Beats & Rhymes FC

Ola Kamara interview: Nine goals high and rising – Crew SC striker serving up a steady storm

Photo: Daniel Herlensky / Crew SC Communications

 

Save the odd blast on the stadium megaphone, Columbus Crew SC frontman Ola Kamara doesn’t tend to chase too much unnecessary noise. Nevertheless, the Norwegian international’s sublime finishing repertoire has meant the hits have been raining down in audible fashion since he arrived Stateside last year.

The sound of Ola Kamara’s boot making a deft connection with the ball, a net rippling, and a beaten keeper looking on in dejection. The details may differ ever so slightly but that is the storyboard Major League Soccer observers have become largely accustomed to since the Oslo-born livewire was handed a starring role at Columbus Crew SC a couple of months into last season.

For a significant portion of Ola’s youth back home, it would be alpine skis and not a ball he’d see when he glanced toward the ground, and perhaps it wouldn’t be wildly off-piste to draw from that pastime when describing his MLS career to date. Although there was initial frustration as he waited to be set free down the slope, there can be little denying it’s been fluid and exhilarating motion ever since for the one-time Strømsgodset standout.

It was a subpar 2016 for Crew SC, as the previous year’s MLS Cup finalists missed the playoffs by six points, although 16-goal Ola had at least been a success story, with only four players across the league hitting the mark with greater regularity. Fast-forward to the present and the outlook is rosier for ‘The Black & Gold’, who sit a couple of points and spots above the postseason redline after 18 games, while their sharpshooting Scandinavian hasn’t yet ground to a halt on his scoring slalom.

Gregg Berhalter’s team made a terrific return to MAPFRE Stadium last Saturday (June 24th) after almost a month without a home fixture, sweeping Montreal Impact aside with a 4-1 win in which Ola struck his ninth of the campaign and threw a backheel assist the way of Kekuta Manneh. Shortly before his U.S. voyage began, Ola became a father for the first time and the 27-year-old feels very much in tune with both the smooth pace in Columbus and America’s general fervour for expression.

Whether it’s at home or a road venue, his backstage preparation before the main show includes visual reminders of what he does best, and the right sounds to set the senses sparking.

“Pre-game, I like to watch some old videos of myself scoring goals, just getting in that groove,” Ola explained. “Then I like to listen to my headphones, either in the car or the bus.”

“When I’m in the locker room, it’s music in the background and I’m doing my physical preparation.”

While the well-travelled performer has been the kind of go-to scorer all teams long for, in amongst the variety of finishes has been flashes of crowd-pleasing flair. The classic poacher’s efforts have been there, as well as volleys and lightning-quick body-shape adjustments to pounce.

The wonderful improvisation he came up with to hit a flying close-range volley home from Ethan Finlay’s cross at Philadelphia Union last June was a prime example. Ola had a pretty respectable grounding in that regard, though, with showmanship to a world-class degree put before him way before he started lighting up soccer games.

“I was always a big, big Michael Jackson fan when I was smaller. I always bought his videos, his albums and I was always trying to dance like him when I was younger.”

In fact, music can be described as one of the fundamentals for Ola, who was born in the Norwegian capital and represented Frigg as a youth player in the Oslo neighbourhood of Majorstuen. When it comes to his rhythmic sway, it’s lyrically and electronically-charged in equal measure.

“I’m mostly a hip-hop and r&b man, so right now I’m really enjoying the new Kendrick Lamar album (‘DAMN.’), but coming from Norway, we listen a lot to EDM. It’s a mix of that for me.

“I think especially for me, the car rides or the bus rides to the games are when I’m always getting pumped up with music; that’s a big preparation thing. We use music for everything these days.

“When I was younger, I was always dancing and I’m still doing that, and I have a small one now who also likes to dance!”

A debutant in Norway’s top-tier Tippeligaen for Stabæk at just 16, Ola netted a treble to sink Real Salt Lake 4-3 last May and became Columbus’ first hat-trick scorer in almost 12 years (Edson Buddle struck four against the MetroStars in September 2004). That was only his third start for the club and after stop-offs in the Austrian and German game on his way to Ohio, he is flourishing in The Buckeye State.

Every frontman needs the band in time with him, and Ola describes how as well as on the field, Crew SC have some club mainstays setting the locker-room tone when game day rolls around.

“I think Hector Jiménez is usually controlling the music, together with Will Trapp. It’s been a mix between hip-hop and r&b, and if (Federico) Higuaín gets to choose, it’s rock.

“With the national team, I think it’s been between Stefan Johansen and Joshua King. That’s also a mix between EDM and hip-hop.”

Ola and Argentine playmaker ‘Pipa’ Higuaín have led the way with Crew SC’s goals this year, notching nine apiece so far, but Ola remembers a time when he was there to see two others running the show.

“I think my first concert was actually at Oslo Spektrum and it was Justin Timberlake and Timbaland – that was fantastic. That ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ album.”

 

Photo: Daniel Herlensky / Crew SC Communications

 

As has been referenced often since Ola rose to the fore in Columbus, his opportunity really came following the departure of namesake Kei Kamara to New England Revolution in a May 2016 trade. Although the 32-year-old was the one starting games, Ola had got on well with the prolific forward and had been at his house for dinner not too long before he left the club.

The two have Sierra Leonean heritage in common, with Kei representing them at international level, while Ola’s father originally hailed from the West African nation before he arrived in Norway. There is still very much an African pulse to the behind-the-scenes atmosphere at the club according to Ola.

“In our locker room, we have some Africans and they always like to play more African beats and you’re always dancing to it. Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, they’re always dancing.

“At my former clubs, let’s see. Etzaz Hussain – he has fantastic dance moves, so everybody was always watching this guy doing incredible stuff.”

Ola was with former Manchester United youth and one-time Norwegian Under-21 midfielder Hussain at Molde in 2015. That was where Ola scored a hatful while on loan from Austria Vienna, returning to a league he had first won as a teenager at Stabæk in 2008.

He lifted the Tippeligaen title as a much more central figure in 2013 with Strømsgodset, but there was no repeat in that Molde loan two years ago, as they came 6th. After that most recent spell back home, America and MLS lay in wait in 2016.

Although he was signed in February that year, he wasn’t involved when Columbus took on a player he knows well in the season opener with the Portland Timbers at Providence Park. Keeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey was a starter for Strømsgodset when Ola struck the opener for them in the 2010 Norwegian Cup final victory over Follo at the national stadium (Ullevaal Stadion) in Oslo and they remain friends today.

Kwarasey left Portland last July and has won a Norwegian title with Rosenborg, moved to Danish club Brøndby, and back to Norway with Vålerenga since then. Although Ola had to dance and perform for the team for initiation at Stabæk as a teen, he didn’t actually have to sing when he joined Columbus.

As Crew SC fan Tony Galiffo recently found out when he sang a post-game ‘Happy Birthday’ to him over the MAPFRE Stadium megaphone, Ola isn’t completely shy of letting his vocals be heard. If, however, he had to go the whole hog and record a song with a teammate from his career to date, he would get Norwegian-born Ghana stopper Kwarasey in the studio for a reunion.

However, a few professional touches to sharpen the sound might be required!

“I think I would do that with Adam and I think it would be a mix between my rapping and his singing. I think it would sound terrible!”

Speaking of old friends from home with an MLS narrative, U.S. midfielder Mix Diskerud has been in Sweden with IFK Göteborg recently, officially on loan from New York City FC. Many people come and go within a player’s time in football, even those they enjoyed a strong connection with, but the 26-year-old has been much more of a constant in Ola’s odyssey, even if they haven’t been teammates for close to a decade now.

“Oh, I mean I played with Mix since I was five years old. So I played with him until I was 14/15 years old and then he went to Stabæk, a year before me.

“We played together for three years there. We want to play together on the same team in MLS and then go back to Norway and play on the same team; that’s our hope and dream.

“I spoke to him before I came here and he said Columbus is a very good team and they play very good football, so he thought I was going to fit in. I think he said I was going to really enjoy it in MLS, because he knows me from my youth and how I am.

“It was good to talk to him because he knows what kind of player I am and what kind of guy I am. Moving to another country is always hard, so him saying those things made it easier.”

If we put Diskerud in the friend category and open the floor to any other player from all-time, who would Ola choose to hit the practice field one-on-one with? He says it would be a retired Brazilian set-piece maestro he would go for.

That description doesn’t really narrow it down all that much, given the amount of samba stars who’ve been majestically accomplished from dead balls, so probably best to let Ola tell you exactly who.

“I think I would do it with Juninho (Pernambucano) because I would love to have his free-kicks. The one who played in Lyon.”

Continuing on the theme of spectacular flair, Newcastle United’s ‘entertainers’ team of the mid-90s inspired a young Ola as he watched the Premier League on TV. The eccentric but unquestionably gifted Colombian forward Faustino Asprilla was the Magpies player he looked up to most, as well as former England captain Alan Shearer, who was the world’s most expensive footballer between the summers of 1996 and 1997.

Soccer wasn’t the only activity for Ola back then, as he explains, but it was always the most outstanding candidate.

“It’s always been number one. I’ve always answered that I wanted to be a soccer player and when you’re younger, people always smile and laugh a little bit about it because that’s maybe everybody’s dream in Norway at that age.

“I also did a little bit of downhill skiing, but when I was 12, I chose to commit 100 percent to football and that’s been the only choice since then, the whole time.”

Just before he joined up with Columbus, Ola and girlfriend Sandra welcomed their firstborn son Willian. Ola flew to Arizona to meet up with the team, having been given time by head coach Berhalter to be there for the birth and the first week of the new Kamara’s life.

To go along with the winter sports popular in his homeland, Ola is also an NBA and LeBron James fan, although that’s far from the only reason Ohio and the U.S. in general is the place for him.

“For me and my family, it’s a safe place; it’s a calm and easy life here and that’s what I enjoy. Just spending time with family right now is big, since I have a small one; he’s only 16 months.

“I think on the field, when you fit into the team and you play well, it’s always easier. I enjoy going a lot of places, seeing the whole country with the team.

“It’s amazing how as a soccer player I can travel and see maybe the whole of the U.S. and the best of it also. On vacation, I really enjoyed being in San Diego; that was fantastic and I was there with Mix Diskerud.

“That was like five years ago, so that’s probably my favourite spot.”

Making the transition to MLS player can be quite the eye-opening experience for many overseas players, with a high number of English names in the league in recent years noting their surprise at media presence in the team’s locker room after a game, as just one example. Indeed, American soccer coverage has its unique subtleties to get to know, while time zone changes, travel, trades and so much more all contribute to presenting newcomers from afar with somewhat of a learning curve.

Style of play apart, what has been most apparent to Ola when you hold the U.S. game’s culture up against what he has known in Norway, Austria and Germany?

“I think you have more characters in the U.S. In Europe, you always go out in the same clothes but here you see people coming to games with different styles and showing a little bit more personality.

“That’s maybe the difference outside the sport; that it’s more personality. Playing, I think the heat and the humidity is very different.”

 

Photo: Daniel Herlensky / Crew SC Communications

 

Norway took their place in a showpiece checkpoint of U.S. soccer history back in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. That era saw the nation appear at three major tournaments in six years and we got used to seeing them amongst the elite, although Euro 2000 was the most recent occasion in which their red, white and blue was given such a platform.

Veteran of many competitions as Sweden coach and the man who presided over Iceland’s famous European Championship adventure last year, Lars Lagerbäck is charged with leading Norway back out of the international wilderness. The 68-year-old has his work cut out to salvage anything at all from the current qualification campaign (for next year’s World Cup), as the 87th-ranked side in the world sit behind Germany, Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Azerbaijan in their group after six of the ten games.

Ola’s name has understandably been pushed by plenty for a recall in recent times, with the last of his seven caps to date earned in 2014, while Per-Mathias Høgmo was still the coach. Cap one came in an October 2013 qualifier for the World Cup against Slovenia, and he struck his solitary goal thus far in a January 2014 friendly win over Moldova.

Ola wants to play a part in a resurgence for the national team and he places getting the chance from Lagerbäck to make a lasting return to the picture high on his agenda. At 27 and producing some of his best-ever form, he highlighted that target as he considered what a career spent in four different countries has taught him the most.

“For me, it’s been what you take from the ups and downs and how you tackle the obstacles. When it’s not going that well, you can always break down and kind of lose your confidence, lose your path, but I was always sure I was going to make it and play good, score goals, so I just kept going the whole time.

“I’ve been in different clubs and always had that belief and now I’m in Columbus and scoring goals, so that’s good, and hopefully I can get back into the national team and score goals there. I mean I’m living my dream so I’m happy.”

His form certainly hasn’t switched, but Ola did change his jersey number this year, from 17 to 11. It was the number he liked most growing up and it also now represents the date his son was born (February 11th).

Willian likes to play with the hat-trick ball Ola earned in that aforementioned RSL game last year, though it might be a little while before he gets a shot at emulating his dad. For now, his presence alone helps take Ola’s mind off any lingering thoughts of in-game moments that didn’t quite work out.

If Kamara Jr. does pursue the beautiful game then Ola will have plenty to share, but what if he could now offer advice to the younger version of himself? Perhaps the Ola who was preparing to venture away from Norway for the first time?

“Maybe just have some more confidence in my ability and don’t listen to everybody else the whole time. Just work hard and improve the things that are your strengths; that’s the most important, I think.”

With his agent in conversation with Crew SC as far back as 2014, Ola spurned offers from France and Germany to head for the Black & Gold. He has found surroundings and a system he fits, as the valuable final piece in the predominantly 4-2-3-1 puzzle, showing in no uncertain terms what he’s all about.

There have been smart and incisive runs, sharp link-ups, and finishes ranging from the routine to the ridiculously impressive. He’s surely had a lot of fun, too, which is the kind of road we take it down as we wrap up our conversation here.

The setting is open to the reader’s interpretation, so it could be an indoor arena, the training field, a street court, or even a beach. The only rules are we need Ola to pinpoint four of his current or former teammates to fill the rest of a fantasy 5-a-side team in which he’ll also start.

Egos out there can be a touch on the delicate side so it’s important to say that each interviewee on here is not asked for the outright best they’ve worked with when they answer this! Any reasons at all are acceptable, although with the competitive fire pro players have in common, nobody’s going to earn a place if they don’t bring some ability with them.

As Ola tried hard to think on his feet and pull together a quartet from the many he’s shared a locker room with, he made a team selection comprising a mix of reflexes, razor-sharp artistry, robustness and a little more besides.

“I would have (Adam) Kwarasey Larsen, because he’s a good leader, he’s a fun guy and he’s a good goalie. Then I would put (midfielder and ex-1860 Munich teammate) Moritz Stoppelkamp – he’s a very good one-against-one player.

“I would pick (Federico) Higuaín – the way that he runs and positions himself, with the skill, he makes our play tick, you know? He’s like our engine, offensively; how he moves, how he handles the ball and draws opponents to make everyone else some space.

“These kinds of small things matter and he’s always looking for you out of the corner of his eye, so that’s always a good feeling for a striker. I need a defender?

“Lukas Rotpuller – he plays for Austria Vienna – just because he’s fast and his tackling makes some of the other players a little bit scared! He’s also a fun guy, so I’d have him in there.”

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