He recognises all too well the truth in the depiction in Blood Diamond of warlord rule, and of systematic amputation as a tool of oppression.

He was born into a generation of Sierra Leoneans where many were forced to become child soldiers, and he knows he has an unusual, and potentially inspiring, life story.

Kamara, now 28, shared his boyhood with one of Africa's most grotesque modern wars. Growing up in the city of Kenema and then the capital, Freetown, he was so close to the war that, he reports, he and his contemporaries could tell with an expert ear the difference between the sounds of distinct automatic weapons.

His mother left for the United States to try to secure a future there for her children but, because of rising hostility and the problems of travelling within Sierra Leone, was unable to return to see them for close to a decade.

When Kamara was 14, he made a decision to flee. He boarded a crude, overcrowded boat in an effort to reach the country's airport, in Lungi, separated from Freetown by the Sierra Leone River. The journey he describes is fearful.

Its next step would be by air to Gambia, and two years scraping by there. Then a reunion, through a refugee programme, with his mother in the US.

His athletic talent and dedication carried him forward after that. Physically unimposing when he reached the suburbs of Los Angeles, he built up his strength so that he could do his football skill justice in competitive environments. He won a university scholarship on the back of his sporting prowess.

Major League Soccer took notice. After playing for three top-flight clubs, Kamara found his niche in Kansas City, where he has scored 31 goals in 98 appearances. He has embarked on an international career, too, with Sierra Leone.

Kamara has a growing reputation as an effective, dynamic striker in MLS. He also happily reminded reporters last week he once scored and set up another goal for Kansas City Wizards - the club became Sporting Kansas City only recently - in a victory over Manchester United during United's summer tour there in 2010. His goal, significantly, was from a header.

What the Premier League has already learnt, from Kamara's 36 minutes so far as a Canary, is he has a formidable spring. He outjumped Everton's skyscraper Maraoune Fellaini to score last weekend, and his aerial nuisance value contributed to Grant Holt netting Norwich's second.

Kamara, pacey and adventurous with the ball at his feet, is more readily classified as a winger than a target man. So he refers to his powerful leap as "a secret trick".

Not so secret any more, for this storied, soaring Sierra Leonean.