Most athletes go for one sport and stick to it. Bai Malleh Wadda is a rare one. By far the Gambia’s greatest multi-sport athlete, he represented the country in football, track and field, basketball, volleyball, lawn tennis, cricket and rugby – the only person known to have achieved that for his country. No career in The Gambia has been as fascinating and awe-inspiring as that of Bai Malleh.
He attended Windley and Mohammedan Primary Schools in Banjul where he began his career as a school team goalkeeper. It was at Mohammedan that he was tipped for greatness.
“The physical education teacher of Muhammedan School at the time, Sait Mbaye was the first man to encourage me to do sports,” he recalls.
“My mother was a teacher at Muhammedan and I used to go to the staff room where I’d meet Sait Mbaye. Because he was an athlete for The Gambia, he wanted me to be an athlete too and the first thing he encouraged me to do was long jump. He’d put a long jump facility at the back of the school where I practiced during school break.”
In 1971, Bai Malleh moved to Crab Island School under the tutelage of renowned educationist and sports coach, Cherno Barra Touray. After a brief stint, he proceeded to Banjul’s St. Augustine’s High School, at the time a Mecca for academic and sports excellence under the Irish Priest, Joseph A. Gough.
Cherno Barra remembers Bai Malleh as a great athlete always. “He got the passion and he always wanted to win. He was a gifted athlete… skillful and technical.”
At St. Augustine’s, Bai Malleh represented the school in football, volleyball, basketball and track and field. He was also training with Real de Banjul at the same time.
“Father Gough met me at Saints and he was impressed with my potentials. I had lot of good memories doing sports at Saints. The school gave me everything.”
From 1974 to 1977, he won three consecutive best high school athlete awards, a record no one ever broke.
Bai Malleh would later feature for Real De Banjul as an apprentice while attending St. Augustine’s.
“I was the water boy for Real De Banjul. I loved the team. I camped and trained with them. Then later I was encouraged by the team manager Mam Sait Njie and Kebba Dais to start training with the team even though I was young and small.”
Video:Life After the Final Whistle:Bai Malleh Wadda ,an Iconic Multi-Sport Athlete
At 16, he was called to international duty in the African Club Championship game against Joliba of Mali, the youngest Gambian to suit up at that level. The following year at 17, Bai Malleh played for The Gambia in a game against Ghana at the Accra Sports stadium in Ghana.
In 1978, he left The Gambia for Elmira College in New York where he played football and basketball. “My family wanted me to combine both sports and education, so I took both seriously.” He was an instant sensation nicknamed WADDA 14 after his jersey number in New York. He was leading goal scorer in the three years he spent there.
Bai Malleh is also the second Gambian to play National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball in America, following in the footsteps of his coach and mentor, Alade Sunny Joiner. In addition, he played professional football, but briefly.
Following his graduation with a BSc in Marketing and Management, he returned home in July 1982 and his football acumen was revealed on day one on the Gambian soil when he netted three goals for Dai Ten Football Club in the Banjul Nawettan.
“At that young age, I had a lot of endurance. I would run from Banjul to the Denton Bridge just to get fit.”
In The Gambia national team, he became the unstoppable striker who would go on to win the leading goal scorer trophy at the West African Football Championships (Zone Two) in Mauritania in 1983.
“That was just amazing. I will forever cherish that moment in my life. I think I made the whole Gambia proud and it made me feel so happy.”
Bai Malleh’s successes just continued. He won the hearts of many more fans after he became the scorer of the famous lone goal that brought about the Gambia’s only championship opportunity in West African football. That prompted the Gambia’s top football commentator at the time, Saul Njie to give him multiple names to celebrate his athleticism. Among the names were the Bionic Man, Superman and Dizzle Dazzle Malleh.
For football fans in Guinea Conakry in those days, Bai Malleh’s name would always bring sad memories.
“When Guinea came to Banjul, they beat and that didn’t go down well with me. So, in the return leg played in Mauritania, I scored 4 goals.”
In 1977, Bai Malleh was also the lone representative of The Gambia at the World University Games in Bulgaria where he made it to the semis in the long and triple jumps.
Upon retirement from football, Bai Malleh took over as the head coach of Real de Banjul in the late 80’s and led them to two consecutive league championship titles, two super cup titles and an FA cup championship title. Many of his players including Ebou Sillah and Pa Dembo Touray would later become icons in Gambian football.
As a level two English FA coaching certificate holder, Bai Malleh is currently working with Real de Banjul as technical adviser. He is also into grassroots development programs in the schools and regions.