After leaving Sierra Leone as a six-year-old, Augustine Williams returned to the country of his birth 16 years later to represent his homeland. The 24-year-old was only called up for the first time by the Leone Stars in 2021, but he has already settled and was integral to his side qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations.
The forward moved to California via a year in Senegal, with the rest of his family to join his mother who had already been living and working in the States. But Williams never forgot his roots. When he was called up by coach John Keister, he jumped at the opportunity to represent the country of his birth.
“I’m from here, my heart is here… there’s no place like home. To be here and do what I love in front of the people that speak the same language, the same culture and share the love I have for the game is a feeling that is unexplainable.”
Williams’ breakthrough years
After playing a number of years for Portland Timbers II, Williams moved back to California to join LA Galaxy II in the United Soccer League, the second division in the US. He had a superb 2020, firing LA Galaxy II to the playoffs, coming second in the goal scoring charts, and making the team of the year.
He was rewarded at the start of 2021 with his first MLS contract with the Galaxy, making his debut in May. It was during this time that he was first called up to the Sierra Leone squad. Williams took his international bow in the final qualifier for the Africa Cup of Nations. Sierra Leone had to beat Benin to qualify.
Williams proved key in the win as he won the penalty which would send the country to Cameroon. Few can compare when talking about making international tournaments and he is immensely proud of his achievement:
“For a kid like myself that wasn’t even born at that time [the last time Sierra Leone appeared at an AFCON], to be part of it now is something that I will always keep with me forever. To share with my kids and my family that I was a part of that game and contributed to the success of that team.”
Becoming central to Sierra Leone’s success
Williams has since featured in every Sierra Leone squad and is quickly becoming an important player for the West African side. Due to the country’s elimination from World Cup qualifying, while most AFCON sides were playing competitive matches Sierra Leone, Gambia and Comoros have only been able to play friendlies.
Despite a disappointing few months with LA Galaxy where Williams struggled to break into the starting eleven, he has finished 2021 on a high. The centre forward was loaned in August to USL side San Diego Loyal, coached by US legend Landon Donovan. There Williams scored a brace on his full debut and scored six in nine starts for the Loyal helping them break into the playoffs spots where they would eventually fall short.
Williams is proud of being both Sierra Leonean and American. He holds dual citizenship and loves being Californian. But when it comes to national football, there is only one home for Augustine.
Choosing Sierra Leone
Like many others who have dual citizenship and must make decisions about which country to represent, individuals played a big role in Williams choosing to accept the call up to Sierra Leone. For Williams that person was Kei Kamara.
Like Williams, Kamara’s best years were spent in the US where he is the fifth all time goal scorer in the MLS. Kamara grew up in Sierra Leone but moved to the US when he was 16 and also has US citizenship.
The centre forward has since spent time in England with Norwich and Middlesbrough and now plays for Finnish side HIFK. Despite being 37, he still plays a key role for the national side both as goal scorer and as one of the most capped players in the squad.
Williams spoke of how he first met Kamara as a 16-year-old through their shared agent and they have been close friends since. He also spoke about how important Kamara was in breaking into the Sierra Leone squad and deciding to join the national team:
“A lot of people didn’t know I was Sierra Leonean until about three years ago. Kei Kamara would post videos of me and the goals that I scored. People would see me as another Sierra Leonean as a striker… I didn’t have the confidence of coming here and being comfortable by myself but speaking to guys like Kei and the coach reassured me.”
When looking forward to the competition that starts this Sunday, Williams is not caught up in the noise of the competition but is clearly looking forward to it. For Williams and the rest of the Sierra Leone squad, this is the biggest tournament and moment of their lives.
A platform to shine
The occasion is not lost on him. On sharing the stage with players like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Williams said, “To play and see top players and to be a part of the same tournament is a great feeling.”
The Cali man has other goals at the tournament beyond representing his country well. Williams’ contract with LA Galaxy was only for a year and so going into the tournament he is a free agent. The tournament is the perfect platform for him to get his next contract, and maybe even to get his dream move to Europe.
While he has obvious goals and wants to impress in his own right, Williams has no intention of putting himself or his performances above those of Sierra Leone. The side are in a difficult group, with holders Algeria, a star-studded Ivory Coast side and the Equatorial-Guinea. But Williams is not fazed by stars like Riyad Mahrez and Sebastien Haller.
Like Williams the Leone Stars are ambitious and are looking to impress on the biggest stage. “We’re not going to participate, we’re going to compete… once you get past the group stage, we all know anything can happen.”
For a boy who moved from Africa to the Bay Area in California and has finally returned to his homeland, there is no greater pride than pulling on the green, white and blue of Sierra Leone.