In football, the players take all the plaudits for scoring goals or performing well, teams are celebrated for victories, referees and their officials are often recognized when they have good games (also vilified though for bad decisions) and coaches are hero-worshipped for leading their teams to victories. Even fans are often recognized for the way they rally behind their teams. Those who are collectively and integral part of football but rarely get the attention of anybody are the ball boys. They’re young people who keep the game moving by fetching the ball after it left the field of play.
In The Gambia, local ball boys are always at the Independence Stadium particularly during international games, patiently and passionately waiting behind the touchlines to fetch the ball and throw it back to the players.
“I am always on alert for the entire duration of the game,” says 12-year-old Assan Dampha, a regular ball boy from Bakau. “It can get quite difficult, but I just love doing it.”
About 20 kids, divided into 4 groups go through a training process to make sure they are fit enough to take one-hour turns on the sidelines of the football field. Part of the requirements to be a ball boy is to be energetic, be able to quickly catch and throw a ball and be willing to sit in all weathers.
The coordinator of the ‘ball boys’ at the Independence Stadium, Mbakkeh Kamaso tells The Chronicle that every time there is an international game, he receives more than four kids who show interest to be ball boys. “For me, they the heroes in the game,” he says. “Maybe many people don’t know how important they are, but without ball boys there wouldn’t be any international game.”
The average age for a ball boy is 15, and they are often football fans. For many of them, the most interesting part of their job is the opportunity to get close to their favorite players.
Baboucarr Njie, a 15-year-old ball boy also from Bakau, is eagerly anticipating the moment when he encounters Gambian international football stars.
“I joined the ball boys 3 months ago and still waiting to get face to face with my favorite Gambian players. I haven’t seen them yet. But hopefully I will.”