Ambition is greatly encouraged in football. From Cristiano Ronaldo to Bill Shankley, all the greatest players and the most successful managers have been ambitious. And so was Henri Camara.
The Senegalese striker laid bare the scale of his aspirations following Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Premier League relegation in 2004 - an event which had not been compatible with his masterplan.
“I don’t want to leave Wolves. But I am desperate to be African Player of the Year and I don’t think I’m a First Division player,” he said, explaining his desire to seek a move away from Molineux.
As ambitions go, being crowned king of the continent was a lofty one, but Camara’s stock was high that summer. He had scored six goals in his last nine Premiership games, albeit most of them coming in defeats as Wolves finished six points adrift of safety. The fact he had netted just once in his previous 23 matches didn’t seem important anymore.
Indeed, even Wolves fans seemed to have forgotten it when, with the club already relegated, they dedicated their final home match of the season to persuading Camara to stay. But even “Henri Day” - a Senegal flag-waving festival celebrating the striker’s talents - could not deviate Camara from his path to glory. He refused to report for pre-season training, a decision which left some fans feeling slightly bitter.
“The former Wolves player I most despise,” was the summary of one supporter on the Wolves Forum. Others variously described Camara as “a legend in his own mind”, “the Antichrist” and a “weapons-grade smeg cannon”, whatever that is.
It was all a rather unsightly legacy for the player who had joined Wolves the previous summer from Ligue 1 side Sedan. It took him eight games to score his first goal - a memorable winner in a 4-3 win against Leicester, who had been 3-0 up - and 17 games to score his next. But by that point Wolves were already doomed.
“He finally started to get going when it was too late in the season. There was very little for fans to hold on to during a tough season and they saw him as one small positive. But upon relegation he proceeded to have his head turned,” explained another fan.
Camara was determined to play anywhere but the First Division, even Scotland, and he was loaned to Celtic for £1.5m - the same price Wolves had paid for him. But his stint north of the border started badly when his request to wear the No7 shirt recently vacated by club legend Henrik Larsson was refused. It would be a prescient decision by the Scottish club, as Camara proved to be nothing like their Swedish hero and the loan was terminated halfway through the season. The striker instead went to Southampton, only to suffer relegation for the second year in a row.
Nonetheless, his six goals in 16 appearances for Harry Redknapp’s side were enough to persuade newly promoted Wigan Athletic to sign him on a permanent deal for £3m in August 2005. Although it was not quite the continental domination Camara was aiming for, he revelled in his status as the club’s record signing.
Quickly endearing himself to Latics fans by scoring in a 2-1 win against local rivals Bolton, Camara followed it up with a hat-trick against Charlton and a goal of the season contender against Sunderland. He also formed a heart-warming special relationship with team-mate Pascal Chimbonda, with whom he concocted a variety of zany goal celebrations – of which there were several.
"Camara is one of the players who represents the brief golden age of our Premier League years, when we were second behind Chelsea in November and embarking on a run to the League Cup final which for us - fresh out of the lower leagues - was just as exciting as the FA Cup win in 2013,” said one Latics fan.
“He was a revelation - and his bright yellow right boot was a source of gold,” beamed another on the Vital Wigan Athletic website.
Camara top scored with 12 as the Latics finished 10th in their first ever top flight season. But rather than taking him one step closer to greatness, this proved to be his peak.
He netted six times in an injury-hit second season at the JJB Stadium and found himself surplus to requirements the following campaign. Unsuccessful loan spells at West Ham and Stoke failed to revive his mojo and he was released in 2009.
Five years after refusing to play in the second tier with Wolves, Championship side Sheffield United emerged as his best option. It turned out Camara was right about the league not suiting him, as he managed just four goals in a solitary season in Yorkshire before being shipped off to the Greek league, where he remains to this day.
A glance at the last decade’s African Player of the Year winners shows gongs for Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o, Yaya Toure, Michael Essien and even Frederic Kanoute. But Camara - now aged 38 and playing for Apollon Smyrni FC – seems unlikely to fulfil his ambition of joining them.
“Nowhere near as good as he thought he was and an utter prat to boot,” was the conclusion of one Wolves supporter.
But Wigan fans would disagree, with one commenting, “If that outlandish strike against Sunderland had been hit by Rooney, Henry or any other mug from a big club, everyone would know about ‘that goal’.”
And re-watching that majestic swivel and volley from the edge of the area, one can almost be convinced that Henri Camara really was Africa’s best player – if only for five seconds.
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