Nanama’s Beef With Ex-Sports Minister

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By Nanama Keita

Nanama Keita

Nanama Keita

In early 2008, I fractured a relationship with a sports minister to help secure the service of a coach that would today guide Burkina Faso to the African Nations Cup semi-finals.

Paul Put had arrived in Gambia sometime in April 2008 with hopes of inking a permanent deal as the Gambia’s coach. It was just a month before the start of Gambia’s joint qualifier campaign for the 2010 World Cup & Nations Cup finals. At this time, the then Seedy Kinteh-led GFA Executive had made up its mind to snatch the coach at any cost, but the sport ministry, which was to shoulder the coach’s salary, was adamant.

A ride to the GFA office saw me bumped into the coach with Seedy Kinteh, who would later introduce me to the Belgian, flattering me with a ‘top sport journalist’ tag. Kinteh’s introductory remarks and thoughts that I could be useful in securing the coach’s signing saw I and Paul Put wrap-up our first meeting as best of friends (as if I was going to be his assistant coach ). Right from there and cognizant of the fact that the Gambia couldn’t have afforded to lose out on a coach of his calibre, and more so when the sport ministry was reluctant to hire him, I put into play some bit of advocacy journalism. Two straight publications introducing the coach as the right candidate for the Gambia saw the then sports minister, Axi Gai, reached out to me with an emphatic charge – which his ministry won’t put its money into a coach once involved in a match-fixing scandal. I knew he’d an agenda, but was using the coach’s past record as the basis to pursue his agenda. The sport minister said his words were not for publication, but that he was merely informing me of his stand on the Belgian tactician. I took him for his words, but if anything, that foot-dragging statement from the minister only helped fan my advocacy campaign for the coach and GFA – purely out of national interest.

Weeks passed by and a break-through was to come. The then GFA No.2 who had doubled as chief of Gambian army, General Langtombong Tamba, was able to get President Jammeh to personally endorse the coach, after by-passing the adamant sport ministry. The President agreed to foot the coach’s transport and accommodation bills while Telecom giants Africell agreed to pay for his two-year salary. A deal was sealed. So when I broke the news every Gambia football fan had been waiting for – the signing of the coach after the president’s intervention – it didn’t take hours before the sport minister come to me running, only that this time, he had a different tone on the same subject.

Minister Gai asked me to help run a story quoting him that his ministry had always been in the forefront in ensuring that we signed the coach, and that they were in talks with some corporate companies to step in as sponsors for the coach’s salary. I knew the minister was just throwing bait, but both I and him knew that it was too cheap for me to fall for it. I reminded him of our one-on-one conversation a week earlier when he said “We’re not going to put our money into a coach that was involved in match-fixing scandal”. I would later refuse Minister Gai’s solemn request before telling him that the president’s personal involvement must have triggered his hundred-and-ninety degrees sudden shift of position. It was the last straw that would end our already strained relationship. In that year, Paul Put didn’t qualify the Gambia to the World Cup nor to the Nations Cup, but that qualifying campaign remains Scorpions’ best qualifying run ever – knocking out bitter rivals Senegal in their group before a two-goal deficit separated them from earning a spot in the 2010 Nations Cup finals.

Two years later, the same sport ministry that jettisoned the Seedy Kinteh-led Executive from office, fired the coach on reasons best known to them. I’m not saying Gambia would’ve been where Burkina is today if Paul Put had stayed (for even Josè Mourinho can’t fix Gambia’s football problem in a year or two), but we’re wrong to let him go at that crucial stage. But again, see how some setbacks would come to you as blessings in disguise. If Paul Put had not been kicked out of Gambia at that time, he might well not be in South Africa today pipping at Africa’s most coveted football trophy from such a close range. I think I could also borrow a lesson from Paul Put’s case…. After what had started as an unending night for me in the mosquito-infested and windowless cells in Banjul I would later end with a one-way trip to the world’s freest nation – United States of America (laugh). Good luck, Paul Put!


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