20 March 2019

Gambia: Crossing the Deadly Ocean By Boat in Pursuit of a Football Dream - Kalifa the First Irregular Migrant to Play for Gambia's National Team

analysis

For seasoned watchers of the national team, it was no strange sight when Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet included some fresh faces to his roster of invited players for Gambia's game against juggernauts Algeria.

However, a closer look at the 20-man list bound for Algiers, made for some peculiar revelation. Mid-way in the pile of names, is a certain Kalifa Manneh, one of four new inclusions laced into the West African nation's squad.

A Journey Into Uncertainty

At just 20 years, tale of how Manneh jumped into the national team could force any eagle-eyed Hollywood director to sanction for a quick chronicling of his rise into a movie.

The perfect zero-to-hero story, it will be no exaggeration to say he has seen it all there is that life can offer -from suffering, risk-taking to running into luck.

Obsessed by desire to live a success story, Kalifa left his country of birth to arrive in first-port-of-call Lampedusa, thousand miles from home.

He covered way beyond the 4,144 km that an aero plane takes to fly out from Banjul to Italy.

His mode of transportation was first a usually uncomfortable bus crammed with many of his likes - as is all stories with irregular migrants - then a boat, most often than not without life jackets in the case of any eventuality.

Most Gambians have perished in the high seas, their boats swept off by wild waves and corpses partially devoured by aquatic animals.

This journey usually starts off with dodging suspicious immigration officers. Some would shred part their national documents to avoid being identified once in a foreign African country, rendering their captors, that is if they're at all intercepted, cornered about possibility of deporting them to their origins.

At Tripoli, 296.66km from Lampedusa, an island in Southern Italy, they join human-traffickers boats via agents paying above US$2000 to US$3000 to be smuggled in hot-spot Italy, according to International Organisation for Migration (IMO) statistics.

A Twist of Life Fuelled by Humanitarianism

Manneh, then an unaccompanied teenager, was one of those to have taken the trip and met lawyer Carlo Trommino at Syracuse, founder of the AccoglieRete, a term translating as Will Welcome in Italian, an organisation of volunteer tutors rendering assistance to minors involved in the voyage.

Carlo was due to join her husband in the United Kingdom who works for a monetary city firm when she opted to visit a migration makeshift centre in her hometown in Syracuse. 70 weary-looking Somali minors, most of them without luxury of a bath for four days and shoes, was enough of a heart-wrenching sight for Trommino.

Photo: Carlo and her NGO are the reason Gambia boasts of an international in Kalifa

Sensing underage foreign children are prone to crimes and gang-grooming, immediately she set about establishing an NGO in 2013 which has gone to help two thousand migrant children in five years.

Kalifa came onto the scene much later, coming in contact with Carlo along with Muhammed and Lamin both of whom now work as a volunteer and chef respectively.

Football was an obvious pick for Manneh and the activist was told about the Gambian's abilities in the sport and wasted little time to introduce him to Catania Calcio's youth team, a professional club plying in the fourth tier of Italy.

There, Kalifa rose through the ranks into the maverick he now is today, a dream come true complimented by grueling two-hour daily workouts with his team.

Beating Fifa laws banning teams from recruiting foreign kids, Manneh is today a role model for migrants in Syracuse and child-activist Trommino bask in all the glory, albeit deservingly, for setting up the platform that has mentored Manneh, securing Gambia , in the process, an international footballer.

His inclusion into the West African nation's senior team is no fluke, playing twenty-five of the twenty-nine league matches Catania Calcio have gotten in so far.

He will go down in history this Friday as the first Back Way boy (a local parlance for irregular migrants) to play for Gambia's national team.

Algeria will be the opponents who have an advantage of playing at home in what sure promises to be pulsating affair.

The task on the shoulders of Manneh and rest of his fellow internationals is clear but herculean. They must beat a solid-looking Algeria who have zero mounting pressure in the build up to the game having already qualified for the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations billed for Egypt.

Photo: Trommino poses proudly with the Gambian who is today an international footballer thanks to her work

Kalifa and compatriots must deliver an uppercut on the Desert Foxes and hope the other group qualifier featuring Benin and Togo ends in a draw to be assured of qualification to the African Cup for the first time in history after more than four decades of attempt without success.

For that to see light of day, as a priority, the winger must ward off competitions from Ablie Jallow of FC Metz and Babucarr Jobe for a starting spot in the Scorpions' team.

Back in Sicily, lawyer Carlo will be watching proudly Manneh turn up for his African country on her TV set against one of the continent's most star-studded nations.

There will be bigger accomplishments to rave about for this Italian mother when Catania go on to secure promotion in Italy's second division with six games to starts of the third division's promotion play-offs, and this African will be central in the club's return to the big times.

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