Sinisa Mihajlovic says it was destiny. With his Bologna side a man down after Roberto Soriano’s red card and trailing 1-0 at Internazionale on Sunday, the coach surveyed his bench and weighed up his options.
“The first idea was to put [Mattias] Svanberg on the right, then watching the game I said to myself: ‘Let’s put Musa on. He always causes a mess when he plays and they won’t understand anything,’” Mihajlovic recalled.
A little more than four years to the day since Musa Juwara first set foot on Italian soil after the unaccompanied teenager travelled from the Gambia through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and then Libya before crossing the Mediterranean on a rubber dinghy, his dream was about to come true.
Seizing on an Inter mistake, the 18-year-old orphan from Tujereng rifled home a shot from the edge of the area with his left foot to fulfil his manager’s prophecy to the sporting director, Riccardo Bigon, a few minutes earlier. “I told him that he would score,” Mihajlovic said. “And after three minutes he did! He deserves it: he played at San Siro even if empty; it means having personality.”
A second goal from Musa Barrow – another rising Gambian star, who is on a two-season loan from Atalanta – sealed a remarkable comeback victory for Bologna that kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the Europa League. The 21-year‑old Barrow was scouted from the Banjul‑based club Hawks FC; Juwara’s success since his debut in February has been headline news at home and in his adopted country.
“Musa [Juwara] went through the popular route to get to Italy: they call it ‘the back way’,” says the Gambian journalist Momodou Bah. “It’s very common – I have close friends who have taken this route as well. Most of the youngsters don’t have the opportunity to go to school, so for them it is a big deal to get to Europe. When Musa left, the numbers were at a peak and it’s: ‘Either I make it or that’s the end for me.’ And those that make it to Europe are far higher than the numbers that perish, so that encourages them to take such a major risk.”
Seven months after leaving home, Juwara was one of an estimated 25,000 minors to seek asylum in Italy during 2016 and he was eventually transferred from Sicily to a migrant centre in the southern Basilicata region. There he was spotted playing football on the street by Vitantonio Summa, coach of the amateur team Virtus Avigliano, who took him under his wing and became the teenager’s legal guardian.
A legal wrangle with the Italian football federation which prohibited clubs from signing unaccompanied minors prevented Juwara from joining Chievo in the summer of 2017, only for Summa and his wife, Loredana Bruno, to appeal successfully. After Juwara thrived at youth level, Bologna paid a reported €500,000 to sign him last summer and 13 goals in 18 matches for their youth side saw the winger promoted to Mihajlovic’s squad.
“Even when they lost against Juventus in the first match after the restart, he came on and had an impact that led to Danilo being sent off,” Bah says. “It was very exciting.”
Juwara is not the only Gambian player to have taken his opportunity after risking everything to reach Europe. Five of the nine now on the books of Italian clubs in the top three divisions arrived as refugees, including the Catania winger Kalifa Manneh and Roma’s 19-year-old midfielder Ebrima Darboe, who was on the bench for a league match against Milan last year. The Sampdoria defender Omar Colley – who moved to Serie A after making his name in Finland, Sweden and Belgium – has been heavily linked with Southampton and could become the second Gambian to play in the Premier League after Swansea’s Modou Barrow in 2014.
“Everybody in the Gambia supports Bologna, Atalanta or Sampdoria now,” Bah says. “We can watch the matches live on TV and also catch the highlights so people are able to see how they are getting on and these players are really popular here. They have a huge following on social media as well.”
Around 30,000 Gambians are thought to be living in Italy, although many have been threatened with being returned to a country that remains politically unstable despite the fall of the longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh in January 2017.
According to Bah, the success of Juwara, Barrow and Colley is providing hope that the national team could make history under their experienced Belgian manager Tom Saintfiet. “We’ve never been to the Nations Cup and we are a small country in terms of African football history but when I look at the talents that we have, the only thing lacking is the infrastructure and the exposure,” he says. “The future looks really bright even though we don’t have the right structures in place.
“We are producing so many good young players but you have to ask how many would we have produced if there was a proper academy system that they could attend from the ages of six or seven? If we had the structures then wow … For me, our players are better than even our neighbours Senegal.”
The Gambia’s closeness to one of African football’s powerhouses has allowed several players to attend Génération Foot – the Dakar academy where Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Ismaïla Sarr of Watford started. The promising winger Ablie Jallow and the striker Yankuba Jarju have benefited from the academy’s partnership with the French club Metz, and Jallow spent the 2019-20 season on loan at Ajaccio.
Juwara has yet to make his international debut but after his heroics against Inter, that is surely a matter of time. “I’m really happy to score my first goal, which I want to dedicate to my family and all those who’ve helped me on my journey,” he said. “This is a dream for me and a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
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