PAPA GASSAMA: THE LONG WALK TO STARDOM

By Sulayman Bah

It is difficult to believe Papa Gassama, voted Africa’s best referee, comes Papa Bakary Gassama 1from a country where football is religiously followed but has never mounted the big stages of the African Cup of Nations.

He joined the trade for his passion for fair play and rarely did he know his decision to choose the whistle over the ball will seven years later accord him similar status amongst African celebrated icon of the sport. Beginning his career January 2007 aged 28, the man had never looked back and walked the bumpy roads with exhilarating guise and humility befitting of a Gambian stalwart and an African exemplary figure.

In a game ridden with dark sides including condemnable player simulations, invectives from umbraged fans to the mammoth back-breaking task of passing rulings in under almost a micro second, Papa Bakary Gassama stands tall.

Ascension to the international frontline teed off when he sailed unruffled passing referee assessments earning CAF and FIFA badges. The badges paved the way for his appointment in Caf league matches and at last to the coveted African Cup of Nations.

What sets him apart is his comportment and composure to withstand inducement on his first international assignment.

It must be said the African game like any other is not cleaned of improper influences. Lot is reported about how referees are induced by cash-stabled North African clubs and betting tycoons to throw away matches. The rise of Papa Gassama coincided with such trying moments when prominent referees were been stripped of their badges for scandalously pocketing bribes.

Considering the ridiculously juicy hand-outs offered is unrivalled to CAF referees’ pay packet, it was, according to many, no longer a question of when but for how long will Gassama continue to resist the temptation. But undeterred he walked on.

His named got mired in a controversy he never helped trigger in 2012. By conventional rules, a referee is freed of any further task and reserved at least three days after officiating but a miscalculation by CAF referee committee left his credibility almost casted to the wind.

He was wrongly assigned to a TP Mazembe Orange Champions League match when he’d featured in Confederation match two days before. The committee realised the howler and swiftly moved withdrawing Papa naming a Senegalese as his replacement without explanation to concerned clubs for the sudden change.

The incident sparked a brouhaha with reports abound from North Africa media suggesting the now 37-year-old might have been bribed by cash-loaded Congolese defending champions Mazembe, behind the scenes.

Consequently Papa – considered one of the last generals of Africans arbiters to stand chest puffed out in a game littered with corruption at an era referees no longer view taking tokens for favours criminal – career was inadvertently been casted to the hyenas all for CAF’s oversight and initial silence.

Gambian referee chairman Lamin Camara was forced to leap to the defense of a man he boldly termed incorruptible even he hadn’t a gist of what the furore was about.

‘I am hearing this around but it is not true. I have not hard from him (Papa) but I am sure it’s not true. The boy is not that type.’ He told Foroyaa Sport in 2012. And true to his words, Bakary to this day remains unspoilt. Confederation of African Football –disturbed by the whirling speculations – issued a statement detailing the reason for their decision fending off allegations throw at the Gambian.

Unscathed, Bakary marched on whacking off every challenge on his path and is now not only a symbol of success for a country rarely a footballing hotbed but a celebrated icon whose ingenuity is unmatched and career far from over.

His stats is mindboggling for a seven-year career; number of red cards seven (five on home matches two on away), a total of one hundred and sixty-two yellow cards (86 on away matches, 76 at home); average on penalties on home games 0.08, away games 0.03 total 0.11; red cards average: on home 0.08, away 0.03 total 0.11; and yellow cards average: 1.25 on home, 1.41 on away matches, summing up a total of 2.66.

He’d overseen sixty-one international matches including, the CAF champions League and Confederation Cup, African Cup of Nations, World Club Cup, U-20 World Cup, Olympic and World Cup (between Chile and the Netherlands).

Papa was among 25 referees picked for the Brazil 2014 World Cup. Gambia though failed to secure a spot in the WC however the prospect of seeing their very own at the glamorous soccer event forced even the usual old lady, largely with no knowledge about the sport, glued to the television.

Having watched over Holland-Chile –a group leader deciding duel – in which he put in an almost gaffe-free performance, the Gambian top whistle gem set another record to be the first from Africa, in recent times, to have refereed in Qatar Stars League. That set the pattern as he got nominated for the Globe Soccer most outstanding referee of the year.

It was not going to be a year of heart breaks in the wake glowing performances as Papa finished 2014 in the best way he possibly could sashaying past his competitors Cameroon’s Alioum Neant and Doue Noumadiez to delectably land the silver-coloured CAF best referee of the year. He missed out on the prize in the first attempt the previous term.

Joining in the floodgates of well wishes, a GFF statement read: ‘The award of Bakary Papa Gassama by the confederation of African football (CAF) as the best referee in Africa 2014 is an uplifting and heart-warming milestone at a time when Gambian Football is having a new and better beginning.. Bakary Papa Gassama,s hard work and abiding interest to excel on the global stage to serve as a viable referee and a clear-headed Ambassador of the Gambia to the world has indeed transformed the history of Gambian football and brightened its prospect.’

Papa’s award couldn’t have been timely epitomising hope for a country under the rigours football rehabilitation.