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Tijan Jaiteh, Goodwill ambassador for sports

Tijan Jaiteh, Goodwill ambassador for sports

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You were born into a relatively well-to-do family with enough to pursue higher education. Why did you become a footballer?

When I was young my uncle used to take me and my friends to play football. That was how we ended up having a small football team and I developed interest in football. As I was growing up, I decided that I would rather make football my life career than go to school or university.

What were your earliest contacts in football?

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Long, long ago. We even used to kick tennis balls around in our compound and on the streets with friends. Football is something that I have been so passionate about. I used to sleep with the football just to have its feeling. In The Gambia, our local team was Wailers, but Ports FC was my first professional division team in The Gambia.

There was a time that you and your teammates in Ports FC were nearly bought by Chelsea FC but the contracts failed and many people blamed Ports management. Can you explain?

When we started that process, the agent who was supposed to take me was to take all of us – Ebrima Sohna, Modou Ceesay, Ous Jallow, Sainey and Sanna [Nyassi]. But we ended up not going because some of us realised – like me and the Nyassi brothers – that in England to have work permit will be difficult. It was then that we decided to withdraw from that deal and decided to go to Norway. But Sohna, Ous Jallow and Zico proceeded with the Chelsea deal.

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You shot into fame with the national under-17 team but like most Gambian professionals before you, you never ended up breaking into top European teams. Why do you think that is?

It’s true, like you said, in life, in whatever one aspires in, you always want to be the best and reach the highest level. And all your fans and those who love and admire you want you to reach the highest level. That’s true. But sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes, it’s about work permit. For instance, Sunderland FC once wanted to sign me. At that time, I was plying my trade in Norway. All my dream was to play in England but because of work permit I couldn’t go there, but also, my team at the time wasn’t quite ready to part with me.

At 32, many people believed you left football sooner than expected. Was there any particular reason for that?

I believe that in whatever you do, there comes a time when you must take a pause and assess your options to see what’s best for you and for your family. You don’t always have to look out for what’s best for others. You must look at family first. I was injured and needed to rest, recover and regain my strength. But my recovery period was going to take long time and I decided to come to The Gambia. While I was in The Gambia, I tried to register my business and stuff. There and then, I was appointed as sports goodwill ambassador. That’s why I decided to stop football and focus on helping the young ones.

Did you make a lot of money?

Money is more about management. Whatever you do, if you do it well, automatically money will come. Thank Allah I am fine with my family. I am such that I don’t like to show off or talk about wealth, you know. 

Do you have any regrets about your decision to hang up your boots?

No. We must always be grateful to Allah in everything, or in any situation. A man must accept his circumstances, his situation. It’s through that one can enjoy life. If Allah didn’t propose something and you try to force your way through it, you will have a problem. Be satisfied and try to explore other areas you have no knowledge of. Today, thank Allah, I am going and coming, sharing the table with diplomats and discussing issues concerning young people. So, this is very fulfilling for me.  I know the issues of youths.

Having served in the national teams for so long, what do you think is responsible for The Gambia’s under-achievements both at the national and at individual levels?

What I say is that as a Gambian, more so as a supporter of football, whoever is playing football and makes it to the top, we must all thank this person because this person must have worked so hard to get to where he is. This person fought so hard to make life for himself and for his family and to represent the national team because it’s so difficult. The Gambian player has no infrastructure or facilities to guarantee you become something tomorrow. All that exists is that you go to a team, train and hope a scout comes and spots you. If we don’t have proper football academies, how can you expect… if you go to Europe, they train you things you didn’t know before. If you are in a Gambian university and you go to European university, you only pick up from were you left off and do your masters. So, if you don’t know the basics, it’s a problem. This is the problem with the Gambian player. In Europe, the whites will teach you until you realise there is a lot you don’t know. That’s the difference. Look at the academies in Senegal now, big teams like Marseille sign players from these academies and put them straight into their teams. Look at where Sadio Mané and Gana Gueye come from? If you want to be in the same league with those people, those people have a tempo they are used to since they were kids. That’s why I said the Gambian footballer tries a lot. You have  now the likes of Musa Barrow at Bologna, others at Sampdoria and Boavista and the Steve went to China and he’s making a good name. And there are the likes of Assan Torres. But if we want these kinds of success for Gambian footballers, we must have the academies, the foundations. If you went through an academy, you just go and pick up. Look at Pape Sarre at Metz. At just 18, Tottenham Hotspurs came and bought him for 15 million pounds…

What’s your most memorable football match in the national team?

In the national team? I think it was against the Teranga Lions in Senegal. The Gambia needed to win that game so much. It was an away match. It was a match against our neighbours, our rivals. The tension was so high. That was the game for me.

You and your generations and those who preceded you have not managed to reach the Africa Cup of Nations. This generation has. What’s your feeling about that?

That’s a huge pride and happiness for us. In any endeavour, there must be some progress. Today, thank Allah, you and I are having a sit-down and are able to see that yes, today we have progress in football and that also, our generation did try a lot to get the country here but we couldn’t. Our little brothers came and reached the finish line. That’s a big joy for us. They say your success is not your success alone; whether you know it or not, many others contribute to it. I didn’t play in Italy, but thank Allah that following my appointment, I have connections in Italy to bring a volleyball coach for The Gambia. The boys are doing very well. Yusupha Njie in Portugal [Boavista FC], is doing very well. All these things touch other people’s lives. It benefits people in ways you don’t know.

Most footballers after retirement opt for careers in coaching but you did not. You went for advocacy through your foundation, becoming a goodwill ambassador for sports. What do you hope to achieve?

My life since boyhood is mostly about praying to Allah to bless me to become a professional. All along, when people used to tell me Gambia wouldn’t do anything for you, I didn’t listen. I wanted to help my country and the people. It’s my passion. It makes me happy so much.

Since your appointment as ambassador, you have been tirelessly working for the development of sports. Can you expound on some of your successes?

Thank you for that. It’s important people pay attention to what others do, especially what they do for the greater good. We are all Gambians. And this country belongs to all of us. If you feel I am doing something good for the public, you appreciate it. That’s how I, too, develop this obligation to serve my people. If you see that I am in this position today, it’s because of Gambians. Without them, I wouldn’t be there. That’s why I try to give back. I was born here and my family is here.

What do you think are the challenges to the development of Gambian sports?

The challenges I think are obvious: lack of good infrastructure, good playing pitches and so on. I think the government is trying to tackle those issues. I am hearing that they want to repair some parks. Sports don’t wait for nobody. If the facilities are not good, it will kill the future of some kids. Their development will be slow. Perhaps there are among them those who are even growing up. It’s the lack of facilities and also motivation. They should bring foreign coaches for them to learn from. Sports need all these things. Those are the areas I am working on.

Your foundation weighed into the row between government and the national team members over bonuses. What exactly were you negotiating when you went to the vice president?

I saw that the issue needed to be addressed. It’s true, what should have happened in the first place, as your head of state, no matter what happened, if he calls on you, you must go and answer to him and honour his invitation. That’s what I told the boys when I had a discussion with them and they realised that what I was saying was true. I think it’s lack of enough thinking and that’s why that happened, but I told them I will find a way to resolve the issue. That’s how I organised a meeting with the adviser to the president Henry Gomez and he and I talked. We then visited the vice president and I explained to her that the boys would like to move forward because you have no one but your leader. If you want a row with him, it might not be wise and the boys, thank Allah, realised that and it’s over and they have apologised.

Do you believe politics was involved in the issues?

My intention is always for The Gambia. I don’t even want to know what political party one belongs to. All that interests me is that if something happens, we all have a discussion and agree on what is right for peace to continue to exist. That’s it.

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