Many reminders remain in West Africa of slaves being shipped to the Americas. In fact, slave trade sites have been a major attraction for tourism in the Republic of The Gambia since Alex Haley's "Roots" was published in 1976.
"We know all about Kunta Kinte," Revolution forward Abdoulie "Kenny" Mansally said of the man Haley claimed was his great-great-great-great-grandfather and whose story formed the basis of the book. "Because of that, people come from everywhere to visit. It's a part of our history."
Gambia has become somewhat of a refuge from the continent's chaos, its government and society remaining relatively stable since the country gained independence from Britain in 1965, partly because of its small population (1.7 million) and territory. But, unlike other West African countries, Gambia has not made an impact in soccer at high levels. Mansally and teammate Sainey Nyassi represent the country's first successful foray into international soccer, having performed for the country in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005 and the Under-20 World Cup in Canada last year.
Mansally's spectacular 68th-minute free kick in a 2-1 win over Portugal in Montreal vaulted Gambia into the second round of the tournament last year and helped put the country on the soccer scouts' map. Several Scandinavian clubs and Major League Soccer's Toronto FC bid for Mansally, but a series of events already had pointed him in the direction of the Revolution.
First, Gambia set up a June training camp in Sunrise, Fla., at a facility managed by Eddie Rodger, a former Boston resident. Former Tampa Bay Mutiny general manager Farrukh Quraishi, once in charge of the Boston Bulldogs minor league team, became a liaison for the team in Florida and his Boston business partner, Tom Bagley, also became involved.
Word soon spread about Mansally. Natick-based agent Patrick McCabe, who has represented several African players in MLS, began working for Mansally. Bentley College coach Peter Simonini, a former Revolution assistant, alerted the New England coaching staff. Then, Revolution coaches Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner traveled to Montreal for the Gambia-Portugal game July 8 and began making arrangements for Mansally and Nyassi to join the team.
"The [free kick] goal was impressive, but it was not, by any means, the defining moment for Kenny," said Bagley, who has remained in close contact with Mansally and Nyassi since they arrived in Boston. "The kick came near the end of the game. But as the game progressed, both Stevie and Paul had seen something there they wanted."
Delays of game
The day after Austria eliminated Gambia's Junior Scorpions in the second round, Mansally and Nyassi took a flight to Boston. But though the Gambians had assistance from friends, representatives, and the Revolution, their professional careers hit a series of roadblocks that delayed their debuts until September.
The delays started when Mansally's luggage failed to arrive in Boston. It was shipped to Gambia on the team flight.
"He got off the plane with a little sack with his boots in it," Bagley recalled. "He never did get his bags, but the one thing he didn't let go of was his boots. That was the most important thing to him. He never did get his clothes but he said to me, 'Don't worry, Sainey's clothes fit me,' even though Sainey is a little smaller."
Mansally and Nyassi checked into a Route 1 express hotel in mid-July. They did not have transportation or friends in their age-group outside the team. Midfielder Wells Thompson volunteered to drive them to morning training sessions at Gillette Stadium. The hotel did not have dining services, so Mansally and Nyassi would make a daily dodge across a road construction site to a sandwich shop after practice. A fellow Gambian once invited them for dinner, but a Revolution game conflicted with the date. They spent much of their time playing video games and watching television.
"We watched whatever was on TV," Mansally said. "But we were used to watching football matches and there weren't any games on."
Meanwhile, all sorts of bureaucratic slowdowns were preventing the issuing of work permits. By Sept. 3, one final document - an International Transfer Certificate - was required, and the Gambian Football Association faxed it to the Revolution. No good. The ITC form had to be faxed from the Gambian FA directly to the US Soccer Federation in Chicago. That finally occurred Sept. 4, just in time to make Nyassi eligible for the Revolution's US Open Cup match against the Carolina RailHawks in New Britain, Conn. Nyassi entered the match in the first minute of extra time, and his extraordinary speed on the right wing helped set up Pat Noonan's deciding goal in the 94th minute of a 2-1 Revolution victory.
Mansally's ITC form arrived later in the week and he did not make an appearance until Oct. 6 as a late-game substitute for Noonan in a 2-1 loss at Chicago. His desire, instincts near the goal, and speed have launched him into contention for a starting striker's spot alongside Taylor Twellman. But, first, there was the matter of serving an apprenticeship.
"They spent time at my house and I took them to the Cape on off days," Bagley said of Mansally and Nyassi. "They were great to have around the house. They worked out every day, they'd take the bicycles out, walk to the ice cream store, do the normal things teenagers do on Cape Cod.
"But they are very determined and very focused. They arrived with a real clear goal to make the club and I never heard a complaint from them. They knew what they had to do. Because they had been with the U17 team in Peru, they had experience traveling. Kenny had been on trials in Europe. They are very mature young men and they adapt to their environment very quickly and very well. They are both focused on developing as professionals and they can put distractions to the side. They grew up in an environment where younger players tend to grow up a bit faster and quicker than they do here."
Mansally and Nyassi have moved in with a host family in Wrentham. The next step is to obtain driver's licenses.
"They have licenses, but they aren't valid here," Bagley said. "I want to get them to the Registry so they can be more mobile."
The experience has been less a culture shock than it has been an adjustment, going from self-sufficiency to almost complete dependency on the system.
Mansally did not join the Revolution for the first two weeks of preseason training while awaiting visa approval. Finally, two weeks ago, Mansally booked a series of flights that would deliver him to training camp in Bermuda. After a 35-hour journey, Mansally joined the Revolution in Hamilton, and the next day scored three goals in a 6-1 win over Bermuda's national team in their opening preseason match.
Mansally's final day at his home in Banjul, the Gambian capital, illustrates the contrast with his new life. Mansally awoke at 6 a.m., then drove to a beach on the Gambia River, where he worked out for an hour. But that would be Mansally's last time behind the wheel and his last run on the sand for a while. He packed for cold weather, boarding a 9 a.m. Air Senegal flight to Dakar. After a five-hour layover, the trip continued to New York, then Boston.
Mansally spent the night in Wrentham, then flew to Bermuda the next day. He then scored thrice and earned a penalty kick in 55 minutes of playing time. In the next game, a 2-0 win over Bermuda, Mansally scored again. Now, the 19-year-old Mansally is contending with Adam Cristman for a starting forward position in the next leg of the preseason in Cancun, Mexico, this week.
"[The Revolution are] a good team for us to start with," Mansally said. "When we first got here, it wasn't working out. It was a little difficult, but we managed it. If you want to be a soccer player, there are going to be difficulties. We were not used to the system, so it was good for us to come in the middle of the season and learn the system."
Nicol has earned a reputation for spotting underrated players and developing them.
"Connections and timing, that had to happen," Nicol said of acquiring Mansally and Nyassi. "We think they can play. Other teams would have been interested in them, but we got there first. We thought, eventually, they could do something for the team.
"They liked to play, they want to play, to get the ball. [Mansally] wants to score goals. They are rookies, but they have good knowledge of how to play the game. To get better they have to play and get the benefit of experience. We are not going to rush them, but we are not going to hold them back, either. We'll do what's best for them."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.