Cherno Barra Touray was a member of the Gambia’s first national football team in the fifties during the colonial rule. One of the biggest highlights of his career was to take place in 1956 when he was scheduled to travel with the rest of the squad to Sierra Leone for an international game. But he ended up staying at home following the decision by his employers at the youth and sports ministry not to let him go.
Cherno, now 72, was also a teacher and sports coach at Crab Island School in Banjul and he was responsible for producing many great talents who went on to make names for themselves. He later became the Director of the Technical Committee of the then Gambia Football Association. It was under his tenure that the Gambia national team triumphed in the late 70’s. He’s also credited for introducing the Under 23 and Under 17 squads in Gambian football.
Cherno is the only surviving member of the pre-independence squad. He sat down with The Chronicle’s Omar Jarju to reflect on his career and life.
TC: Where did your career as a footballer begin?
Cherno: My career started at Armitage High School (Janjangbureh) where I was doing both track and field as well as football. Sports in The Gambia before Independence, was very exciting. The excitement of young footballers, track and field athletes across the schools was just fanciful. There were only five senior secondary schools in the whole country: Armitage, Saint Augustine’s, Methodist Boys High, Saint Joseph and Methodist Girls’ High. These were the schools that would compete in tournaments.
From there, I joined the Teachers Training College in Yundum in 1962 where I met Charles Thomas and other great footballers playing in the college football team. Straight away, I was selected to play for the college team and became a regular starter with Charles Thomas while he was the captain. When Charles left the college, I stepped up to handle the captaincy. As captain, I helped my team to compete for the first time in the then Gambia football Association divisional league and also guided the team to the quarter finals of the FA cup where we got knocked out by Augustinians. Whilst at the college, I was motivated to take up football seriously by Rev. Father Francis Forbes, who was the sports and physical education teacher.
Upon completion of my training at the college, I joined the White Phantoms Football Club. There I joined great stars like Ebou Taal and Ousman Sillah. After one year with the White Phantoms, I was selected to captain the team, leading them to their first FA cup triumph against Arrants Football Club. I remember scoring the winning goal in the 88th minute.
From the college, I was selected to play in the national U23 football team. I can remember playing with Momodou Njie ‘Biri’ against Guinea Bissau, though I cannot remember the year. We defeated Bissau 5-0. Then I moved up to the senior squad were I spent few years before receiving scholarship to England to study sports administration and physical education.
The country was under colonial rule at the time. Did that have any bearing on your squad or the game?
Well for some of us, we played a short time during the colonial period. It was in 1965 when The Gambia gained Independence that I really started getting deep into football. I was following my brothers to watch and support them while they played.
Where were you on the 18th of February 1965?
Oh, I like that question. I was teaching at Crab Island when a friend of mine called to inform me about the great news. I was very happy that day because I was among the teachers who were selected to join the school’s delegation to the celebrations at the McCarthy square.
What does Gambia’s Independence mean to you?
It means a great deal to me. Then politics was just emerging in the country and the young people were also so keen about politics. Independence was one on the things that we were all looking forward to because we had other countries in the sub region who were Independent. so it meant a lot to me.
How do you celebrate Independence?
Well during Independence celebrations, a lot of national programs were scheduled including sports. I remember in 1965, few countries in the sub region were invited to come and play friendly football matches with us at the Box Bar mini stadium and later at the Independence Stadium. We also had primary school sports which attracted so many spectators across the regions. I can remember before independence, precisely in 1953 then I was in primary school, we had one competitive primary school football tournament on Independence Day in Kiang Kayaf. Oh my God, it was so nice and interesting.
How do you compare your national team squad to that of today’s? Has anything changed?
Of course, there are a lot of changes. To be honest, I think we had more talented players before than now. We were very committed and interested in what we were doing. Despite lack of adequate funding, we took everything so serious. It was like putting ourselves on the line every time we played for the country. During our time, players would contribute to buy jerseys, kits just to play for the country. We gave all our hearts out just to make Gambians proud. But today, most of these young footballers are only interested in the money instead of their country. During our time, the school sports programs were better. Then, both the teachers and Principals were so much interested in sports. In fact they competed to produce the best footballers, track and field athletes and basketball players. But today, the teachers are not interested and some of them are not even qualified to train physical education in schools.
I’ve asked eight young Gambian divisional league footballers about you, but they didn’t know you. Are you surprise that young players today don’t know who Cherno Barra Touray is?
Actually, I’m not surprised that the younger generation footballers do not know me or about my career because there was no television station during our time and a little was reported in the media about us. Now, they are used to Messi, Ronaldo and others. Some of them might have heard or hear my name from their fathers.
Do you feel nostalgic or remorseful about anything today when you reflect on your life as a footballer during pre-Independence period?
Oh yes! I wish you see me seated at the stadium when Gambia plays in a competitive match. I’m always nervous. Unfortunately for this generation, there is lack of basic fundamental skills with almost all of them in the national team. Ball control, accurate passes and good heading look so difficult to execute by our current players. These are the basics. As a footballer, you need to master them first before anything. But I’m hopeful that things will change for the better soon.
During your days as a national team footballer, how do you prepare for International matches?
It was always exciting. After the coach selected his final squad, training camps were normally held at the college and sister quarters in Brikama and sometimes at the Bakau military camp. Although the benefits and some other logistics were not there, the players were always hungry for victory.
What would you say is the biggest highlight of your career?
Well, interestingly it was off the pitch. When I was teaching at Crab Island, I had one of the best football teams. I spent my time and resources to make it stand out. When they played at the Box Bar mini stadium, everyone wanted to come and watch. I did the same thing with Armitage Senior Secondary School.
Another highlight of my career was when I selected the secondary sports football team to play in Senegal. Our junior team won 3-0, while the senior lost 2-1 to the Senegalese. Upon arrival from Senegal, I called up a meeting for the school teams and asked them to better organize themselves to get registered into the GFA national Division league. I told them they had the skills, strong enough and intelligent to compete in the national league. They all were very excited about this. Serign Faye, Nyangha Sallah, Dixon Coker, Musa Njie, Saihou Sarr, Garba Touray and others quickly mobilized themselves at the Gambia High School in Banjul. They met and decided to call the team ‘’Benson and Heinz’’. But when they informed me about this, I changed it to Real De Bathurst which is now called Real De Banjul.
Do you still watch football?
Yes, I do. I do watch the national league especially when Real De Banjul is playing.
You’ve retired from football and administration. What do you do now?
Well, I was recently appointed by the President of the Republic as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Independence Stadium and The Friendship Hotel. I’ve also been appointed by the Gambia Football Federation as a member of their technical committee.
What message do you want to pass on to the current generation of footballers?
The advice is about discipline. I was once told by my former lecturer that the standard of discipline rises with the standard of performance. This generation has a problem of discipline, so I’m urging all the young talents out there to be disciplined. Apart from that, I advise them to be more committed to national duties, give their hearts out when their country needs them. They should make the best use of their career. Every footballer should fight to leave a legacy so that when they’re gone, Gambians will remember the great things they’ve done.
Congratulations! If Memory serves me well, Mr. George Gomez, who is alive, also played in the pre-independence Gambia 11.