Souleymane Camara is a model of composure. Calm and serene, the soft-spoken forward has never been the type to raise his voice, and rarely – very rarely – loses his cool. Unless, of course, you happen to press the right buttons.
Mention the words "super sub", "impact player" or "Ole Gunnar Solskjaer", for example, and the Senegalese international quickly changes demeanour. "Those three expressions annoy me," he tells FIFA.com, when asked about his reputation for making the difference from the bench – his frustration offset by a little laugh. "I've got nothing against Solskjær because he was a great striker and I like Manchester United a lot. I don't know if he was content with being a super sub, but I don't consider myself a substitute."
Perhaps, but convincing everyone else may not be so simple. For his former coach Rolland Courbis, Camara is "a starter on the bench", a player good enough to make the first XI but never more effective than when brought on late in the game. Now 33, the Montpellier stalwart is likely to find that viewpoint difficult to challenge. "I've always said I don't like that," he explains. "I always do my job and I'm a professional. Every time I get a chance to play, I give it everything I've got, even if it's only for five minutes. But it's true that it often goes well."
Not even Camara himself can dispute the figures, which show that 23 of his 50 Ligue 1 goals have come in a substitute role. The veteran has switched clubs more than once during his 15-year career, but the label of super sub has proved tougher to remove than the different team shirts he has worn since 2001. "My philosophy is that it's not a question to concern myself with," he says, after nine years at Montpellier that have brought two relegations, one promotion and a historic French title in 2012. "In my head, I see myself as a starter at the beginning of each season."
The problem is that he tends to reinforce his reputation by the end of them, thanks to a string of excellent cameo appearances – a habit formed even before he turned professional. "It began when I was young in Senegal," recalls the former Monaco man, who helped the Lions of Teranga reach the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. "I used to go to train at the Aldo Gentina centre, which is Monaco's training centre in Dakar. I wasn't a resident there at the time; I just came in to train and do tests. When I went back to my school, I'd often get there 15 or 20 minutes before the end of our games. They sent me on every time, and I'd score."
That could be what convinced the principality side to agree a deal with Camara in 2001, and to keep him on board for five seasons. In that time, he had to vie for a starting berth with the likes of Fernando Morientes, Oliver Bierhoff, Marco Simone, Javier Saviola, Ludovic Giuly and Emmanuel Adebayor – which made it somewhat easier to accept a backseat role. "I don't know if they were the best team, but they were exceptional," says Camara, who has also turned out for Nice and Guingamp. "When I was young, I watched Simone, Morientes and Bierhoff on TV, and to suddenly be in the same team and the same dressing room as them was something extraordinary. I learned a lot from them, and I'm still reaping the rewards of that work to this day, and I still chat about it with some of my team-mates."
Watching for weaknesses
It is easy to imagine Camara sharing those anecdotes while sitting on the sidelines during matches, awaiting his chance to come on and change the outcome. Instead, he prefers paying close attention to the unfolding action. "On the bench, I observe a lot and remain focused on the game. I try to spot any weaknesses in the opposition defence and try to think what I can do to destabilise it." That discipline has helped him register some memorable late strikes, with his personal favourites being the winner in a 1-0 success against Nice during Montpellier's title surge and his maiden goal for Senegal. "It was at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, against Zambia. We'd never beaten them, and the scoreline was 0-0. Then, five minutes from the end, Bruno Metsu sent me on and I headed in from my first chance, a cross from Makhtar Ndiaye, and we won 1-0 in the 90th minute."
Senegal went on to reach their first, and still their only, final of the competition that year. It was a heady time for the national team, and their talented generation also claimed a place at the 2002 World Cup, advancing to the quarter-finals in Korea/Japan before losing 1-0 to Turkey after a golden goal. Now, looking back, it is tempting to wonder what might have been if the Lions of Teranga had not made one fatal error that day – they left Camara on the bench.