The Timbers, The Gambia, and Futty Danso: Stories from Africa

Futty Danso

Futty Danso

The reason Mamadou “Futty” Danso wore the rather odd number 98 for the Portland Timbers this year says a lot about globalization and soccer.  The story starts in his native Gambia, where he grew up carefully watching African players who found success on the international scene.  Among his favorites was the Cameroonian Marc-Vivien Foé , a classy midfielder for Lens, West Ham, Lyon, Man City, and the Indomitable Lions.  The day of Foé’s tragic death during Cameroon’s 2003 Confederations Cup match in France against Columbia Foé was wearing the number 17.  From that day forward. Futty, at the time playing with top Gambian club Ports Authority and on his way to stops with the Gambian U-23 national team, a club team in Senegal, a college team in Georgia, and a PDL team in North Carolina, always wore 17.

When he arrived in Portland this year, however, 17 was on the back of Timbers stalwart Scot Thompson and as an unproven rookie Futty knew he had no chance at the number.  But he remembered a trick from another of his childhood heroes— when Chilean legend Iván Zamorano had been unable to get his favored number 9 at Inter Milan, Zamorano took 18 with a plus sign in between.  Though Futty’s jersey doesn’t have a plus sign, 9 + 8 does equal 17 and it all adds up to a subtle nod to his African roots, his appreciation for Latin American creativity, his European fandom, and his current reality in the second tier of soccer in the United States.  Number 98 is essentially an inter-continental soccer mash-up.

Futty—whose nickname derives from a Fula honorific that translates approximately to “sir” and has served him in place of Mamadou his enitre life—doesn’t have any definitive explanations for The Gambia’s success, but he was kind enough to sit down with me last week and share his soccer stories.  Though the specifics of his experiences are unique, the patterns offer some rich examples of how the game plays from Africa.

As the 2009 USL season culminates this month, Futty has not necessarily been among the most prominent players on the field (particularly considering that the Timbers, despite having the best record over the course of the league season, were just eliminated from the play-offs by the Vancouver Whitecaps).  He’s an imposing figure, a fast and agile 6’3” 185 pounder with broad shoulders and a sculpted visage, but he’s still learning the professional game and has only figured in slightly more than half of the Timbers games during this rookie season.  So what’s interesting about Futty is his story as a Gambian in America in this year of African soccer.

The Gambia

The Gambia

From an outsider’s perspective, The Gambia offers one of the great mysteries of African soccer.  How is it possible that this former British colony, a nation of 1.7 million people (significantly fewer than the Portland metropolitan area) with the smallest landmass of any country in Africa, has produced teams of “Baby Scorpions” (the nickname for Gambia’s senior team is “The Scorpions”) that are among the most successful sides in world youth soccer?

Gambia announced itself by beating Brazil during the group stage of the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru, advanced to the knockout stage of the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, won the African U-17 Championship in both 2005 and 2009, and will be an intriguing presence at the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  Gambia also has the surprising distinction of being home to more MLS players than any other country outside the Americas (there are currently 5 Gambian players in MLS—not including Mac Kandji whose mother is Gambian and father Senegalese—which by my tentative count is only bettered by Argentina with 11, Brazil with 10, Columbia with 9, and Costa Rica with 9).

Growing up with the game

Like most Gambian boys, Futty grew up playing the game informally with friends in streets, vacant lots, and anywhere else that could serve as an improvised field.  But in Futty’s family, education always came first: “when I was going to school, my dad wouldn’t let me play soccer.  I had to hide, tell him that I would have to stay at school for extra help so I could slip in time to play.”

His father was a headmaster at a local secondary school, and took it upon himself to ensure the whole extended family prioritized developing the mind over the body.  Mamadou Danso senior had been a distance runner in his day, and did not tend to think much of soccer.  During adolescence, when most talented Gambians joined organized teams either through their schools or through youth clubs, Futty played on the sly—locking himself in his room to “study” and climbing out his second story window to escape for a day with the game.

According to Futty, high school soccer in Gambia is kind of a big deal—and when good players in “the cities” (Banjul and Serrekunda are neighboring cities that comprise the primary urban area in The Gambia) make their decisions about where to attend 10th grade for the start of senior secondary, they are often the subject of intense recruiting battles: “the coaches will call you all night; it’s like here [in America] for high school basketball players going to college.”

Partially to make things competitive, and partly to be a little further away from his father’s cautious eye, Futty and some friends went to “Gambia High” in Banjul—some 15 miles from his home in Serrekunda and right down the street from the other main option for talented youth: “Saints” (St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary School).  According to Futty, games between Gambia High and Saints were among the biggest events in the Gambian soccer scene.  When they played in big tournaments “almost everyone in Banjul that’s interested in soccer will come out—we play in the national stadium, and 15,000 to 20,000 people will be there.”  The games are such events that the crowds can get aggressive: “It’s a good thing people don’t drink that much…[being a 90% Muslim country] I never saw many people getting drunk…yeah, maybe some of the British tourists coming for a beach holiday, but with them most Gambians don’t actually know if they are drunk or just acting strange.”

In contrast, the biggest derby between the top local club teams might draw 8000 to smaller venues in town.  According to Futty, “even for track and field, everyone wants to see the inter-schools competitions—that will draw much more than a game like Wallidan v Real De Banjul.”  The top Gambian league is technically still an amateur affair where players get a few perks from team sponsors but not enough to make a living.  Unlike other leagues in west Africa such as those in Senegal or Nigeria, the Gambian league necessarily depends on youth.

Emphasizing youth

In thinking about the success of Gambian youth international teams, it seems significant that Gambians love their school sports.  In places like the Gambia, with an absence of extensive professional systems, schools offer a convenient opportunity to organize players and competitions that matter.  They also provide easy opportunities for coaches to scout young talent, and with such a small population there is a good chance that the best players will be seen.

In Futty’s case, top local club “Ports” (representing the Gambian Ports Authority) trained just behind Gambia High, saw him playing for his school, and invited him to join them.  Though this required a bit more subterfuge with his father, he signed on for a small monthly student allowance and expected to play with the rest of the youth players for Ports reserve team.  Early in his tenure with the club, however, one of the team’s main center backs took a knock and Futty’s size and speed made him the choice as a replacement.  The coach talked to him on a Tuesday, and on Saturday Ports took on their main rival Hawks.

Such opportunities for youth players to feature in senior games is, according to Futty, another key to the success of Gambian youth players.  Because the Gambian league is an amateur affair with only modest allowances or part-time jobs on offer, older players unable to go abroad often give up on soccer and move on to “real” jobs which they perceive as more likely to provide a living.  So the league itself, unlike more professional leagues in neighboring countries such as Senegal, includes mostly youth players trying to break-through.

Futty himself, after some success with Ports, had the opportunity to go on loan to a Senegalese team in Kaolack—just north of the Gambian border.  But he found the players there to be much more mature, and the game much more physical: “I was 18 and I think I only ended up playing the second half of one game, but that felt like I had played for 10 days non-stop; I mean after that I just went home and slept I was so tired.”  According to Futty, in Senegal the standard of the training facilities, the  stadiums, and the money was all higher than in Gambia—but that meant it was much more difficult for youth players to break in because in Senegal older players stick around.

Back in Gambia, Futty’s success with Ports and Gambia High led to some opportunities with the U-23 national youth team, including a nationally televised game against the senior team—a game organized in celebration of the Scorpions having tied Senegal in Banjul and barely lost on a late penalty kick in Dakar.  There is nothing Gambians enjoy more than competing with Senegal—their much bigger neighbor that literally encompasses The Gambia like a smothering glove.  Though Futty considers himself a fan of most African teams and hopes one might contend for the World Cup title in 2010, he emphasizes “as long as it’s not Senegal—if Senegal ever won the World Cup I’d have to commit suicide.”  I think he was kidding.

But that celebratory game between the U-23’s and the senior team finally blew Futty’s cover with his father: “I guess other people told my dad I was going to play; I mean I didn’t tell him.  I guess he was happy but he didn’t want to show me he was happy—he was like ‘I know you’ve been doing it for a long time’—and I said no, they just saw me playing outside.  But he said ‘the newspaper says you played for Ports Authority,’ so I said yeah I kind of played maybe a couple of games.  So he said ‘well, whatever you do be careful and don’t let soccer get in the way of school.”

Coming to America

Relatively soon thereafter Futty had a serendipitous encounter with an American college soccer coach travelling through Gambia looking for players with some academic credentials.  Like most young players in the Gambia, Futty had been thinking about trying to get overseas.  Because his father was worried about him neglecting academics, American college soccer seemed like the perfect compromise.  So he shipped off to a place I imagine to be about as far from Serrekunda as is humanly possible: Rocky Mount North Carolina, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and the less than elite world of NCAA Division III.

North Carolina Wesleyan College

North Carolina Wesleyan College campus

He arrived a week after school started and had to sit out most of the North Carolina Wesleyan games because of complications with his NCAA paperwork.  He did enjoy his classes, earn some credits, and meet some good people in Rocky Mount—but financial aid got complicated and an opportunity arose to get an athletic scholarship with a brand new men’s soccer program at Southern Polytechnic in Atlanta.  After a year at Southern Poly he spent part of the summer back in North Carolina with Cary in the USL’s summer developmental league and ended up having a strong match against Burnley as they traveled through North Carolina during their 2008 pre-season.

In another of Futty’s happenstance experiences with random soccer outposts, he ended up being invited to join Burnley for the part of their training camp that took place in North Carolina: “It was good, it gave me some knowledge of how professionals go day by day.  I mean I thought I was in shape when I went to play with them, but man—I told my friend, these people earn their money; everything they do is 100 miles an hour.  It’s like they want to kill you.  You train twice a day, you don’t go anywhere, you don’t leave the stadium.”

There was some talk of him signing with Burnley and being loaned out for seasoning with a club team in a European country with less restrictive immigration requirements.  But it didn’t seem likely, and Futty went back for one more year at Southern Poly before finally committing to the professional game—first during a brief spell with DC United that was foiled by more administrative issues, a trial with the Minnesota Thunder that wasn’t too pleasing to either side, and finally signing with the Timbers for at least one season in Portland.

By the time he signed with Portland, Futty had been in the US for almost four years but he had never heard of Portland.  When he looked it up on the map and found a version near Boston he thought that would work fine; imagine his surprise when he got a plane ticket taking him to Oregon.

It’s worked out reasonably well; the Timbers have had a good season, Futty feels like he’s learned from the experience, and he appreciates the atmosphere both within and around the team.  But the outlines of what he describes as his life as a pro are less than glorious; he shares a team-provided apartment near the train station, plays soccer, and watches a lot of Fox Soccer Channel (though he may have been being a bit modest in talking with me considering he was recently named the Timbers “Community Player of the Year“).  He doesn’t have many impressions of Portland as a town—going out primarily for team functions or the occasional meet-up with a Gambian friend living in town with an American wife.

It turns out that particular Gambian was once a crafty left-back for the senior Gambian national team—but he left home to go to school “in Alabama or somewhere,” dropped out, married an American women, moved to Portland, and now “does some kind of work around town—I don’t even know what…It’s a good example actually of what used to happen to the best Gambian players—once they get to a certain age, they just stop playing.”  Some of the best Gambian players just sort of disappear.

Futty notes that many such players are on display every year in a 4th of July tournament held as a sort of Gambian reunion in Atlanta.  One year he thought he recognized one of the heroes of his youth playing for the Gambian team from Washington DC, but couldn’t be sure because “I mean the guy is bigger now—he put on a lot of weight.”  But that was just because a player once considered among the best midfielders in all of West Africa no longer has anything to do with the game—Futty notes with a friendly laugh, “he just working in DC, living his American dream.”

The best place?

Futty himself is somewhat ambivalent about his American experience: “Most people in Gambia, they don’t know much about America.  They think what you see in movies, you’re going to live like that…but I mean it’s very different, people don’t know that but you try to tell them.  They say I want to come to America—but for myself if I had the option, like I had before, I don’t know if I would come to America.  I might try somewhere else.  And people are like ‘yeah, now that you’re in America you’re tired of that,’ but it’s not that.  I mean, it’s not that I don’t like America—it’s nice.  But you have to work really hard for anything.  It’s not like Gambia where you just sit down all day, food is not a problem, everything is cheap.  I mean here you have to work so hard for everything…I had an American friend that was travelling in Africa and first went to South Africa where everything is moving 1000 miles an hour.  Then he went to Gambia and everyone was just going at their own pace.  No one is in a rush, even the way they walk…if you have money, then Gambia is the best place…”

Such ambivalence is a familiar part of the American immigrant experience, and is probably enhanced by coming to play soccer.  The game itself is basically the same, but the world around the game is strange.  Futty knows most of the other Gambian players in MLS, having played with the Nyassi brothers at Ports back in Banjul, and while Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi have now been around long enough to enjoy New England, Futty notes that for Sanna Nyassi coming to Seattle “I think it was a little tough for him—at first he was like ‘everything in America is just big;’ in Gambia its extra-small, but in America it’s just so big…”

In talking with Futty it struck me that Gambia’s “extra-smallness” may in fact be part of the secret to their success in world youth football.  Futty claims that it all started in The Gambia after watching France win the 1998 World Cup.  Perhaps due to the success of so many African immigrants, Gambians started to take soccer more seriously.  Then, a few years later, new leadership in the Gambian FA started to realize that “if you just focus on the senior players we will never get there—we didn’t have the quality, and we didn’t have enough players going abroad…so they said why don’t we start on the grass-roots level.  Since with the senior team it’s 90% that we’re not going to make any tournament, let’s start sending coaches out around the country looking for the youths.”

They didn’t have far to go—most of the successful players in Gambia come from the more urban areas around Banjul, Serrekunda, and Brikama.  Futty refers to the rest of the country as “the provinces” and notes that to play seriously you have to get to “the cities.”  Combining that with the prominence of inter-school competitions, and what seems to be a reasonably well organized system of “Nawettan” youth tournaments, and finding the best youth players would seem to be a relatively easy task.

In addition, as in many African countries the number of semi-formal “youth academies” has exploded—including one funded by Gambian born former England youth international Cherno Samba: Samger FC or “the academy boys.” Despite its focus on youth, Samger has been competitive in the top Gambian league and already counts an MLS player as an alum—Emmanuel Gomez at Toronto FC (even informal “training matches” for TFC have thus become news in the Gambia).

Yahya Jammeh

Yahya Jammeh

Youth sports in the Gambia also benefit from the patronage of the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh.  Jammeh seems to fit the mold of the stereotypical African autocrat, known internationally for his seeming obsession with witchcraft and fear of a free press.  But, Futty notes, the President really likes sports and has spent money on tournaments, competitions, and rewards—including plots of land for senior players involved in noble performances against Senegal, and a prize of 1,000,000 Dalasis (about $30,000) to each of the U-17 players from their last championship.

The future

Futty’s younger cousin Saihou Gassama is one of those U-17’s, and is a player Futty thinks has a chance “to be one of the best Gambian players ever.”  Whether or not that comes to fruition will likely depend greatly on how he and the Baby Scorpions perform in the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  As a child Gassama would tag along with Futty to trainings for Ports, and now features for the first team himself, but being almost 10 years younger he will likely have more lucrative options for the future than a liberal arts education in Rocky Mount North Carolina.

As for Futty, he’s not sure where his own journey will end.  He loves the game, and is sure that he wants to see how far he can go.  But he also recognizes that he’s not quite there yet.  When he talks about his various experiences with the Timbers, with Burnley, in Senegal, the consistent theme is a recognition that professional soccer involves an intensity and on-field savvy that he has yet to fully develop.  He’s big, fast, coachable, and improving—certainly worthy of a chance.  But he also plans to finish the 20 credits he needs for his computer science degree from Southern Poly, and hopes to go on for a Masters before too long.

Likewise, it will be interesting to watch what happens over time with the story of soccer in The Gambia.  Being “extra-small” combined with an intense emphasis on youth soccer seems to have helped The Gambia at the youth level, but those same qualities may prohibit senior success.  It may be, however, that for a place such as The Gambia the successful niche they’ve found is enough: despite valid fears that African soccer players are at risk of exploitation in our unequal world system, Gambians such as Futty seem to be leveraging the game towards what end up being worthwhile opportunities and pretty interesting stories.  Whatever happens with the Timbers, whether or not the Baby Scorpions challenge for the U-17 World Cup next month in Nigeria, such stories will go on—just as Futty will continue his own journey through the inter-continental mash-up that is the global game.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.


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