Among the stars of Serie A, the first division of the Italian football championship, the attacking midfielder of FC Bologna Musa Barrow is starting to find a place as a rising star. Figurehead of the Gambian selection which shone during the last African Cup of Nations, Barrow wants to draw attention to the plight of thousands of young Africans who are trying, at the risk of their lives, to reach the Old Continent.
Sadio Mané against Mohamed Salah. The poster that everyone dreamed of became reality during the last final of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), which ended in Cameroonian soil with the very first success in history for Senegal in the continental tournament. But behind the two Liverpool stars, several rising stars of African football have also allowed their country to be talked about. Among them, the attacking midfielder of the “Scorpions” of Gambia, and player of the Italian club Bologna FC, Musa Barrow. Head of the gondola of one of the surprise formations of the tournament, Barrow marked the competition with his superb right paw. But to get there and live his dreams of football, the young Gambian footballer had to go through many hardships, which built his exemplary career.
Musa Barrow was born in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, in November 1998 into a family of four children where his mother Anah, who works in a school in a poor area of the city, struggles to make ends meet. His father died when he was only four years old.
At the time, little Musa’s happiness came from his passion, his first love, football. “But be careful”, he smiles again at the memory of his first kicks, “this ball was a ball made by my friends and myself with scraps of fabric, which we recovered in the street. rained, the ball was heavier and harder to play, our feet were covered in scratches, but we didn’t care. We were together, innocent, and our minds weren’t focused on whether we were going to eat our fill the same evening. We were young and our happiness came from those moments, “recalls Barrow, 20 years later.
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The Barrow clan sticks together, and the children try to help the family by selling sweets and tissues in the street. “I didn’t have a new pair of shoes until I was 9 or 10 years old. We collected old pairs that we patched up. It’s the harsh law of poverty, resourcefulness is essential, he specifies. “Looking in the rearview mirror, I think a lot of my kicking ball technique comes from that cloth ball. That kind of moment built who I am today, and without it, I might never be.” got to where I am now.”
“We wanted to go to Europe, but we had no money for the smugglers”
The Barrows try to find a way out of their difficult daily life, but the solutions are few and far between. The head of the family thinks of Europe, to offer a better future to her children and to herself. The means are very limited, and despite several discussions with smugglers to reach the Old Continent, the family remains at the quay, for lack of funds to pay for their trip to a new life.
“We wanted to go to Europe, do like thousands of Gambians, go to Germany, England or even southern Europe, but we had no money, and the fact of asking for funds from d ‘other people have always been against the values instilled by my mother,’ explains Musa. “So we stayed in the country, under the same conditions, without alternatives.”
Young Musa is a child but keeps Europe in sight. “I just knew that I had to keep working, to be studious at school. Somehow, I knew that my future was in Europe, for studies or for football. J I’ve always been determined, fully focused on that.”
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At 11, Musa Barrow was recruited by one of the best local teams, the Hawks FC, who spotted him during a day of detection in the neighborhoods of Banjul. There, he discovers specific training. He immediately imposed himself with the under-15s, playing with players who were on average three years older than him.
“As soon as I was recruited by the Hawks, I set out to give it my all, to surpass all my teammates and to learn as much as possible. I was in ‘accelerated learning’ mode. I was working overtime training, I watched the adults train, and I put all the elements on my side to progress visibly”, he says.
Arrival in Italy
He continues by playing with the under-19s, still being the youngest player in the group, until the day when, during a tournament with other teams in the region, a European recruiter approaches him. This man is Giovani Savaresto, a football fan from Italy who oversees talent from West Africa. “Musa is like a son to me, I will never forget our first meeting,” recalls the Transalpin. “He smiled, was very polite. It only took me a few minutes to notice his pure talent, his rare technical ease. He was a diamond in the rough, who could do great things.”
Savaresto went out of his way to find him trials in several clubs in Italy. But obtaining a visa is a real way of the cross, sesames being difficult to obtain for young people from Gambia, a country considered to be too rarely a supplier of talent unlike its neighbor Senegal. After weeks of discussions with the Italian embassy, Barrow is authorized to go to the Boot and Savaresto makes him do tests in the four corners of the country.
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From Rome to Palermo, via Florence, the young African wants to catch the eye of clubs and it works: several of them offer him to join their training center. Concern: being a minor, the administrative formalities are long, and several teams give up recruiting him. “The fear of being sent off or that no club would have the patience to wait for my situation to be regularized was very present in my mind. I had to wait, continue to train alone to keep myself in shape, hoping that a club gives me a sign”, recalls the talented midfielder.
Five months after his arrival in Italy, the phone rings. Barrow receives a formal offer from Atalanta Bergamo, which has one of the best training centers in the country: the club wants to integrate him in the spring of 2017. The young African is relieved, the first stage of his European dream opens to him.
“He called me, he was overjoyed, as if freed from something,” recalls Omar Colley, Sampdoria player from Genoa and the first Gambian to play in the Italian Serie A. “He saw the door open at last, and was eager to show that he could be a professional player. He made a lot of sacrifices, he spent a lot of time working alone in his corner, in waiting for this phone to ring. He was waiting for a single opportunity to bite into it. As soon as the offer from Atalanta Bergamo was formalized, I knew he was going to break everything in this club, “continues the one who is the Barrow’s mentor.
Colley was right: in 15 games, his young compatriot scored a good ten goals with the Primavera team (under-19 training, editor’s note).
“Bolognese sauce” and idol of the Gambians
At the beginning of 2018, the young colt was thrown into the deep end against the great… Juventus of Turin. Barrow’s dream comes true: after a great performance on his part, he definitely joins the senior Bergamo team. At 18 years and 3 days old, he becomes the third youngest African player to play in the main echelon of Italian football. “I’ll never forget that day. I have the shirt from that first game framed at home. After my first steps as a pro, I was ‘floating in the air'”, he laughs still today. He spent two seasons with Atalanta, then went on loan with an obligation to buy 13 million euros from Bologna FC in the winter of 2020.
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In the city of Emilia-Romagna, Barrow exploded and became the best player in the formation in the garnet jersey where the supporters nicknamed him “bolognese sauce” for his very technical game which delighted the local “tifosi” (supporters in Italian). With eight goals in 22 games since the start of the season, the Gambian has become one of the best attacking midfielders in Serie A, and is the envy of several clubs in the English championship.
Barrow has just played his first Africa Cup of Nations with The Gambia, who finished in the quarter-finals after a defeat against the host country, Cameroon, not without having marked the tournament with victories against Tunisia and Guinea . “I scored two goals during this CAN, but I will especially remember the return to the country, with hundreds of thousands of people who applauded and celebrated us during a beautiful parade in the capital”, s’ he enthuses.
“He has become a national idol, a kind of Gambian Cristiano Ronaldo, who makes Gambians proud and who gives hope for better days to the youth of the country”, underlines Thomas Sainfiet, the Belgian national coach.
Musa Barrow has become the “ambassador” of the country beyond its borders, but does not forget his journey. “I work to set up an aid structure for young people, to help them through education and sport in The Gambia. But I am also involved in Italy to talk about the cause of migrants, to testify to my journey and exchange with those who cross the continent for a better life,” he said. “It’s very important to me. I don’t forget where I come from and what I’ve been through. We have to talk about the difficulties that migrants are going through, and help them.”