The 1983 Gambia national team, thirty years on

Friday, May 10, 2013

May 1983 was indeed a landmark in Gambian football. There has been no history kept but I am positive, the Gambian “Walking” Sports Encyclopedia himself, Pap Saine, will lean back and read this piece with nostalgia and a lot of emotion; not only because he was at the center of the action but also for the fact that 1983 saw dramatic changes in Gambian football and thanks to some that are still alive well and kicking and were key to this decision, most prominently among them, Alhagie Omar Sey who is by far Gambia’s most known sports personality around the world, Alhagie OB Conateh the perennial football fan and WAFU”s Vice President, Saihou Sarr who took over as Coach, Alhagie Babou Cisse a great Patron of the game at that time, Alhagie Mustapha MM Ngum, GFA Vice President at the time, Edmonson Shonobi, Assistant Secretary of the FA at the time, my brother Kebba Masanneh Ceesay who served in the technical committee alongside Cherno Barra Touray and Fr Joe Gough at the time, Mayor James Furmose Gomez, a football philanthropist extraordinaire, MI Kabba Jallow and Mass Axi Gai who were the Coaches and Momodou MM Dibba now Gambia’s Olympic Committee Supremo, but by far the greatest Secretary General in Gambian football; what he did to develop the administration of football can never be written, it was hands down brilliance and great leadership.

Of course it was the will of God Almighty that the greatest promoter of Gambian football and Sports in general, Alhagie Housainou MM Njai is not around to celebrate the three decades of that great team and the renaissance of Gambian football so to speak.

However, I am sure that ours and the fans will be eternally grateful to him for his leadership and contribution to Gambian sports without which Gambian sports would have been sent to the ash heap of mortality. Jerrejef Njai, nopalekul ak Jama cha Yalla!

While Abdoulie Star Jallow, an assured first time  ballot if The Gambia is to ever have its own Football Hall of Fame and Captain of that heroic team that went into Monrovia in 1979 and poured every ounce of Gambian sweat and blood in the finals of the William Tolbert Fraternity Cup will disagree with me over calling the 1983 the best ever and indeed he should; because he led a great group of Men who put the word on the continent that “Gambia was no more a walk over”, and that never, in the history of Gambian football will a foreign newspaper headline an article “A Bag full of goals” as the Accra Daily Graphic did so cunningly after The Gambia went down Six to one in Accra in 1977.

Abdoulie Star Jallow, with no questions asked, is the best captain ever for any Gambian national team and I can be quoted again and again on this. His great leadership skills were nulli secondis; and I am sure the great football loving fans of those great years in Gambian football will agree. They had their time and they deserve the credit for setting the tone for the 1983 team I am about to serenade, they took from the foundation Star Jallow and Co erected and never looked back!

Following a May 1983 two-nil loss to the Ghana Black Stars at the Box Bar Stadium the Football Association moved quickly within forty-eight hours to relieve MI Kabba Jallow and Mass Axi Gai of their duties as Head Coach and Assistant Head Coach respectively and handed the team over to Saihou Sarr who became the head Coach and player at the same time; a not too wise decision at the time.

Football pundits at the time questioned the move given that The Gambia was at the peak of many competitions in that three-month span, but the FA would also defend the decision as a necessary change.

Prior to that game, the best winger on the team Essa Faye was kicked off the team and two young inexperienced players in Louis Thorpe and Ebou Dubois were fielded in the midfield over Baboucarr Sowe Laos and Joe tennis Gomez.

If it was changing of the guard or a tactical experiment, it failed and did not sit well with the majority of fans who called for a change in coaching staff and the GFA succumbed to fan pressure and relieved the two gentlemen of their coaching duties.

Least we forget, both MI Kabba Jallow and Mass Axi Gai played key roles in developing the game and in my book, I still do believe they are the premier football brains in Gambian football.

Player/Coach Saihou Sarr took over the team and had two weeks to prepare for the return leg in Ghana.

In that Accra game the team suffered its biggest blow losing Lamin Owens to a compound fracture inflicted by Ghana’s right back Hesse Odamptey.

Lamin Owens, a key to the team, would be flown to Banjul and occupied room number ten at the Royal Victoria Hospital private block for quite sometime.

This injury kept him off the team for some two or one and half years.

Without his biggest star, The Gambia’s equivalence to Brazil’s socrates, Saihou Sarr’s plate was full. 

 

In no time he had to assemble a team and he must be given credit for the bold move he made in transforming the team to a younger one.

Young and upcoming stars like Joe Sambou (Bruno Conti), Aziz Corr, Gibou Nyang Mbolleh, Mohammed Kujabi, Amara, Abou Johnson (the Bulldozer), Amidou Savage, Omar Bayo and Saul Jagne were all invited to the squad and thus there was competition at every position.

Sang Ndong, a complete athlete and stellar at manning the pipes would become the national team number one over Lie Ndure, a decision that was up for conjecture for a long time until the Mauritania Zone Two where Sang emerged as one of the best keepers in the region.

Saihou experimented with Dodou Saine and Alagie Sarr at central defence and it worked perfectly well while Mustapha Bill Badjie and the legendary Francis Commy Owens manned the flanks.

The midfield was just a joy to watch implement their craft as the ageless Saihou Sarr led Joe “Tennis” Gomez and Baboucarr Sowe Laos (Captain). 

 

Upfront their were great Stars in every shape of the word; the greatest himself, Alagie Njie Biri, the “Bionic Man” Bai Malleh Wadda, Saul Samba (Pitty Baba), and a young talent named Joe Sambou.

Saihou’s first call was to implement a strategy that was in line with the combinations he had.

With great ball sense players like the ones he had in the back field at the time, The Gambia brought a new brand of football to the sub-region building all attacks from the back doing away with the traditional physical type of football.

The beauty of watching Dodou Saine split the middle bringing the ball up field or Alagie Sarr pointing at the holes makes me regurgitate the beauty of Gambian football at the time.

Commy Owens was the master in dribbling past opponents and YES, the Gambian team owned the carpet and this was magnificently displayed in Mauritania when Gambia beat Guinea Conakry by four goals to one, thanks to Bai Malleh Wadda who netted all four goals which would later add to giving him the Leading Goal scorer trophy, a first for The Gambia.

Joe Tennis, if you will, was a ball hawk and could just do whatever with a football, Laos was the Master tactician and Saihou was the ageless and fearless warrior.

Upfront, there will never be any qualms on that forward line being the best ever produced by The Gambia in terms of combination and talent, Joe Sambou, Bai Malleh Malleh Wadda, Saul Samba, Alagie Njie Biri and Aziz Corr.

Indeed they came short in many tournaments but one thing all Gambian fans at the time will agree on is the fact that they never disappointed. They were always up to the task and always had put up brilliant performances for our flag.

For me, whether it was in my role as the Beat Writer for the team or the Ball Boy, this team is one for the ages. They were fearless and left it all on the pitch in the name of our country on any given day with no benefits whatsoever if compared to today’s generation.

I wonder what it would have been if they enjoyed the benefits of today’s generation. Two of the most prominent on that team, Saul Samba and Dodou Saine, have passed on to eternity and like their fellow warriors, they’ve been completely forgotten; a shame in every facet and I do hope, that someday down the line, they and those still alive will be given the honour deserving of their performances for our country.

Writing about them on The Gambia News Bulletin or talking about them over Radio Gambia was what I lived for at that time and indeed, thirty years later, I salute their Patriotism, courage and celebrate their legendary representation of my Home, sweet Home, The Gambia.

The one liners, DEM NGA ABIDJAN, YES SIR MAMA, ALLO GRA, MONEY/WEAPON or SALONE TITI CONNECTION will stay with me for a lifetime.

Thanks for the memories; you are all Heroes of a grateful Nation and people. GACHE NGALAMA!

Author: Tijan Tijan Masanneh Ceesay, An Insider’s Review of Gambian Football, Veteran Journalist