“I Cried Because I Felt Disappointed,” Ex-African U-17 Champion Now a Farmer-Footballer, Jatta Baldeh, Lifts Lid On His Inexplicable Axing from Gambia’s World Cup-Bound Team Ten Years Ago

The unexplained overhauling of the African U-17 title winning Gambian side is a mystery football movers and shakers marshalling the FA then aren’t bothered shedding light on to this day.

‘Precautionary measure’ is the theory offered in explanation in the face of biting issue of age-cheating sweeping through the continent at the time.

The year was 2009. Nigeria were to host the Fifa U-17 World Cup, the second nation to stage the event in Africa after Egypt in 1997.

Gambia were kings of Africa that term following a detailed peppering of forlorn hosts Algeria. A brace from captain Ebrima Bojang in the 7th and 85th minutes and a very improbable banger from Alasana Camara, dubbed Jarra, ensured Bendahmane’s lone goal for Algeria was rendered wholly inadequate.

Jatta Baldeh was a huge part of that Baby Scorpions under the wings of an enterprising Tarik Al-Siagy of Egypt.

So compact were the setup that the senior scorpions ran risk of embarrassment when they faced their juniors in a test encounter as they readied up for a crucial qualifier.

Baldeh, a kid plucked off Waterman FC’s production line, was the sole figure part of that glorious Baby Scorpions from the South Bank of the country.

‘Tarik Al Siagy (U-17 coach) spotted me in an FA Cup game. That’s Waterman FC of Basse against Kirasilo of Ebo Town. I scored two goals in that match but the game ended two all. We went for penalties. They won but due to bad refereeing, we lost the game on penalties,’ Jatta tells Foroyaaa Sport in recapitulation.

The attacker never knew what was cooking in that game’s aftermath as his outfit became the latest of sides away from the capital crashing out the FA Cup. It turned out he’d left a lasting impression on Al Siagy who was obsessed with reinforcing his U17s and viewed proceedings from the VIP stands.

A phone call from the Egyptian to Waterman’s gaffer, who was then packing his luggage along with his charges for Basse, changed Jatta’s career cause.

‘Our coach got a call that I should stay and train with under 17s. When my coach told me this, I was overjoyed. I even cried. I said to myself, this is the last opportunity in my life. From there, I took up my boots ready for the challenge, which I didn’t regret despite coming from the provinces,’ he says.

Soon he was on the lips of fellow youth internationals apparently marveling at his ‘crazy’ pace.

Adaptability posed zero qualms and regardless of the difference in levels, he turned a bag of nightmare for defenders marshalling him at training ground.

‘I found the team (U-17 squad) was already built by the coach. But due, to my training, the coach thought if I am given the chance I will deliver. In training, I used to score two to three goals. The defence (comprising Matarr Jobe, Omar Colley, Kemo Fatty and Lamin Samateh-Basmen) they always discussed me.

‘They would be saying, “The guy from Basse is too fast. If you give him a space of one meter, you will not get him, he scores! To stop him from scoring just bundle him before he reaches the 18 yards”.’

Photo: Jatta Baldeh poses with Africa U-17 Cup after helping Gambia winning it in 2009

Notwithstanding the speed he offered to the table, Jatta had to play second fiddle to captain Ebrima Bojang and Alasana Camara of Real de Banjul and Steve Biko respectively. The coach’s preference of the duo would be justified by their sharing of the golden boot on three goals each at elapse of the tourney in Algeria.

“The Kid from Basse” In Bakau United

By his quick transitioning, Jatta became quite distinguished, leaving defences in the national league in a heap and keeping the very best of strikers, who’re his teammates, on their toes.

Seedy Kinteh, being FA boss during that period, used his influence to sign the “the provincial kid” as they called him, to his Bakau United soon after the conquest in Al-Blida.

There was the much heralded Daddy Gai (Pa Amadou Gai) and Ijaman (Amadou Baldeh) as coach Kebba Touray faced selection headaches over how to liaised his triumvirate of goal-getters. By around March that year, Jatta had stood out with Real de Banjul the most notable of his victims to tell of the story. It was that closely knitted rivalry as Bakau battled fellow gargantuans Real in a nail-biting top-of-the table clash. The god of football, on this occasion, sent down a saviour and it took the kid from Basse’s ingenuity to set the two warring factions apart.

The venue was at the Serrekunda East mini-stadium before a sold out crowd of rambunctious fans. Baldeh, in a Cristiano Ronaldo rendition, stamped his studs in the decently trimmed though muddy bahamas before taking momentary backward steps, standing on toes then spreading his legs sizably apart in anticipation of executing a free-kick some yards out from edge of the box. Breathing out heavily twice or thrice as the oppositions’ four-man wall looked on somewhat flummoxed, the Bakau United ace expertly lobbed the ball past the mass of defenders to the back of the net as the helpless Real’s net-minder watched on rooted to the spot and stupefied.

‘I joined Bakau United because of self-belief and that seedy Kinteh, was the only club president that considered provincial players. The club signed me due to my performance in the tournament in 2009.

I cannot remember how many goals but my most memorable goal was against Real Banjul. It was a free kick. Despite being new, I was entrusted to take it, I scored. Eventually we won 1-0,’ he said.

He ended up striking up a balance with Daddy Gai and confesses to learning from the ex- Montreal Impact attacker.

‘Absolutely I was playing with a player above standards. He used to encourage me a lot. I assisted him with many goals, him and Ijaman.’

The World Cup Axing that left Baldeh Weeping

Around this time, Baldeh and fellow U-17s had returned having conquered Africa. Then Yaya Jammeh, erstwhile head of state, made sure the triumph was more than adequately feted by stealing the show with his a million dalasis each gift to the team’s entire 22-man squad.

Now, 27, the Bakau United goal-getter was tipped to make the U17s competing in the junior World Cup in Abuja. Then calamity jammed in, leaving in its wake a trail of devastation –one that remains a mystery to explain ten years on to this day. The squad was revamped with only captain Ebrima Bojang surviving from the lineup that won the gong in North Africa.

Photo: the full squad of the 2009 Gambia U-17s posing in Algeria

Bojang voiced bewilderment, in a previous interview with Foroyaa Sport, when he arrived in camp from France and saw two sets of U-17 teams being put through their paces at the Independence Stadium.

E.Bojang would learn from aficionados of plans discard the triumphant team over MRI fears–the same team that passed all age-cheating tests before and after games in Algeria. Offering insight into what ensued in the team’s base, Alasana Camara told this publication in 2018 how he and other players wept and consoled each other upon learning of their heart-wrenching removal.

A new batch, of which Alieu Darboe formerly of Le Mans, would part of were recruited as eventual replacements.

Reports from the grapevine had it that Alasana and others failed a bone-marrow test detected only following the team’s return, an assertion the players slammed as a farce amid suggestion coach Tarik Siagy was undermined and forced to accept players he didn’t select.

Jatta though believes Nigeria’s accusing of Gambia of age-cheating might have caused the sudden shocking squad shake-up.

‘I was very disappointed, it was due to negligence. If you can remember Nigeria U17s came here to test our team during Ramadan. The match was played at the Brikama Boxbar mini-stadium. From that game, they (Nigeria) filed a report to Caf (Confederation of African Football) to inform them that Gambia is playing overaged players. That’s the cause of our MRI in Dakar Senegal. That was the cause.

‘I felt very disappointed, I even cried necause I was dropped too. Before the tournament (the World Cup) the whole 22-man squad was tested. I was not afraid of failing the test because some of the Nigerians players were far bigger than me,” Jatta, now married and a father-of-two, said.

The newly recruited team endured an abysmal campaign in World Cup in Abuja losing to Iran 2-0 then to the Netherlands 2-1 before drawing Colombia 2-2 as they wrapped up the crusade bottom of the group and getting shipped six goals.

From an African Champion to an Enterprising Farmer

Gambia’s squad members were the target of ubiquitous agents scouring the next big thing of football. There seemed to have been an abundant of it until the inexplicable overhaul. Inevitably, hopes were dashed and destines altered, never to be regained. There was substantial interest in Jatta but it faded with his trimming. The latest of overtures was last heard in 2015 from a Thailand team.

He continued: ‘It affected me (the dropping) because many football agents where following us to the world Cup, especially me. I was a substitute and was asked to get a full game video. So when I was dropped, it really halted my career. In 2015, a team in Thailand wanted my services but due to Injury, I was unlucky. It happened through a brother in the province, who talked to them 9the Thai side) about me. However, later I had an injury.’

Omar Colley of Sampdoria and Saihou Gassama, club-less  as of yesterday, are the lone pair considered successful in footballing terms from that doomed 2009 Baby Scorpions.

Majority stars of that setup have taken up other trades Jatta included, aside from goalkeeper Musa Camara, a trusted pair of hands up to this day with Gamtel FC.

The calibre of Alasana Camara is a ship captain, earning livelihood off fishing at his hometown Bakau. Matarr Jobe began plying his trade in Iceland’s top division but a knee injury saw an abrupt end to that. Bodybuilding is his new buck-fetching way. Dawda Ceesay plays second fiddle football in India with his estimated market value pegged around little over 8million dalasis. The rest have either quietly traveled abroad into oblivion or reluctantly retired with little to fall back on.

The narrative is little different with the Kid from Basse. Jatta has wisely invested, priding himself with growing maize and rearing cattle. He still finds time around his schedules to play and coach village team Manju FC.

‘Allmadulilah, I thank former president for the gift (one million dalasis), I really spent it wisely. I am having my home, and I’m comfortable and married with two kids; a boy and a girl. It’s what Allah (God) destined for me. I never thought of playing in the Gambia under 17 but it happened. I’m thanking Allah for all I have in my footballing career,’ he concludes.

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