From brushing with death in crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat to becoming a professional footballer –The Story of Lamin Jawo

Sulayman Bah

Lamin Jawo is an athlete in football boots.

His towering frame standouts with his partly sprayed Mohawk hair – a new craze gracing football – very noticeable.

He is introverted but give him a football and that shyness is dust off in no time.

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

Robur Siena in the third tier are the club tailored for Jawo’s easy progress after joining them at January’s end.  The striker was not short of pursuers amid interest from a blizzard of clubs but settled for Siena where promise of first-team football was the influencing factor in his decision to move there.

Returning to parent club Carpi where he recently penned an improved three-year, in the second division at end of this ongoing season, remains on the cards.

Jawo‘s story with Carpi could potentially be one for consideration for Hollywood filmmakers.

There certainly doesn’t seem to be a fascinating tale as that of a little known Gambian player leaping from 5th division to the second tier.

Lamin is all happy at recollection of his rare-to-find feat and he doesn’t hold back when the discussion centered on that.

‘Well I’m very happy and proud to be the first Gambian player to jump from 5th division to the Italian Serie B,’ he says beaming, flashing a set of immaculate teeth untouched by scurvy.

‘I’m thanking God for  the positive events that happened to me. Carpi FC watched me in games and believed in my qualities. They gave me the chance to sign a contract for one year with option on a further three-year till 2019 which I renewed 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 this lad’s meteoric rise wouldn’t be complete without a mentioning FC Vado Ligure.  Lamin would perhaps have reached the pinnacle of Italian football –the Serie A –if not for cards dealt to him by fate.

The striker was first signed by fourth tier outfit Vado on the recommendation of a friend after first impressing on trial but his stay there was truncated by successive injuries, keeping him out on the peripheries for forty-eight (48) months.

Vado, disenchanted at how events had turned out and unwilling to pay the salary of 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 even his bosoms turning their back on him.

FBC Finale 1908 would leap to his rescue months later and it proved a shrewd venture. It was a defining moment of resurgence for a youngster initially left for death in the cruel woods 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.

‘When I went to Finale I helped the club gain promotion to semi-professional level for the first time in the 70-year of the club’s history. I won the league for them, scoring twenty-two (22) goals in twenty-six (26) games I have played in’

At the Stade Comunale Ligure, a province in the north of Italy, the then 20-year-old tumbled on the luck of playing top teams Sampdoria and two-time Champions League winners Juventus in pre-season games, who all later built interest to sign him.

Lamin could only have inked contract papers as a foreign national player. However, giving the red-tape and prolong likely legal battle  involved in regularizing status 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, Lamin 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, 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 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. One of eight players picked out of 103 trialists at the third tier outfit , his refugee status would yet again prove a stumbling block on the path of a deal.

Carpi –his parent club – entered the scene at his juncture.

Gaffer Fabrizio Castori was initially convinced his chances of securing the Gambian’s services were nonexistence considering the bombardment of interest but gave it a go anyways.

That audaciousness was the defining moment.

‘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.’

The ‘Back-Way’ journey brush with death

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

Driven by the search for pastures new having grown disillusioned in a country that, at the time, had little to offer to a burgeoning youthful population, Lamin was one of thousands to cross the 3,900km long Mediterranean Sea on a boat cramped with hundred occupants, triple the capacity it can take.

Every step of the adventure had been a near brush with death. Leaving Gambia’s shores, years ago, the teenager, crossed Mali, Niger for Libya, the closest country to destination Italy.

Rendered ungovernable by years of conflict culminating to a full-fledged internal war, Tripoli is today home to separatists pushing to gain foothold over autonomous areas.

And being an entry point to Italy, would-be migrants apart from contending with living in squalor-like camps while awaiting smuggling boats, they also have to put up with incidents of being robbed off monies at gun point by rebel soldiers.

Victims of such horrors usually do not have the mouth with which to tell of their sufferings owing to shock, according to another Back-Way goer-turned player under anonymity.

The psychological trauma from these horrendous exposures can last a life time. Of more heart-wrenching, is the final trip of braving the waves of the ocean by boat with no life jackets. Majority do not live to see first port-of-call Lampedusa with chances of the boat capsizing far higher. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Migration Organisation (IMO) peg the number of migrants’ sea deaths at about 3,770 as of March 2016.

The few, who manage to cross, are faced with realities of a fresh start, culture shock and a hard to believe predicament of living a beggar’s life in a country they have virtually no relation.

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

‘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 says on reflection, on a subject matter he’s opening up on for the first time since arriving.

Getting survivors talk on their journey without waving their anonymity is almost next to impossible. But Jawo speaks with a view to send across a message.

‘I came through the Back Way (popular phase for getting to Europe by boat in Gambia) and after 10 months, I became a semi professional player’

‘And after one and a half season 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 tells Foroyaa Sport from his residence in Italy.

Statistics of Gambian deaths in sea voyages could best be summed up as appalling.

Consequence of these undertakings continues to bite and the woes cut deep. Families are rendered forlorn without figure-heads, children orphaned, mothers childless and friends robbed of acquaintances and loved ones.

It’s hard to imagine, many observe, how positives could be driven from such a large scale of human devastation. But Gambia, accounting for the second largest number of migrants through this perilous trip, ironically stands to benefit sport-wise in the long term.

Majority goers are usually teenagers or below 22 and take sports as escape route upon landing. Many amateur footballers and athletes are being produced this way with the long term ambition being to play for their national teams.

Lamin is one such. 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’

About possibilities of returning to Carpi, Jallow tells Foroyaa Sport: ‘now I’m on loan at Siena since my return from a muscle injury. I moved there during the January transfer window and I will be back to Carpi in June.’