In Memeh, a small village in Jokadu District in the Gambia’s North Bank Region, a cluster of mud houses with corrugated iron and cone-shaped thatched roofing lies randomly across a vast dusty space. Farming is the main source of income for the hundreds of inhabitants. But growing up in the village, one kid had decided that farming wasn’t going to be the story of his life. Instead, he had his eyes firmly fixed on football.
Bakary Papa Gassama was fascinated by football in the village not particularly by the players or the goals they scored, but by the referees. The more games he watched, the more he was thrilled by the referees. He was too young to officiate matches but he felt he could get close to refereeing by playing football.
“As a young boy in the village, Bakary was just passionate about football,” recalls his uncle Serign Khan. “He’d always be around kicking the ball. It doesn’t matter whether he was on the football pitch or in the street.”
At a very young age, Gassama left the village after his father died and moved to the urban area to stay with his uncle. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing football. He played for some local teams in his new neighbourhood. He switched to refereeing when he went to high school, officiating local tournaments. By the time he finished high school, Gassama enrolled for a referee’s course, hoping to become an international referee.
“I tapped inspiration from previous best Gambian referees. The likes of the late Badou Jasseh, Omar Sey and Modou Sowe inspired me a lot,” Gassama says.
“I remember going with friends to first division league games just to watch these top referees. I’d often meet them after the games and they’d advice and encourage me.”
Such encouragements would later propel Gassama to national stardom as he made a name for himself as one of the most consistent and prominent referees in the country, an achievement that didn’t surprise his aunt Haddy Gassama. “Papa was calm and discipline from birth,” she says. “It was clear he would succeed. The entire village of Memeh is proud of him. We wish him success in his entire career.”
Gassama became a FIFA referee in 2007. He officiated at the 2012 Olympics tournament, serving as fourth official for the gold medal match between Mexico and Brazil. He also served as a referee at the 2012 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, as well as the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
In 2017, Gassama won the Confederation of African Football’s Best African Referee award for the third consecutive time. He was also at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
While Gassama continues to cement his status as a top referee internationally, his village uses his achievement as a symbol of unity, pride and inspiration.
“We always follow his fixtures especially during the African Cup of Nations,” says Haddy. “Nothing beats that feeling; watching my Papa Gassama officiating big continental matches.”
“I grew up hearing the name of Papa Gassama because the time he was leaving the village, we were very young,” says Dawda Mendy, a native of Memeh. “Anytime he comes here, he’d tell us to follow our career paths with discipline and dedication.”
Gassama last visited Memeh in 2018 during the village’s football league final. And what’s striking about him, according to his late father’s close friend Ebou Njie, is his humility.
“Whenever Papa Gassama comes here, he’s humble and he brings himself to our level. He doesn’t want to stand out and the village gives all this love back to him.”
“He is the pride of this village. Anytime he comes here, we pray for him collectively. My best sport is wrestling, but Papa made me to love football.”