Thursday, December 12, 2019

From Losing 15 Players to Sea Voyage, then Demotion to Returning to Top the League –The Emergence of Gambia’s Wallidan from Dark Times


By Sulayman Bah

Every club in the game with a success story have got their low moments too. Wallidan Football Club is no different. One of the most decorated in the history of Gambian football, the capital outfit are on a deserved upward trajectory, occupying the table standings top spot.

The team to beat, The Blue Boys’ resilience could be a reference point for rest of the championship’s thirteen (3) clubs to emulate.

24 months away from the glory they now bask in, the club was enveloped by dark times.

Run-in with trouble began with the side’s relegation from the Gambian Premier League.

Brought flat back down to earth by this humbling episode, it meant facing reality of playing second fiddle football for an entire season.

Beside this, there was another menace for the club board to contend with –the conundrum of desperate players risking the perilous voyage to Europe.

Gambia is arguably Africa’s smallest nation and yet account for the largest number of irregular migrants in Italy and Germany, according statistics from the International Migration Organisation. That figure though has declined somewhat.

Venturing in this trip requires passing through Senegal to Mali, Niger where border control personnel are bribed in other to enter destination number one Libya.

Of robberies, killings and fighting between rebels, separatists and government forces, in the quest to gain control over autonomous areas, black African migrants often have horrific stories to tell of when caught by any of these groups in their bid to await people-smuggling boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Photo: Fifteen of Wallidan players dared the waves like these Africans to reach Europe

At sea, lives are loss when boats capsize. Gambia female national team goalkeeper Fatim Jawara is one of those still being moaned. Like the bulk that took the journey, she left unannounced and was only heard of again when news of her death after the boat she boarded got washed off by waves, reached home. Her demise and agonies, like the lot with similar stories, are now legends in society’s midst.

For those whose luck dose did not run out and managed to cross, a whole new life and culture shock await.

Fifteen of Wallidan players are one of those to resort to the voyage at a period the number of goers, from Gambia, hit unprecedented levels in 2016.

The result left The Blue Boys with just thirteen players for the coach to pick from, eleven being starters and two reserves.  Wallidan’s flirtation with relegation, by this moment, began slowly then inevitably.

The Gambia Football Federation’s first division is an amateur league and the exodus is attributed to inadequate football opportunities with majority players ruling out chances of being spotted by European scouts as nonexistent.

However, Wallidan’s coach Foday Bah begs to differ.

Clad in his team colours, underneath is a red replica Gambian jersey perhaps gotten from his time as assistant technician for one of the country’s four national teams.

In his fifteenth year on the managerial seat at the club, Bah has witnessed it from the get-set-go, losing virtually a chunk of his squad to this risk and thinks the exodus is born out of absence of self-belief.

‘We lost fifteen players to this Back Way (local name for the perilous journey to Europe by sea in Gambia). I don’t call it lack of opportunity. I think Gambian players lack self-belief, self-determination. A good player sells himself.’ he tells Foroyaa Sport.

Seated underneath a shaded tree, enveloping part of the Wallidan’s sandy training grounds, Bah was barking instructions to his army of players five minutes ago before settling down for this interview.

‘The Back Way is one of the things that contributed as well as financial problems (towards their demotion two seasons ago).

‘It reached a time we would have only thirteen (13) players as a team instead of what used to be eighteen.

Asked about halting this peril, he responded: ‘You can’t stop it (the voyage) because you don’t know who will go next because they don’t usually tell us coaches.’

‘They talk about lack of opportunities here. But how many players, I mean very good players, are going there. Are they playing? Taking the Back Way is not a guarantee of success. Some have died but fortunately we’ve not heard a situation where our player died or something and thank God for that.’

Hard Times and a Big Disappointment

As player migration soared, the need to groom a new batch to replace the departing ones became a requisite. But then the blow at the club –aimed high all this while – was lowered and it landed. The ramification wasn’t a pleasant sight.

Like an island with broken dreams, the Banjul-based team came down crashing, its ego perhaps shoved to the gutters. It was the club’s second demotion in under a five-year stretch.

The gaffer was desolate and the underlining tone, at his recollection of those moments, was one of disenchantment.

Photo: Coach Foday Bah insists the risky voyage is no guarantee of footballing success

‘A lot of factors, like I said, contributed to our relegation one of which is money. You don’t have the funds to get the players you want and a host of others. It was a big disappointment for me as a coach and a big blow for me. I started first as a caretaker coach and then became the head coach in 2003-04 and seeing the team go down like it did more so the Back Way thing, was a sad story.’

Regarding replacements, he continued: ‘With the help of our executives, fans and sometimes journalists, we have been able to get new players. Some players come on their own and say they want to join. Sometimes a fan or someone will just call me and recommend I watch a given player and we do that. I have my scouts so that is how we have been able to do recruitment. It was a very hard time for us.’

It’s a shared parlance that tragic events come along with it lessons. The experience for the club’s technical side was realization that the first division differs from the second tier of the football pyramid.

‘People always say Gambia football is all the same level but there is a big difference. The first division is more like tactical football and experience but second division is all about holding the ball and running so it’s a big difference and a lesson,’ he says argues.

A Shot Back to the Big Times

Photo: United by ambition- Wallidan want to end a ten-year league title chase this season

The torrid epochs aside, the coast is now clear and Gambia’s 15 times league champions return to the big times, headlining the top tier following a year in the second division. Foday is the mastermind behind this ascension. Every of Wallidan’s goals this season has been a little artwork of its own. The collective fluidity, marshalled by a coach whose devotion to beauty has no room for compromise, speak volumes.

They top first half of the championship on twenty-two points, one point ahead of rivals Brikama United after thirteen matches. At mention of how he pulled this of, you’d expect an outrageous burst of ego and self-glorification, as an answer. But Bah has no such demeanour. His reply was swift and concise.

‘The season is going fine. We are not going to be carried away by the hype. We are taking it step by step and there is no secret in this that we have achieved. There are still games to go,’ he tells Foroyaa Sport as he leads a crusade to end the team’s ten-year league title drought.

This quest, the manager knows, is a herculean undertaking and to grab the gong, he will be required to ward off competitions from West Coast Region giants Brikama United, Armed Forces FC, Gambia Ports Authority and Real de Banjul who will sure up their game in the second round.

Among the club’s notable former players is Modou Ceesay and Jatta Ceesay who have all gone onto to play in the Uefa Champions League as well as Italian club Sampdoria’s current centre-back Omar Colley, Gambia’s most expensive footballer in history.

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