Monday, June 1, 2020

INTERVIEW: Kebba Talks Facing PSG Striker Choupo-Moting, Rejecting Sweden for the Scorpions and Gambians Obsession for Football

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He is one of those you wouldn’t have shivers thrusting in the department of defence. One need not look far to decipher why this dread-lock star was a first-choice under the reigns of Paul Put, Bonu Johnson, Raul Savoy and Sang Ndong.

The latter decided it was best not to consider him for selection – a decision fueled by a training ground fight Ceesay had with former teammate Omar Jagne two days before a crucial African qualifier.

That infamous falling out aside, Ceesay is a revered figure amongst Gambian fans and nearly error-free when he takes to pitch during national team games.

A team leader and far from today’s definition of a true team captain requiring near idiotic brand of barking laced with arrogance, the Bakau-born is soften spoken – a demeanour miles away from his hungry countenance in the pitch. Being the lone dread-lock player in the national team, his style earned him the sobriquet “rasta”.

Gambia may never have seen him don Scorpions colours had he jumped at Sweden’s offer.

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Leaving hometown Bakau aged 13 to meet his dad in Sweden who was pursuing a career as a doctor, Stockholm by default became Ceesay’s second home.

Football would be an easy choice and recruited with IK Brage in 2007 before Djurgarden IF –a heavyweight in the Swedish league – used their influence to prise him away for a minimal fee. Loan spells followed at various second tier sides in the first and seasons during what was a solid Durgarden outfit prior to cementing his place in the lineup in his third year.

By 2010, Kebba was a mainstay and took the captaincy when compatriot and club legend Pa Dembo Touray departed twelve months later for South African side Santos.

Much had happened before then including the defender doing time with  various youth teams of Sweden to U-21 level.

He was at one stage being evaluated for call-up in the national team where the calibre of Zlatan Ibrahimovic shone.

There was also his home country Gambia, having never qualified for any senior tournament, trying to make an impression on him.

With Sweden, he stood chance of starring possibly in the European Cup or World Cup, who admittedly, presented a better stage than Gambia.

Players caught up in this entanglement often face prolong moment of pondering over making a decision.

For Kebba it was an easy choice.

“No, it wasn’t that difficult between playing for Gambia or Sweden,” he said, opening up on the topic.

“When I came to Djurgården, I didn’t get the playing time I needed at the beginning. Djurgården also had a very, very good team and was a top team then, so it was difficult for me to show myself. I settled in during the third year and had not played regularly, so it became difficult to take a place in the U21 national team.

“The next step is then the national team and if you are fighting for playing time in your club it is logical not to join the national team. When the national team in Gambia heard about it, I thought I would run it and then I got the chance to play national football. It wasn’t that hard and when I got to play there I thought it was fun,” he continued.

Kebba never knew what reception to expect including Gambian fans assessment of him in the squad.

He went on: “When I landed in Gambia and would start camp before the match, there were a lot of people at the airport. So as they received us, I got a shock in the beginning. It was very big. There were police officers everywhere and at training, fans were there. There were many people and they sang. When we got an escort from the airport and on match day, everyone went out of their houses, stood on the streets and sang and clapped. It was: “Wow”. It was very special and there were already a lot of people when we came to the stadium. You got a lot of love.”

This was in 2010 at a time Gambia were shaking off that rarely footballing hotbed tagging. The previous qualification, Paul Put’s first campaign in charge as Scorpions boss, ended in acrimony or fairly put, on a bitter sweet note. Bitter in the sense they’d missed out on a place in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations for Ghana and sweet by the draw they managed against favourites Senegal. Algeria ended the sole side to sail through. For his exploits, Paul Put was handed a revised deal and Gambian players were by this time emboldened to go a step further in the 2010 qualifiers hence the euphoria and impatient fans sudden change of heart towards the team.

Momodou Ceesay was the most notable name in that generation of players. The lanky striker had spurred little known Slovakian outfit MSK Zilina to the domestic title and Uefa Champions League group stage, knocking Sparta Prague in the play-offs final game with his acrobatic goal. They would face Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti and Olympique Marseille.

This explained the hype. A good section of the Gambian crowd flocked to the Independence Stadium to watch Zico and his fellow scorpions train.

“Everyone wanted to push the team and that we played matches there gave us a lot of joy. Football is the biggest sport there and almost everyone plays soccer on the streets. Everyone has an interest in football. There is also interest in basketball and handball, but football is the biggest sport. It brought so much joy, so they just wanted to push us (the Scorpions). It was awesome, fun,” he says.

Paradoxically, expectations dwindled together with optimism. Gambia failed to qualify despite beating Namibia 3-1 with Sainey Nyassi, Momodou Ceesay and Ousman Jallow –all being former U17 champions – scoring. Put got wielded the axe the following year but the journey still continued for Kebba, experiencing different coaches with the national team until in 2016 under Sang Ndong’s rein.

At 28 then and with Lech Poznan of Poland, Ceesay was integral in a “rebranding process” that required to fend off South Africa, Cameroon and a lowly Mauritania.

Youth players comprised the team with Omar Colley, Sanna Nyassi, Demba Savage and Kebba the sole senior players.

That term again, more like the previous ones, met a calamitous ending with Gambia picking just two points and bottom of the group.

The Cameroon match stands out for Kebba where he came up against PSG’s striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Vincent Aboubakar.

Run up to that, Ceesay had been involved in a training ground bust-up with young forward Omar Jagne and never got called up after that despite still playing at top level in Sweden.

“You got to meet good players and in Cameroon’s Mbia was there and some other big players. It was awesome. Even though one played at club level and felt a little tired, it is special with the national team. It’s a little different, it feels like you get extra energy in some way. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s big,” he said.

Gambia currently boast a strong team but face hiccups at right-back with a mistake-prone Dawda Ngum often fielded in the absence of a steady Simon Richter.

Just 32 and a team captain, Ceesay will still add value to the current crop.

Asked why he opted against coming for the national team then, he told footballskanlen: “I chose to take a step back (from plying for the national team) because I had a cruciate ligament injury and felt it when I played.”

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