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Braving the Mediterranean Sea by Boat: A Gambian Who Took on a Gruesome Journey to Become a Professional Footballer

Lamin Jawo is an athlete in football boots. His towering frame and partly tinted Mohawk hairstyle are very noticeable standouts. He is introverted but when given a football, the shyness is a speck of dust in no time.

Jawo is signed to a club in Italy’s second most competitive league but is shipped out on loan to rake up the first-team experience.

Robur Siena in the third tier is the club handling Jawo’s progress after joining the side this year.  The striker was not short of pursuers with interest from a blizzard of clubs but instead settled for Siena where the promise of first-team football was a determinant factor in his decision to move.

Returning to his parent club and second division side Carpi F.C. at end of the ongoing season, a recently penned improved three-year-deal still remains on the table.

Jawo‘s story with Carpi is truly a life inspiring one; a fascinating tale of a little known Gambian player who dared to brave the tide of the ocean in search of a new life. The Mediterranean Sea has its tales of cruelty which have left those attempting to illegally cross it, in tatters or as causalities.

But for Jawo, the script was yet to be written of a man who tamed the sea to become the first Gambian player to make an incredible leap from 5th division to the second division league in Italy. He is all happy recollecting his unique feat and doesn’t hold back at expressing a pride in how far he has come.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Well I’m very happy and proud to be the first Gambian player to jump from 5th division to the Italian Serie B,”[/perfectpullquote]

he beamingly says with a flash of his immaculate set of teeth.

“I’m thanking God for the positive events that happened to me. Carpi F.C. watched me in games and believed in my qualities. They gave me the chance to sign a contract for one year with the option on a further three-year till 2019 which I renewed on January 31st.

“I’m very happy to be here and I hope and believe I can reach the highest level I always dream of.”

The chronicling of his meteoric rise wouldn’t also be complete without a mention of FC Vado Ligure. Jawo would perhaps have reached the pinnacle of Italian football –the Serie A –if it wasn’t for the cards he was dealt by fate.

The striker was first signed by F.C. Vado Ligure, a fourth tier side, on the recommendation of a friend after first impressing on trial but his stay there was cut short by reoccurring injuries, keeping him out for forty-eight (48) months.

F.C. Vado, disenchanted at how events had turned out and unwilling to pay a player who wouldn’t feature for months, gave up on the Gambian-born. The teenager in those torrid times was reduced to a desolate figure with everything falling apart right in front of what was such a promising revelation for a new and hopeful life.

FBC Finale 1908 then came to his rescue months later, a bold move without reassurances but it ended up becoming the defining moment of resurgence for a youngster initially left for dead in the gruesome world of sports.

“Well I was at Vado in 4th division and I got injured for four months. My team gave up on me and I decided to go to Finale, a team barely known then in the region of Liguria.

“Everyone who helped me left because they didn’t trust I could make it with Finale in 5th division.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“When I went to Finale I helped the club gain promotion to semi-professional level for the first time in the 70 years of the club’s history. I won the league for them, scoring 22 goals in 26 games I have played in.”[/perfectpullquote]

At the Stade Comunale Ligure, a province in the North of Italy, the then 20-year-old stumbled on an opportunity to play top tier teams like Sampdoria and two-time Champions League winners Juventus, in pre-season games, who all later grew an interest in signing him.

The Gambian could only have inked contract papers as a foreign national player, however, given the red-tape and a likely prolonged legal battle involved in regularizing statuses of an irregular migrant in Italian law, the aforesaid clubs would pass on the opportunity to tie down Jawo to a contract.

That episode was a dampener but convinced his time will come, Jawo moved on.

“I played test games against Serie A teams like Genoa FC, Sampdoria, Juventus who were interested in me. But with the documents I was having (refugee papers), I couldn’t sign in the Serie A due to the rules of the Italian Federation.

“I would have been filling a position as a foreign player but teams have a limited spot of signing only two or three foreign players. So me not being a Gambian national team player or first division player, it was difficult.”

It was also the case when he traveled to Savona as one of eight players picked out of 103 trialists at the third tier outfit. His refugee status would yet again prove a stumble in his destined path to become a star footballer. Carpi, his parent club, entered the scene at this juncture.

Gaffer, Fabrizio Castori, was initially convinced that his chances of securing the Gambian’s services were non-existence considering the bombardment of competing interests, but gave it a go anyway. That audaciousness was the defining moment.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Then Carpi heard the stories about me in the press and quickly sent a scout and they made it! I never wanted to stay at Finale (for long) because my aim was to get to the professional level and I made it. This though is just the beginning. I pray to God to reach the Serie A.[/perfectpullquote]


Renato Santinato Photo

The precarious boat journey in the company of death

Success, it is said, comes on the back of toiling and risk-taking. Jawo’s journey certainly possesses all abundantly.

Driven by the search for newer pastures, having grown disillusioned in a country that at the time, had little to offer to a burgeoning youthful population, Jawo was one of the thousands to dare cross the 15,000km long Mediterranean Sea on a boat crammed with hundreds of immigrants, triple the capacity it can take.

Every step of the risk-taking journey had been a near brush with death but for Jawo, the determination to search for a bigger purpose was no stranger to him. Leaving Gambia’s shores, years ago as a teenager, he crossed Mali, through Niger to Libya (the closest country to the destination, Italy).

Rendered ungovernable by years of conflict culminating into a fully-fledged internal war, Libya’s capital Tripoli is today home to separatists pushing to get a foothold over autonomous areas.

Also the closest entry point to Italy, refugee immigrants awaiting smuggling boats, struggle with living in squalor-like camps and putting up with life-threatening situations from rebel soldiers.


People struggle in the water during a rescue operation of a rescue ship run by Maltese NGO Moas and the Italian Red Cross off the Libyan coast.

Getty Images

Victims of such unfortunate events usually do not have the words to express their suffering, resulting in shock and psychological trauma according to another immigrant-turned player under anonymity.

Jawo is one of those with a dose of luck to have survived a journey he describes as the worst in his life.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I thank God to have made it after all the hardship and suffering which I expected. So, all I can say is “Alhamdulillah”. But it was the worst experience of my life and I’ll never forget about it,” he said reflecting on a subject matter he disclosed for the first time.[/perfectpullquote]

Getting survivors to talk about their journey without waving their anonymity is almost next to impossible, but Jawo speaks with the view of sending a message across.

“I came through the Back Way ( a popular phrase for getting to Europe by boat in Gambia) and after 10 months, I became a semi-professional player. And after one and a half seasons in semi-professional football, I jumped to the professional level – one of the most difficult second division leagues in the world.

“I never played in a first division Gambian team or national side but for two and half years of hard work, I’m now a professional,” he told Ducorsports from his residence in Italy.

refugees 2

Kenterndes refugee boat (archive): A boat capsizes a few kilometers off the Libyan coast. (dpa/Italian Navy).

Statistics of Gambian deaths in sea voyages could best be summed up as appalling. It’s hard to imagine how positives could be driven from such a large scale of human devastation but Gambia, accounting for the second largest number of immigrants through this perilous trip, ironically stands to benefit sport-wise in the long term.

A majority are usually teenagers or below 22 and view sports as an escape route upon arrival. Many amateur footballers and athletes are being prepared this way with the long term ambition of being able to play for the national team. Jawo is one example.

Today, he speaks Italian fluently having spent close to five years in Rome and didn’t blink to answer in the affirmative when asked about playing for Gambia.

“Well, I would really love to because there is no place better than home. I’m Gambian and very proud to be one. So if I’m called to play for the Gambia, of course, I will.”

Jawo has since returned to Carpi at the end of his loan deal with the ambition to play in the Serie B, but he must first impress coaches in the club’s pre-season trip before he can see his dream morph.





Featured Photo: pelu2016

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