By Sulayman Bah
There would be passion from ordinary Gambians to watch the 2018 World Cup. Not that the country qualified for the global soccer event, in fact far from it, but because one of their own, in the shape of Bakary Papa Gassama, will be out there hitting the big times.
St Petersburg will be the place. With two months until the jamboree, locals are already itching for it and cannot wait. The juice of this news was brought home to many after FIFA named Gassama as one of six referees picked from Africa for the World Cup, last Thursday.
Though the announcement came as moment of excitement to Gambians, it was, however, expected. Potential referees are assessed through intensive procedural means and Gassama, being the continent’s best in the game the last thirty-six months, merited his inclusion.
By this, he set yet another tall order benchmark –the first ever Gambian to not only be assigned to take charge of a World Cup game but to appear in it on two consecutive occasions. His debut appearance was four years ago in the event hosted by Brazil.
Hailing from a West African nation rarely a footballing hot bed, the 39-year-old is an ambassador from our part of the continent.
Climbing to relevance
Fifteen years ago, he wasn’t any close to getting the adulations thrown at him today.
Starting out as a constable in Gambia’s Police Department, Bakary wasn’t dreaming of the illustrious career he has this moment, when he first took up the whistle. A player for his local hometown team, his journey teed off when he was called to oversee an impromptu nawettan qualifier game. Relying only on his rather too basic knowledge of the offside rules and fouls, he mustered the courage to take up the challenge. Such games are symptomatic with controversy with chances of getting bullied by losing team’s angry fans at end of matches, high. Unfazed, he marshalled proceedings and the result was praises being lavished at him by both teams for his impressive showing. Emboldened by this thrill, soon it became not only an ambition to become of a referee but an obsession.
And under the reigns of ex-referee association’s boss Lamin Camara, Papa’s rapid rise in the art was apparent.
Four years into the formative years of his new trade, the police officer secured a FIFA referee badge in 2007. This set the motion buttons. An indication of trust and recognition of progression, with a FIFA badge, the Gambian glided into the big stages with almost relative ease, taking charge of Caf Confederation Cup, Champions League and CHAN qualifier encounters. As his displays earned rave reviews in caf referee assessment meetings, temptation to include him in the elite group of notable arbiters was obvious. It began with assignment to handle Caf Champions League first, second round matches then to the group stages. By January 2012, he’d won favour to officiate events in the Africa Cup of Nations namely the Gabon-Morocco and Zambia-Sudan clashes. The start of a breakthrough occurred seven months later having been tasked to oversee the Olympic Games particularly the Brazil-New Zealand showdown.
A year following this exploit, he was the undisputed choice to referee the Orange Caf Champions League second-leg final which had Egypt’s Al Ahly and South Africa’s Orlando Pirates slugging it out for the staked prize. Then the U-20 World Cup followed in June 2013 where he controlled two games before the Club World Cup December that year which Africa was hosting for the first time in Morocco.
In spite of his near impeccable records and for all FIFA’s talk about Fair-Play, there was still that malice towards Africa’s referees often overlooked in favour of their contemporaries from other continents. So, the fast-rising Gassama had to contend with the semis game between the Bayern Munich and China’s Guangzhou Evergrande.
Still the 39-year-old’s stock kept rising, morphing into a referee guru whose reputation for judicious rulings has no room for compromise.
At a flicker, aged 35, he’d turned out to be the man handling virtually all high profile Caf tournament finals, prompting FIFA to name him as one of referees for the 2014 summer World Cup in Rio, in the soccer governing body’s slight loosening of its overly derided rules to accommodate arbiters from the black soil.
The preceding twelve months, brought better luck dose, as Bakary got appointed to his first Africa Cup of Nations final – a nerve-wracking showdown involving Ghana and Ivory Coast. Then came the Caf Glo-Awards where he scooped the Africa referee of year gong for the second time in a row, an accolade he will now probably keep for life following Ahmed Ahmed’s decision to scrap the prize in this year’s awards event.
Bribery allegations and of petitions that nearly ruined a legend’s reputation
With an unblemished character in the game, the 39-year-old who enjoys watching wrestling at his leisure, has also had his fair share of antagonism.
There are no protagonists without villains and Pap cuts a classic example of that.
The first attempt to stain his persona spans back in 2012. He got mired in a furore he never helped stir. By conventional rules, referees are accorded three days of sabbatical however; a miscalculation by caf’s referee committee had his reputation almost in tatters. Gassama was wrongly assigned to a TP Mazembe Champions League match when he’d featured in a Confederation Cup game two days before. The committee realised their howler, withdrawing the erstwhile policeman, naming a Senegalese as his replacement without a notice of explanation of the sudden alternations to the concerned clubs. The changes sparked a media frenzy amid a bout of speculation, mainly from the North African press, suggesting Papa’s swift replacement was linked with bribes he allegedly accepted from cash-loaded Congolese champions Mazembe behind the scenes. The story did the rounds and Caf were forced to issue a statement fending off the allegations.
Then referee boss Lamin Camara supplemented, in the wake of the continental governing body’s dispatch, telling Foroyaa Sport: ‘I am hearing this around but it is not true. I have not heard from him (Papa) but I am sure it’s not true. The boy is not that type.’
In 2016, a football-mad Algerian fan set up an online petition against the Gambian referee after taking umbrage at what he called the then 36-year-old’s controversial ruling in a qualifier game between the Desert Foxes and Nigeria’s Super Eagles.
The petition, contesting Obi Mikel’s goal said to be from an offside position which Bakary allowed, attracted over hundred signatures. Video experts also weighed into the saga backing the complaint, recommending for Gassama’s suspension from all Algeria’s World Cup qualifier games.
However, nothing of substance came of the petition.
Gambia’s football saga almost wrecked Gassama’s World Cup hopes
Papa’s plans to go to this year’s Russia event would have hit the buffers had FIFA institute disciplinary action against Gambia which at worst would have taken the form of a suspension. The National Sports Council and Gambia Football Federation are caught up in a controversy with the latter intent on probing the Football House of a myriad of alleged vices. Of the charges they’ve levied against the federation include corruption, tax evasion amongst others – a move perceived as running foul of FIFA’s uncompromising stance on third party interference in the administration of football.
FIFA’s vice president Fatma Samoura jetted to Banjul to ensure the dispute is resolved. The Lausanne-based body gave out an ultimatum which calmed the tension before police entered into the equation.
A ban would mean tacit acceptance that Gassama’s plans to officiate in this year’s event are as good as over.
Pride of a nation
Certainly not a man out of his comfort zone when put on the big stage. He’ll be flying Gambia’s flag high where the country’s footballers have failed.
Boasting over hundred international matches under his belt, he sure will be calling the shots come June. And by then, millions from across the world, would be glued to their televisions to watch him deliver rulings as well put to check egos of the sport’s very best multi-millionaire footballers.
Papa’s performances in Numberstatistics
based on 100 international matches