by Baboucarr Fallaboweh
Football, a popular sport with the power to drive social change is taking a new shape in the West Coast Region of The Gambia thanks to local involvement and investments. The sport has the ability to improve people’s health, create employment, promote peaceful co-existence while also addressing certain vices such as irregular migration and involvement of young people in the use of drugs and other substance abuses.
The growing interest among local investors is giving birth to many grassroots academies, driving a sense of ownership among thousands of passionate fans in the region. The level of such a rare support for grassroots football competition becomes evident in the ongoing tournament organised by Ballers4Life Sports in partnership with Brikama Sports Committee and other partners with several young academies competing, generating a massive support base.
“Football is life for us. It takes all our stress away, said Yankuba Minteh, a football fan found at Box Bar Mini-Stadium supporting the Manduar Warriors, a neighbourhood football club founded in the outskirts of Brikama, the regional capital.
He added: “I’m here every weekend to enjoy football. You can see around, we have many people from my area who came to support our academy boys taking on KKJ academy from Coastal Road, a community a few mins drive from here. If we defeat them today, we will be in a good position to qualify for the next rounds.”
Alieu Sowe, a member of the tournament organiser, says the B4L Youth League which comprises 20 teams from different parts of the country has an objective of driving a social change through community football while emphasising the need for community involvement to succeed. “This maiden tournament is organised to scout talents, bring the community together, help keep the kids out of the streets, and discourage youngsters against irregular migration, drugs and substance use,” he says.
More investors coming home
Apart from Alieu, more and more people are returning to their communities to set up football academies to keep the young ones busy on the right cause that can change their lives. This is what led to the creation of Lahaiba Football Academy (FA) whose founder, Lahaiba Kujabi, is a young construction engineer and an ardent football lover.
“I invest into football to help young people harness their footballing skills. Everyone loves football in the Gambia and organising it in the form of academies helps nurture their talents and impact their characters positively. It makes them stay away from trouble. This is very important towards community development. When our young minds are away from distractions in the streets, it helps them by staying focused to train and be mentored not only as good footballers but responsible citizens in society.”
A second division player Abdou Daffeh is the trainer of Jarisu Talents. He recalled his first encounter with the youngsters in the team. “I found boys and girls training hard at the school football ground. Run faster, break the ball quick, create space and be strong were words I heard the local trainer shouting at every point.”
Like many youngsters he is training, Abdou harboured a strong dream to play in Europe and saw the need to move to Senegal to increase his chances due to scouting advantage in the neighbouring country. But a knee injury that took him out of action for two years complicated his situation until his comeback with a second division team Unique Global, a club that was also recently purchased by two Gambian businessmen.
“I normally spend my free time by coming to train and mentor the young boys and girls at my home football academy. After every training session, we gather under the mango tree nearby to analyse the training session. At each session, we allow each to stand up and express how they felt about that particular session and share their thoughts on what was lacking and what should be improved individually and collectively. This is very important because in the process, they are learning how to express themselves freely without any judgement and it helps them to become empowered and good public speakers,” he says.
Academy director who’s a teacher and now pursuing a degree in development studies, Lamin Bojang, explains how Jarisu Talents is producing talents. “Our academy is a safe space for young people in our community. We have various categories ranging from U9, 11, 13, 15, 17 and a senior category who most are playing the senior division football. Football helps inspire hope in our community.”
Bojang mentioned successes, including the acquisition of four players from their academy by BK West United and Baller4Life last summer allowing them to participate in an international football festival in Hamburg Germany.
“This is very important for a community seriously affected by irregular migration. Many people from this community perished trying to reach Europe for a dream that didn’t exist. It showed the other kids that they can travel anywhere around the world using the regular means when they have the right skills, especially football. Right now, we have more than 10 returnees training with us. They find solace in football and our ground is one place providing them the space to play football and this is really helping in their reintegration into society,” he indicated.
Inculcating good learning habit and exemplary attitude
Beyond footballing mission, Ballers4Life Sports has also launched Ballers4Life School Initiative with the sole objective of moulding academy members and students in the community into positive social change makers and serve as ambassadors and role models for others. Ebrima Bojang, national coordinator of the Ballers4Life School Initiative and volunteer teacher with the Gambia Community Library Project Kafuta has explained this better.
“Football is helping these kids stay and work hard in school as well. Part of the academy rules is to stay neat, and away from smoking and the use of any substance. By wanting to play football it is helping the schools and communities in encouraging the children and youth to work harder in school to achieve good grades.”
Obvious challenges impeding dreams
Highlighting the challenges, Ebrima cited some structural challenges that continue to cost so many dreams, especially young potential professional footballers shining in the rural communities like Kafuta. The lack of sports infrastructure in remote areas tops the list. It is a major constraint towards talent’s development and maintenance in the Gambia. Beyond Brikama there is no football field with modern facilities.” According to him, other sporting infrastructures are missing, including gym complexes retarding the whole development processes for rural children.
“Travelling through rural Gambia, you can see young people training on bare grounds and some without even shoes exposing them to injuries. I remember finding one kid playing in the street who told me he wanted to be like Sadio Mane. Sadio is his idol as they share the same last name. A lot of young people relate to Sadio, especially coming from Bambali, a small village like theirs in the Southern part of Sénégal Casamance, is inspiring hope that they can be like him someday.”