Glen Kamara, Finland's quiet threat who took stand against racism
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Helsinki (AFP) –
Finland's fans will have eyes on star strikers Teemu Pukki and Joel Pohjanpalo as the Euro 2020 debutants face Belgium on Monday, but one of the team's greatest assets will be quietly effective midfielder Glen Kamara.
"I'm very close to saying that he is, these days, the best player on the team," Janne Oivio, sports journalist at Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, told AFP of the 25-year-old who this season helped undefeated Rangers to the Scottish Premiership title.
But the softly-spoken Kamara was recently thrust into the limelight not for his footballing skills but for being racially abused by Slavia Prague defender Ondrej Kudela.
Born in Finland to Sierra-Leonean parents before moving to London aged 12, Kamara has impressed at the Euro, winning praise for his skill in tight spaces, his knack for winning duels, and his composure under pressure.
"He's very relaxed all the time (on the pitch), but that doesn't mean he's not fighting," Finland coach Markku Kanerva told reporters, calling Kamara "definitely one of our key players".
At a Europa League match in March, however, footage shows the normally serene Kamara reacting with disbelief after Kudela covers his mouth and says something into his ear.
"I felt humiliated. All my family, friends, fans, whoever is watching, I felt like a little boy," Kamara later told UK channel ITV.
UEFA handed Kudela a 10-match ban -- the minimum sanction for "racist behaviour".
Kamara himself, meanwhile, was banned for three matches for physically retaliating while in the tunnel -- and has since been targeted "daily" by online racist abuse.
The midfielder now declines to take the knee as an anti-racism gesture before the Euro matches.
"If UEFA genuinely wants to 'Show racism the red card', then it's time to stop the tokenism and take a zero-tolerance approach," he said in a statement.
- '50 grand Glen' -
Finland's qualification for their first major international tournament has sparked a wave of enthusiasm for football among the ice hockey-mad nation, with top goalscorers Pukki and Pohjanpalo as the figureheads.
Kamara, who describes himself as "not one to do a lot of interviews", is not yet a household name in the Nordic country.
"Maybe that's because of the personality that he has, but I don't think people fully yet grasp how good he is," Oivio told AFP.
It's a different story in Scotland, where Rangers fans chat "50 grand, 50 grand Glen Kamara" in reference to the bargain amount for which the fan favourite signed for the Ibrox side in January 2019.
Rumours now abound of a multi-million-pound swoop by a major English or European club this summer.
- Growing confidence -
Kamara grew up in Soukka, a sleepy and overwhelmingly white suburb of the Finnish capital.
Racist remarks from strangers were a regular fact of life, Kamara has since said in interviews, but the shy boy found solace in a local football team.
After moving with his mother to London's Ladbroke Grove aged 12, Kamara was spotted playing cage football and, after a brief spell at Southend United, joined the Arsenal youth academy.
But it was after a move to Dundee in 2017 that Kamara's confidence grew and he really began to shine in midfield, joining Rangers in 2019.
"Hopefully he will continue his development, it would be nice to see him playing even at bigger clubs," Finland coach Kanerva said.
- Nordic surprise -
Finland's first ever Euros game, against Denmark, will be forever remembered for the dramatic collapse of Danish star Christian Eriksen, who suffered a cardiac arrest in the 43rd minute.
The visibly traumatised players nonetheless later returned to the pitch and played on, with Finland scraping a hard-fought win.
Dreams of getting through the group stages suffered a blow after a 1-0 loss to Russia, but the 'Eagle Owls' still have a chance of qualifying.
Sitting 54th in the FIFA rankings, Finland are once again the underdogs facing up against top-ranked Belgium, but "we've been underdogs and we've come out stronger" many times now, Kamara told a press conference.
"Hopefully we can just surprise people."
© 2021 AFP