Modou Sowe made history in 2004 when he became the first African referee to officiate at the UEFA European Under-17 championship in France.
Arguably the best and most famous African referee at the time, Sowe was the sole African match official at the championship’s third edition that saw host France beat Spain in the final to win the competition for the first time.
After the championship, however, the fast-tracked official’s name was on everyone’s lips for all the good reasons. “He made the Gambia and Africa proud, “says Modou Njie, one of Sowe’s admirers. “At that time, refereeing was very tough and it was difficult for an African referee to stand-out at the world stage, but Sowe was quite focused and had game intelligence.”
After Modou’s appearance 11 years ago, there has never been a referee from Africa to officiate in a UEFA European football championship.
“That was a great feeling knowing that am the only African referee to officiate at such high profile competition, “Sowe tells The Chronicle. “It is because I proved my ability to lead matches at any level on the continent. It was an exciting experience.”
Sowe aspired to become a professional footballer in his youth days, but this was never to be. Rather, he developed passion for football refereeing in the late 80’s. He drew inspiration from the late Alagie Mboob, a retired referee and former chairman of the Gambia referees Association. “It was Alagie Mboob who gave me courage and made me believe that I can excel in referring, “Sowe said. He gave me good advises all the time.”
Modou Sowe was a top referee as well as a shiny one. In 1983, he had his first taste of career refereeing at the Box-Bar mini stadium in a game between Wallidan and Gambia Ports Authority. “I went into that game with calmness and confidence, “he said. I was congratulated by many for handling the game so well and that was very important for me as a young referee.”
He earned his FIFA badge in 1992, then progressed to become a regular for both national and international games.
Sowe climbed to the top of his profession, from modest beginnings to officiating at high profile international games. He has an impressive biography, with UEFA Cup and African Cup of Nations decisive matches on his record, as well as several hard-fought international contests.
He officiated in qualifying matches for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Celestin Ntagungira, a retired referee from Rwanda said Sowe was one of the best football referees the continent has ever produced. “He’s always being positive, “Celestin tells The Chronicle. He was the man for the big games.”
Celestin is currently the chairman of the Referees Committee at the Confederation of African Football.
The groundbreaking match, for his career, pitted Egypt and Cameroon in a group stage match of an African Cup of Nations in 2006. “It is because of how I handled that match that I showed my ability and technical prowess, “he said. “ All the referees were avoiding that fixture due to its intensity and the high caliber of players involved. But in the midst of the big players, I was decisive with my decisions and also commanded respect on the pitch. I was just in control of everything and at the end of the tournament, I was the best referee.”
Lamin Camara, a retired Gambian referee, traveled and assisted Sowe in many matches. He described Sowe as a ‘charismatic’ referee. “He was so intelligent and always comfortable when in the middle of the football field. Because of his qualities he was able to officiate so many games around the world. He was a very strict referee. “His understood the laws of the game and it was difficult for him to miss an opportunity in the field. I’m proud to have played with him.”
Modou Sowe has officiated 103 games in his refereeing career. Among the high profile international tournaments he officiated includes the 2005 UEFA Meridian Cup in Turkey, 2006 and 2007 CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup finals.
Now seen as a role model to the upcoming Gambian referees, Sowe believes hard work coupled with discipline is the key to his success. “During my time I train seriously every day and also adhere to every good advice given to me from senior colleagues, family members and close friends, “he said.
Upon retirement in 2008, Sowe continues serving football in many capacities at both local and international level. He’s an executive member of the Gambia Football Federation and Vice Chairman of the national referees committee. He’s also the Chairman of the Banjul Sports Committee. At the international front, Sowe continues to serve as a FIFA/ CAF referee assessor, a role he assumed in 2017. He’s also a MA FIFA/ CAF fitness instructor.