From playing on the streets to training alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Alasana Manneh is on the verge of making history with The Gambia.
Alasana Manneh could not believe his eyes. The men he had watched as infallible deities on the Television and from the stands of the Nou Camp, were mere mortals.
And they were standing in front of him in the flesh.
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi were skin and bone just like him.
“Watching them on TV every time, it was crazy to see them,” he recalls to FTF. “The first time I trained with them was something I will never forget. I was very happy.”
For a teenager from The Gambia, growing up watching the superstars of his era to be able to rub shoulders with them and call them as colleagues was an unfathomable concept.
Yet this was not a dream. It was reality and Alasana Manneh used every second of the time he spent training with the club’s first team as an opportunity.
“I learnt so many things from them. They were always open and happy to help. They just enjoyed the game. My move to Barcelona helped me a lot. Training was totally different to what I expected. It was very aggressive and very intense. Everyone went in 100%.”
On the streets
The journey to Barcelona started out with a simple infatuation. Alasana Manneh fell in love with the ball playing on the streets of Banjul.
It was here that he discovered he was better than his peers. He knew how to control the ball. It stuck to his feet and he could take on opponents with ease.
Of course it was not always easy. Manneh grew-up in humble surroundings with poverty rife.
“My time there was very tough. Everyone’s dream was to move abroad. So, it was tough at the beginning.”
It was not long before the Aspire academy, an institution with scouts and bases around the globe who were founded to help players like Manneh reach professional football, discovered his talent.
“I was playing on the streets, then I got told to go to a trial in Aspire. We just played about twenty minutes and then everything changed for me.”
Alasana Manneh moved to Aspire’s base in Senegal as a young teenager. Moving abroad was tough. Particularly to be away from his family. But Aspire gave him the opportunity to travel to Europe and play distinguished academies around the world.
Alasana Manneh still vividly remembers the moment Barcelona came calling.
The Catalan club had spotted him at Aspire and wanted to bring him on a trial to La Masia.
“It was crazy when I found out Barcelona wanted to sign me. I was over the moon.”
At Barcelona Manneh caught the eye in the Juvenil ranks before making the step-up to Barcelona B.
Manneh’s best moments came in the UEFA Youth League where he anchored the midfield for a talented Barcelona side that reached the semi-final of the competition bowing out to Red Bull Salzburg in the end after Patson Daka scored a last-gasp winner.
“It was never easy in Barca,” Manneh admits.
Path into the first team was difficult with a plethora of superstars standing in his way.
In the end after two loan spells away from Catalonia, Manneh made the move to Poland just as Frenkie de Jong had arrived in his position at Barcelona.
“I wanted to play so I chose the second option.”
Finding a new home
Joining Górnik Zabrze a club located in Southern Poland, Manneh found a path into professional football, but it was not always easy. Despite his education at La Masia, Manneh has still found ample to learn in Poland.
“Here in Poland, the beginning was very difficult for me. I had work very hard to play and eventually I was able to start playing.”
As Manneh adjusted to the rhythm of the new league, his technical elegance and ball-playing ability which were honed at Barcelona started to show.
The midfielder is excellent at progressing the ball and plays with poise and confidence.
Defensively there is room to improve but at 23-years-old, time is on his side.
“My best skills is my technique,” Manneh says. “I just try to be smart. This is natural in me.
“In Barcelona I learned movement and positioning. I watched so many of the players there like Messi, Iniesta and Busquets. I watched so many of the midfielders there and even now.”
And defensively, Manneh admits he continues to improve.
“I have improved a lot in my game. Here it’s a lot more physical compared to Spain and I think I am getting better.”
As for the weather and Polish culture, Manneh has found the adjustment a challenge but it is not one that has fazed him.
“It’s a long winter here, but what can you do? We just have to manage this is our job. The snow is crazy sometimes and the language is very tough but thankfully I have made good friends here and it’s easy to communicate with them.”
One of Manneh’s biggest career achievements to date has not been at club level but on the international stage.
The Gambian international made his debut as an 18-year-old five years ago and he remembers the apathy which surrounded the national team back then.
“You know at the beginning nobody wanted to watch the national team because they said we always lose.”
However, with a burgeoning crop of talent and emerging young superstars in the likes of Musa Barrow and Embrima Darboe, The Gambia have qualified for their first ever African Cup of Nations.
“Now everyone is focusing on us and we are just very motivated.”
“I’m very happy to be part of history. This is the first time we qualified. What can I say? It’s unbelievable to be part of this team.”
For The Gambia’s young stars, there is a common unity in the squad and a sense of togetherness.
“It’s crazy after we win a game, it’s always like we win a final in the dressing room. It’s not easy for us to come together. We only have a few games in a year so when we win everybody goes mental. The whole country. The players. Everyone. We are all happy.
“Like I said it wasn’t always like this but now we win every game after each other and this is what we would like to continue. The country is going to be crazy for AFCON. This is our first time. So, we will see what we can do. We will try to make the country proud.”
As a close family man, living away from home has been tough, but Alasana Manneh is determined to make his family proud.
“For African people everyone wants to play in Europe to play in good leagues. We all want to help our families and we do not just play for ourselves but for them too.”
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