Any follower of Gambian football from the mid to late 90s would easily remember Ebou Sillah, the diminutive attacker well known for exciting fans with his dribbling skills and tenacity on the pitch. With a fantastic finishing ability, he entertained fans especially in vital moments by turning the game his way and creating something out of nothing.
Born and raised in Bakau Newtown where he built passion for football, Sillah invented himself as an attacker who’d come alive in the penalty area, as well as a composed finisher in front of goal. During the peak of his career, he was simply the Gambia’s finest at running with the ball and changing direction at pace. In difficult games and circumstances, the Bakau boy would bring others into play by holding the ball up.
While attending Bakau Primary School, Sillah started his career with Scan Gambia F.C., a junior Bakau nawettan team that was formed in his compound. The club was later renamed Jula-Ngel F.C.
“In those days, there were few teams competing in Bakau nawettan and it was very competitive,” he tells The Chronicle.
In 1994, he joined top tier side Sait Matty for two seasons that would later push the left-footer to join Real de Banjul, one of the biggest clubs in Gambian football. Half way into the season for the giant club in 1997, he made it into the national squad thanks to his goals and entertainment
By then, he became a hot cake in town, with a bunch of Division One league clubs chasing him for contract. “I remember Seedy Kinteh (a former Gambia Football Association president) escorted me to O.B Conateh to convince me to play for Wallidan,” Sillah recalls.
At the national side, the attacker quickly gained legendary status thanks to his exceptionally quick feet, close control and eye for goal.
“I was very fast with the ball. My mind was always on attacking, not turning back.”
Sillah’s debut for the Scorpions was against Liberia led by George Weah in his prime, in an African cup of nations in 1997 at the Independence stadium in Bakau. The tricky attacker, who was the youngest on the pitch on that day, was undoubtedly the star of the match as he scored a superb free-kick to give his team a 2-1 victory.
“I was so nervous when I entered the stadium and saw that huge crowd”, he remembers. “Before the game, I remember George Weah telling me, ‘you small boy cannot do anything in this game’. That motivated me to play my heart out and scored a goal that I will never forget in my life. That moment was the biggest highlight of my career.”
The more Sillah dribbled, scored and entertained, the more his fan base increased. “Watching Ebou Sillah as a fan was extremely exciting,” says Ebrima Cham, a fan. “His beautiful skills meant he could turn a game on its head within seconds. I just like the way he glides while dribbling the ball.”
Sillah’s close control, stunning runs and ability to find the net from long range during his eleven-year spell with the national team separated him from the rest. He recalls it was a lot of fun playing for the Scorpions.
“Playing in the national team was so great. We got each other’s back and we were always ready to die for our country no matter what. Our dressing room was always lively with the likes of Samuel Kargbo, Jatto Ceesay, Edrisa Sonko and George Lobba.”
“During our time, we were not playing for money. We were playing to make Gambians proud.”
The former Scorpions skipper is the most capped player in coach Paul Put’s 2010 World Cup and Nations Cup qualifier squad. After dazzling performance with the national team, Sillah signed his first professional contract with a Belgian side FC Brussels 1997, the same year his made his debut for The Gambia.
Sillah recalls the Scorpions’ closest chance so far to qualify for the African Cup of Nations in 2008 under Belgian coach Paul Put. “We needed to beat Liberia in Monrovia and even get a draw in Senegal to qualify,’ he says. “When we drew in Liberia, my teammates were all jubilating, thinking that point was good in our qualification quest. But I was sad because we needed to win that game to stand any chance.”
And Sillah was right. “When we traveled to Senegal for our last game in the qualifiers, we were just one goal away from qualifying. But because we couldn’t win in Liberia and Senegal held us back too, we missed out. I felt so bad.”
The 38-year-old also had a spell with MVV, a second division club in Holland, and a successful stint with K.S.C. Blankenberge in Belgium, as well as Club Brugge K.V in Belgium and Rubin Kazan in Russia.
For Sillah, the current state of Gambian league football needs upgrading. “It’s high time we develop our league football so that our players can play in better league around world. We have good young players in the league but because the league is not professional, it doesn’t attract good scouts. “
According to him, Gambian football should be governed by people who understand the game.
Sillah, a Belgian passport holder, is now working with a Belgian 4th division side, Hasselt F.C.