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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Gambia ‘la nyato-ta’ in football (What do we have, how can it be improved, who should do what? and so forth.)

Experts, scholars, football administrators, veteran journalists have all written about the way forward for Gambian football and I am adding my views to the barrage of views and opinions.

The reason for penning my views down is as a result of the current state of football, a state no Gambian is happy about. It all began when The Gambia was thrown out of the African Youth Championship for using illegible players against Liberia. Three weeks later, the entire Gambian populace was shocked when Caf issued a universal ban on all our national teams for two years. 

This was followed by the formation of a task force tasked with investigating whether the football authorities acted in negligence or merely erred by fielding illegible players. The task force later felt there was some negligence and deliberate refusal to follow the regulations and expert advice before the match and thus recommended the voluntary resignations of certain executive members and relieving some staff off their duties or in default, the National Sports Council will advise government to take action. 

While consultations were on about some of the demand for resignations and the possible sacking of some key staff, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Alieu Jammeh, publicly announced the suspension of the president of The Gambia Football Federation and his top three vice presidents and put in place a “rectification committee”. 

Two days later, the entire GFF executive who were in town were detained by the police for a week. Three other staff of the National Sports Council were also detained at the state central police station in Banjul while an investigation was mounted by the police to ascertain who put The Gambia in this precarious situation.

While these people were in police custody, stakeholders with voting rights put league football activities across the country on halt calling on the reinstatement of their suspended and detained executive. 

As if all that was not enough, Fifa threatened to ban The Gambia if the elected members of the GFF were not reinstated. It was reported that Fifa had promised to spend about US$1.1m in The Gambia on grassroots football development, refurbishment of the Fifa Gold Project and the construction of new artificial turf in Lower River Region coupled with periodic performance assessment to be carried out by Fifa officials.

 Am I drifting away from my topic? Oh, I just thought I needed to give a brief background of the way things unfolded and the sequence in which they happened. But let me concentrate on the ‘nyato-ta’ of Gambian football with special focus on the following salient points I intend to cover. 

 

Infrastructural development

Infrastructure refers to the physical structure that is needed for the game to take place. ‘Mbe ming-la jang’ – what I am referring to here – is the playing fields and grounds or should I say mini stadia or parks. Are they available and accessible to the growing number of youngsters who have fallen in love with the game or are growing to love the game due to the successes some Gambians have achieved and the popularity they have given to The Gambia? 

In my view, The Gambia needs more playing grounds, in fact not only grounds but standard playing grounds that can accommodate the thousands of young people all hoping to make a living out of football. Looking at the current situation, The Gambia has five sub-standard mini stadia; KG5 in Banjul, Serekunda East and West, Manjai and Box Bar Mini Stadium in Brikama and one national stadium in Bakau. All these are centered in the urban areas prompting many to ask: is football in The Gambia for only urban people?

 

What should be done? 

There should be more standard mini stadia, to accommodate the number of people wanting to make a living out of football. The more standard fields we have, the more the young are attracted to play football. The more players we have in all categories, the better it becomes for The Gambia because with a pool of good players, the technicians are forced to select the best to represent the country. 

Take for example the entire West Coast Region or should I just take Kombo North with three big villages such as Lamin, Sukuta and Brufut, there is no standard playing ground. In fact for Brufut, they did not even have a piece of land in case the chance to build a mini stadium is offered. 

 

Who should do what?

The Gambia has so many places yet to have playing grounds, so sports committees should work with village heads and the Ministry of Lands to identify strategic locations for mini stadia. Where the grounds are already available, the area councils should work with the various sports committees in collaboration with the ministry of youth and sports to invest heavily in these places so as to keep the young people engaged. 

It is obvious that the sports committees cannot transform their grounds to what is desired because they lack funds but with the support of both the area councils and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, mini stadia like KG5, Serekunda East and West, Manjai and Brikama can be transformed. 

It must be said that some of these mini stadia mentioned here were solely developed by committees, individuals, and Fifa with little support from the area councils. Should we move and move quick in football, the local councils and the Ministry of Youth and Sports must put aside a budget to transform our stadia in all the regions, districts and villages. When we do that we will also curb possible crime, drug use and reduce health problems among young people in the country. 

 

FIFA Goal Project 

(Technical Training Centre) Yundum

The Fifa Goal Project (Technical Training Centre) in Yundum has been underutilised. It has never served any of the purposes for which it is intended. That is a project that should have graduated players representing The Gambia at international level but because it seems previous executives of the Gambia Football Association have no realistic plan for youth football development, they failed to utilise it, thus leaving the structure as a white elephant project. At no given time has that complex been utilised leaving me wondering if we had administrators who know the importance and the reason why Fifa spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on that project.  

As the name implies that centre should have been the breeding grounds for The Gambia’s national teams. I am tempted to ask, if The Gambia had utilised that project properly, would we have been caught using illegible players for a tournament?

Anyway, it is better late than never, so we must refocus our attention to that complex that has the potential to develop about hundred kids every five years. 

No wonder when the Mustapha Kebbeh-led executive came into office, they sought funding from Fifa to refurbish the place with a view to start utilising it. Yes, refurbish but also keep it running for its purpose should be our target. If not, we are just going back to zero. 

This is a place to host the country’s best in football where they will undergo technical and tactical training as well as go to school like all other children. While they are at this place, they will not be eating starchy and oily foods which is bad for athletes and their diet will be controlled by a dietitian.

Players aged 9 to 18 or 20 could be beneficiaries. Players who turn out to be flops should be dropped because the centre should not keep players who will become liabilities but assets. Once we start utilising this centre for its purpose, we can start dreaming of qualifying for our first-ever African Cup of Nations or even the World Cup.

Now, who should fund this complex? The compound is ours and we must invest in it. The fact that we have a partner in Fifa willing to give us funds does not mean we must fold our hands. Therefore, the Ministry of Youth and Sports should come in with some funds to support the maintenance of this complex that can play a big role in the development of our football. 

 

Youth football 

(what many refer to as grassroots football) 

I grew up hearing about “school boy internationals” but hardly do you see a school boy even playing for our junior teams since we started entering into the junior and youth competitions. This leaves me asking, do we have better and more honest administrators in those days than now or was football better administered in those days than now? Research has shown that most of those “school boy internationals” The Gambia was boasting of were spotted out from school competitions and youth football festivals. 

Why aren’t we having more “school boy internationals” now that we have a bigger population, better trained coaches, better exposed administrators, football clinics and more schools? 

I am with the conviction that with football jamborees and festivals involving schools and football clinics and with well-organised youth leagues for the first division league clubs, selecting players for the “Centre of Excellence” will not be a herculean task. 

We need not go far to understudy how a youth league can be organised because we can just stop at Senegal to learn a lot. They have a well-organised youth league, so why not go there to understudy them? Concerning putting up football jamborees and festivals to scout for the centre, a plan has already been developed by the technical department of the GFF to host over 240 kids both boys and girls but that plan must be put into practice. 

Yes, I know the next thing you are calculating in your mind is who will foot the bill for the jamborees and festivals. This is when the marketing and publicity comes in. They need to look for sponsors to sponsor these activities. Many will argue not even our league is   sponsored, so how do you expect youth football to be sponsored? But the reality is, when we brand our football properly, funding these activities will not be hard. 

The GFF should partner with the Secondary School Sports Association in organising national inter-schools football championship just like they do in athletics. No science is needed to achieve this. 

 

Age-cheating/falsification 

(who to blame and what can be done)

Age-cheating, should I say an African phenomenon or a global phenomenon? Whatever it is, it is a big problem in sports, and football is no exception. The current state of Gambian football cannot be separated from related age-cheating or age-falsification. The key question is who should be blamed; should it be the player, parent, club, academy or national associations? 

I think lack of education is responsible for this. Not that people doing it are not educated but I think they don’t know the implications pretty well. Implications such as knowing the life span of a football player. Do people in football know that the average number of years one can spend in football as a players is 10 years, so given a 23-year-old 15 years is damaging that player’s career. Before that player turns 26 years when he is expected to be at his peak, he is nearing his mid-thirty and preparing to hang his boots. So anyone involved in reducing the ages of the players must be wary of this. 

Who should be blamed? I think we should blame everyone here. The player knows he is not the age he is claiming he is, his parents know, the coaches know and in case it was the football association that prepared his passport, they should know that a player who plays in the league for two or more years in The Gambia cannot be less than 18 years. So it is a holistic problem that everyone involved should take the blame?

Can it be eliminated?  Yes it can be. It can be eliminated if we refocus attention on the Centre of Excellence, develop grassroots football and promote school football. We must also forget immediate success because if that is our focus then we will destroy the future.

 

Structured leagues 

It is argued that the Gambian leagues are not well-structured. Without a structured league, development will be static because it becomes hard to attract spectators, not to talk about sponsors. It has been hard of recent to see sponsors being attracted to Gambian football especially league football. The simple reason is that very few Gambians turn out to watch league football as opposed to the annual summer football jamboree – nawettaan. 

This leaves many proposing that the Super Nawettaan be transformed to The Gambia’s premier league because it attracts the crowd which lures sponsors. But again, this will be a battle because established club owners who have made and are making a fortune from their clubs will not want to lose that milching cow. Where a club is run by one or two people who spend but yet pocket any income that comes in, it would be hard to give up this simple but sweet popularity and money-making venture. 

Now that the new constitution gives the regions all rights to organise regional leagues, it will become more and more difficult to organise football. Can this be done by the football federation alone? No, area councils must invest in their own football associations for a successful regional league to be held. 

When these regional leagues are very well-organised, they will also be a breeding ground for our national leagues. In fact, why can’t we have two teams from each administrative region to make a premier league where teams from the regions will travel to the Kombos and vice visa for matches? It sounds bizarre but to have a national league that has a national character, all regions must be involved. Will this attract more spectators? Of course yes. Does it have the potential to generate sponsors?  Of course yes.

So why not go for it? I know it will take a drastic move but hey interested persons in a region can merge their resources to support their regions. They can buy shares and the fans can also own shares. Isn’t that committing people to support their regions and take ownership? 

 

Sang Mendy is the producer/presenter of Mega Sports Bite on City Limits Radio.

 

By Sang Mendy

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