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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Remembering the men that built Gambian football

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By Tijan Masaneh Ceesay

Gambian football has come of age despite shortfalls here and there and now that there is a bright lining on the horizon with The Gambia edging to her first possible appearance in the African Nations Cup finals, it is only fair that we revisit the important role played by different people including three technicians. 

There are geneses for everything or steps towards progress, which are easily things of the past and often totally forgotten.

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It is for this reason that, as someone who covered Gambian football then, as commentator and club president, I am compelled to do this brief on the past.

From the late 1970s to about 1985, the entire sports budget was under D500,000 for starters.

In 1977, we went down six goals to one against Ghana at the Accra Sports Stadium giving the Accra Daily Graphic an insulting headline; A BAG FULL OF GOALS.” That was a wake up call!! The Gambia Football Association ushered in a new executive under the stewardship of Mr. Boukary Fofana and the sharp administrative skills of the late Momodou M Dibba, who I am on record as saying was the best football administrator of all time in my opinion, which may not count any way.

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The task at hand then to build Gambian football was compounded with an acute lack of funding, but the likes of Housainou MM Njie, Babou Cisse, Alhagi OB Conateh, Fr. Joseph Gough all of blessed memory, as well as Alagie Gabbie Sosseh, Alhagi Mustapha M Ngum, Omar Amadou Jallow (OJ), Baboucarr Barrow, Ousman Saho and many others  I may not recall at this time poured personal resources into the development process.

The first priority was to put in place a sound technical committee and coaching staff and in 1978, the late Macoumba Kabba (MI) Jallow, was appointed Head Coach with Mass Axi Gai and the late Kebba Njie Master his assistants. The trio deserved all the credit for bringing Gambian football to respectability. They began by ensuring that the kind of bad publicity in Accra a year earlier never happened again.

In assembling a national team, they even took gutsy moves like converting a left winger to goalkeeper in the late Babou Saho who went on to excel so well that he became a national hero and a legend in his role as keeper.  The technical team went further on their expedition to turn Commy Owens a left winger to a left back while Edakarr, a midfielder was made an attacking central defender.

Mustapha Bill Badjie an established midfielder was made a right back as Ndow Njie too was moved from center forward to a sweeper.  The man who became one of the best captains of the national team Baboucarr Sowe Laos, a right back became perhaps Gambia’s finest midfielders.  There were also Bladder Sibi and Paul Ogoo both midfielders who were turned in to attacking full backs while Alagie Sarr was turned from goalkeeper to midfielder.

It was hard to comprehend what the technical team actually wanted by shifting these players from their established roles to new ones. But hey, it worked so well that hardly anyone remembered their previous roles.

The newly built team’s first international assignment was a bumpy trip over hills to Bissau for a tournament. Surprisingly, the experimental team performed well above expectation making it to the second round. Lamin Owens was exceptional in that outing attracting Cosmos which brought him to New York for trials.

Then came the President William Tolbert Fraternity African Tournament in Monrovia, Liberia. The Gambia beat heavy weights like the Ivory Coast and Togo to make it to the final she lost to the host through open bias from the referee who later confessed that had Gambia won that final, he probably would not have left Monrovia alive.

The Gambia Eleven played the finest and most tactical football in that tournament which was even more perfected with another fine run in the Amilcar Cabral tourney hosted in Banjul in 1980. In the final against Senegal on Independence Day, one central referee Murgado of Guinea Bissau became notorious for his personal hostilities against Gambia making it easy for Senegal to win the trophy.

I cataloged all these for people to remember the three important men who rebuilt the national team and are rarely credited for taking the Gambian game to its glorious days in 1980s.

The great tacticians then handed over the team to Saihou Sarr who cemented their achievement right into 1990. Without the past, there is no present so I salute these three men, MI Kabba Jallow, Kebba Njie Master and Mass Axi Gai. The trio should be celebrated and honored for the great work they did as coaches of our national teams and mentors to many in the game.

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