A picture was circulating on social media recently of an amateur football team decked out in a full Sampdoria kit. Intrigued, we decided to track them down to find out the story behind the shirt. Baboucarr Touray and Ousman Manneh kindly took some time out to tell us how a British parks team came to play in la maglia più bella del mondo (the most beautiful shirt in the world)…
Midlands Selection FC is a community-based project which draws its players from the Gambian diaspora of Birmingham and the wider Midlands region. The team are currently without a league, but play in a range of friendly matches and competitions up and down the country, from the playing fields of Birmingham as far afield as Wales and Wakefield. However, as we find out, the reach of the project extends far beyond the white lines of the football pitch.
First of all, how did they come to play in the famous colours of Sampdoria? The key connection is Omar Colley, the commanding blucerchiati central defender, who also happens to be a cousin of Ousman. The former Genk player has generously supported the Midlands Selection project with the provision of boots, kit, advice and most valuably, inspiration.
Ousman is brimming with pride as he reflects on Colley’s ascent in the footballing world: “We feel that Omar is representing us and the Gambian community”. And Colley’s influence has not just been from afar; he even came over to England last year and led a training session for the team. His most recent contribution to the cause – and the impetus for this article – was the donation of a full 2018/19 Sampdoria strip for the club to use.
As we turned to the subject of the kit, Ousman couldn’t help but raise a smile as he gazed over at the shirts neatly arranged on his washing line; “Just looking at them, my foot is itching to play!”. He wasn’t the only one to be entranced by the new kit; it had a similar impact when the team saw it for the first time. “The guys absolutely loved them, everyone wanted to take them home at the end of the match”. Baboucarr suspects the shirts had an on-field effect too, as Midlands Selection rode out 4-3 winners against their “gobsmacked” opponents from the Birmingham Premier Division.
“I think we’d won the game before it had started!” – Baboucarr Touray
As the conversation broadens, the passion underlying this football project soon becomes evident. “We play football, but it is much more than that”. The club aims to give purpose to young men from the Gambian community, providing a healthy diversion from the dangers and temptations of inner-city life. As senior players, Ousman and Baboucarr have identified an important duty for themselves as role models for younger team-mates, supporting the development of personal skills and helping them to realise their potential both on and off the field.
For the most gifted young players, that ‘potential’ could involve a career in football. It’s what many dream of and the team provides a platform for those budding talents. The team has already seen some of their prodigies snapped up by larger clubs, including Nineveh FC, a senior Gambian club who play in the Midlands Regional League. Naturally, it’s Omar Colley who provides the beacon of inspiration for these youngsters. “What better encouragement for our young players than to see Omar playing against world-class players every week?”, Ousman asks.
The impact of the project permeates beyond just the British-Gambian community. As part of their wider endeavours, they have raised funds for community projects back in The Gambia, supporting efforts and contributing their own money to help build orphanages and football academies. After a season or two of use in the parks of Birmingham, they anticipate the Sampdoria kit will also find its way to The Gambia to inspire another generation, on a different continent.
Having finished as runners up in the Birmingham Football League last season, the club sadly had to withdraw for financial reasons. They have aspirations to re-join a formal league structure in 2021/22 but, until then, friendly and exhibition matches will be the way forward.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this, and have been inspired by the Midlands Selection project, they have a GoFundMe page to support their fundraising efforts – please contribute if you can.