During their careers on and off the pitch, footballers are loved, celebrated and often idolized by crowd of supporters. But when the final whistle blows and they retire, the crowd too disappears and they start life all over again.
The Gambia has a long list of footballers who enjoyed celebrity status before they went into retirement. In our Life After the Final Whistle series, The Chronicle will trace these ex-footballers to talk about the past glory and their lives after football.
Then: Goalkeeper for the national side.
Now: Football Instructor.
In this maiden edition of the series, we meet George Lobba, a former Wallidan and Scorpions goalkeeper who was once a household name in The Gambia.
Naturally endowed with good jumping ability, fantastic co-ordination and solid catching skills, George ranks himself as the greatest Gambian goalkeeper of his generation. He got his debut for the Scorpions in an African Cup of Nations qualifier in 1990 against Mauritania in Nouakchott.
Born on the 15th March 1970, George started his career as a striker in Banjul. He got his goalkeeping inspiration from Sang Ndong, the then goalkeeper of the national team. As a teenager, he grew up admiring and wanting to be like Sang Ndong. Because of that inspiration, he started building interest in goalkeeping and joined AC Milan, a nawettan football team in Banjul. A very good career at AC Milan Banjul would quickly catapult the young goalkeeper to national stardom and bigger career. He was hired by Wallidan, one of the best first division teams in the country at the time.
Because of his quick reflexes, agility and covering angles, George was picked from Wallidan at the age of 19 to join the senior national team in 1989.
“I was playing for the senior national team and the same time going to school’’. It wasn’t easy combining both at the same time, but I was able to stand out,” he recalls.
“Despite being young, I adapted very quickly thanks to the other goalkeepers I met there. We were all hungry for victory and we just didn’t wait for the coach to tell us what to do, which is different from the current generation of players.”
In 1991, George and the rest of the national squad travelled to Congo for a match without their match allowances, and managed to get a 0-0 draw.
“From there, we traveled to Senegal for the Zone Two tournament. I did not have gloves for that match and I sacrificed my D700.00 allowance to buy new gloves to stand at goal for The Gambia.”
However, in his 12th year as national team goalkeeper, George failed trials first with a German Association football club, Karlsruher SC and then FC Grasshopper in Switzerland.
‘’I just cannot explain what happened to me during my trials in both Germany and Switzerland. In Switzerland, I was just running and my feet got broken, while in Germany I just punched a ball and my hand got broken. I just don’t know what happened. I heard many people saying it is Juju (black magic) but I don’t believe in all those things.”
George recalled that during his career, there was no money in Gambian football. “We were motivated by not letting The Gambia down.”
According to him, the current generation of footballers has everything they want, but they don’t appear ready and hungry for glory.
The 49-year-old is now living his dream as a coach instructor. He recently bagged a B license in football coaching. He is also working with his former club Wallidan as Technical Director.
Former national team coach, Sang Ndong praised George for his discipline and hard work. “I travelled with George to Sierra Leon during my first assignment as head coach of the national team in 1992 and I can tell you he was just excellent. Despite his tininess, he always stood out. He was just that fantastic goalkeeper,” Sang Ndong told The Chronicle.
Alasan Jarju, a fan of George said the goalie was simply great. “He is a legend who saved George Weah’s ball when the Gambia played Liberia. By then I was very young, but I can still remember that he was just so great.’’