By Sulayman Bah
Seating on a sofa and sporting a sprouting afro hairdo, Ebrima Bojang’s looks is unmistakable from the kid who stormed to prominence and scooped Gambia the African U-17 title ten years ago.
The clout around him then was unprecedented. At just 16 years, a dozen clubs had sought his services noticeable among them was Monaco, LA Galaxy, English Premier League’s Tottenham and Inter Milan, who under Jose Mourinho, were then European champions.
That year, the lad from Bakau was the leading goal-getter on a sumptuous four goals in the youth tournament in which the Baby Scorpions sashayed over hosts Algeria in the finals.
Under a manager with an apparent adoration for muscular black players, The San Siro outfit gazumped the big chase for the striker inviting him for audition which included a tour of the Nerazzuri’s stadium facilities.
A deal edged closer at this moment before a phone call from local club chairman Real de Banjul’s Willy Abraham closed the chapter to Inter’s pursuit.
‘I have been to Inter Milan which was during the time of Jose Mourinho. I had two weeks there. I have trained there nicely, everything went fine. After moving there, I was supposed to go back but my president Willy Abraham was the one directing me and my career manager.
‘He told me “I have spoken to one team in France, St Etienne”. I have never known St Etienne. He told me “you are to sign there.” I said “no problem”. So I signed there. But inter Milan and Tottenham all wanted me. So Willy was the one looking after me. Whatever he tells me is what I will do. He was there for me, helping me, looking after my family. So whatever he says, I have to do that,’ he tells Foroyaa Sport from France.
That transfer tied him to the French Ligue1 giants on a four-year contract. Such was St Etienne’s confidence in the growth of the starlet. Arriving at the Stade Geoffroy- Guichard from its feeder Senegalese outfit AS Yeggoo, it was a trajectory most hoped would propel the Gambian to the big time. Then fate dealt him a different card in the form of a niggling knee injury blighting him in a stretch running for a long time.
Severity of the abrasion rendered him injury-prone to an extent Bojang rarely lasted a game or trained beyond a week without checking into the treatment table. In the interim of his back and forth with injuries, there were claims the striker might have black magic spell or portion cast on him by detractors aimed at truncating his progress hence his ‘marriage’ to injuries. Thankfully, Bojang, fondly dubbed Bullet in reference to his fiery and improbable goals, is no subscriber to such antiquated beliefs and instead points his torrid times to hard luck.
‘I have played for Gambia in all categories and I signed at St Etienne but injury came and I never expected it. Injuries are normal. It is hard luck, you have to focus,’ he says on how his run-in with injuries began.
‘Is not a marabout thing and I’m not afraid of marabout things. If Juju works, then Africa, we would win the World Cup. I think my injuries are just down to hard luck. But also, whatever you see is what God has destined for you and I have accepted it in good faith.’
Integral in the 2009 Gambia U-17 title-winning outfit, it’s straining to note only three went on to play professionally from that triumphant side with the hunk of the players either forced into retirement by injuries or have gone to take up a different trade.
‘Yes some of the boys in my time during the U-17 are not playing now. But you cannot say it is juju thing. Everything comes at the right time,’ Ebrima chips in.
‘I have a knee injury which took six months. After the six months, I was doing my exercises (rehabs) so that my knee will be strong. I think I did not train the way I was supposed to train, that is why I was going off and on. It was hard time. When I had the injury, I did not stop training. After two months, you do your gym work with the physical trainer until the six months. I have never done any other job other than football from child hood.’
When E. Bojang and squad won the African Cup, they had a benchmark to live up to –equaling or surpassing the feat of their 2005 predecessors in the FIFA youth World Cup.
The global U-17 tournament was to be staged in Africa for the first time by Nigeria. Mysteriously, a bulk of the 2009 winning squad were dropped and replaced by new players with Ebrima Bojang –the captain –the sole experienced head in the new team bound for the events in Abuja. Two theories filtered the town offering to explain the sudden revamping of the team under Egyptian gaffer Tarik Al-Siagy; the Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) and GFA’s alleged interference with the selection process.
The team ended up bowing out of the Abuja World Cup in the group stages without a win despite fine-tuning in their preparations in England. Ten years today, Ebrima offers to explain reason for the squad blip.
Regarding players being dropped on an emotional day in camp, Bojang said: ‘When the MRI was happening, I was then in Senegal. When I returned in Gambia, I found them (my U-17 teammates) training at the (Independence) stadium but they were separated. So, I called Babou Sama for us to train. He told me “have you not heard what happened?” I replied, “No I don’t know.” Then he told me some players won’t be playing with us again. So, I didn’t know what to do. So, I spoke to Tarik (Gambia’s Egyptian coach) to find out what the problem was. Then he told me the MRI (over-aged bone detecting machine), but the GFA does not have anything to do with the selection.
‘When we went to Nigeria (for the U-17 World Cup), every game, like in first half when we entered the dressing room, they (tournament officials) would select players and usher them in a room and they’re tested with the MRI. Luckily, all the tests conducted, none of our players were affected. The Nigerian team that hosted the tournament twice had to drop their whole squad in the end. Parents of some of these Nigerian players were asked the real ages of these players. That is what transpired there.’
His answer provoked the question of what then triggered Gambia’s early exit, drawing Colombia, losing to Iran and the Netherlands on their way out.
‘We did the MRI in Senegal. The lucky ones passed and the unlucky ones were dropped. So, we went for the preparation in England with Paul Put and Lamin Sambou as assistant coach. But when we went to the World Cup, you could observe that absence of the players dropped could be felt that is why we couldn’t go far in the World Cup. This was a team that had been together for a while and the camaraderie…. So, when they dropped these players, we had little problems. The new players brought in were not experienced compared to the ones they replaced.
‘Our match against Colombia if it were that Gambian team that won the African Cup, if we scored, you as an opponent cannot score. With the likes of Lamin Samateh, Matarr Jobe at the back we wouldn’t have conceded two goals but inexperience cost us leading to our early exit. I felt sad about it.
‘I cannot do anything but just to boast the morale of the players. Some of them would come to my room and I advised them that this is their chance, we have to do our level best so that we can win the World Cup. But this is how God decided it and we have to accept it in good faith,’ he elaborates toForoyaa Sport.
Almost Quitting Football
Back to his numerous battles with injuries and in the circumstance that was, the attacker, out of disillusion, almost gave up football.
‘I got discouraged to an extent I almost thought of quitting but friends and family advised me against it. My ambition was to play in a bigger league. There was a man who wanted to take me to Arsenal FC but it couldn’t work out because of injuries. It was hard. I was quite discouraged but folks around me advised me against quitting,’ he recalls.
In the seasons he spent in St Etienne, he had never featured in the A-team apart from being summoned to train with them in spite of registering steady progress with the outfit’s reserves.
‘I regret not playing in the first team because I had a place there and the coach wanted me. The coach used to call me my son and I refer to him as father. In the B-team with all those injuries, if I return, I get to score. I was their leading scorer. Not playing in the first team it doesn’t mean I was not performing.
‘When I came to St Etienne, I trained with the B-team for two months. After that the head coach said I have to train with the first team permanently. I have been with the first team on pre-season in Portugal and it went fine and I was playing good. So, when I had the knee injury, from there I had little bit of a problem going on and off -training with the first team today, tomorrow and then I go off and won’t train. So that was my problem.’
A Retirement that Never Was
Trouble greeted the mammoth striker in the final moments of his stay at St Etienne. The Greens had disagreement over offering the Gambian international a revised contract owing to his qualms with wounds. Then an ensuing top level meeting at the club sealed Ebrima’s fate.
‘When I signed the four-year deal, my family were happy, Gambians were happy. My contract finished in 2015. After that, the club board had a push and pull among themselves. Some were saying give him a deal, others were saying no don’t give him a deal. It went on until our second to last game. We went to Paris. I played for full 90 minutes and I scored an equalizing goal.
He continued: ‘From there, I was hopeful I would be given a contract renewal. So, on the final game of the league, the board had a meeting. Finally they said ‘we cannot give you a contract because of the injuries you’re having the past years’. I said no problem. I called my family and friend to inform them of the development.
During the torrid times, the Bakau-born had only his immediate family, a close friend and an ally footballer sticking by him. But the latter sort of leaked out his information to the press back home after confiding in him that he’s toying idea of quitting the game.
What followed later was news that he had retired from football. This posed him a setback, getting questioned of the retirement claims by clubs each time he rings in to have a trial.
‘I spoke to a footballer friend. I told him I think I will quit football. Next I saw it in the newspapers that I have retired from football. So, I asked him (the footballer friend) how comes. When I asked him, he said no “I wouldn’t feed the press in Gambia”. I had feeling he was the one who leaked out the news. But I don’t see that as anything of a big deal. This affected me in way because I was making contacts and each time, I get in touch with a club they would search the net for my details and would see the retirement thing. So, I would tell them no I have not retired,’ he elucidated.
Two years following his release, Bullet’s rehabilitation worked to perfection for the first time leading to his switch to fourth tier Swiss club Azzuri LS on a season-long deal where he notched up sixteen goals, courting, in the process, overtures from erstwhile second tier outfit Luzern. However, dispute over terms saw the deal hit the buffers forcing Bojang’s return to France.
Still refusing to throw in the towel, a mutual friend liaised him to the likes of Guinea and Senegal internationals Pascal Feindouno and Papa Bouba Diop who put in a word for him at fourth tier French club ASF Andrieux where he signed in recent weeks.
Bojang hopes the new contract brings along with it luck dose and becomes his springboard to return to international football with Gambia.
‘I just pray for good health. And I will like to thank my fans in Gambia. Each time I come across them, they wish me good luck. I wish to wear the Gambian jersey again. I’m doing my best to play in the Gambian first team and I asked for the prayers of everyone and may God protect me from injuries. I say big thank you to my family for standing by me in both good and bad terms and thank you for the Interview too,’ he concludes.