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THE PATH TO LIMELIGHT: FROM A STRUGGLING SECOND-TIER SIDE TO A KEY FIGURE FOR THE GAMBIA U-20

That is the story of Haruna Rashid Njie of Gunjur United who proved himself as one of the key figures, if not the key figure for the Gambia U-20 in the just concluded CAF U-20 Championship in Egypt. 

Rashid is from Gunjur United a team in the Gambia Football Federation Second Division League, that has been struggling for promotion for the six-season running. Haruna himself has been part of that struggle for three seasons now.

His path to the limelight, coupled with how he went on to not only establish himself as a regular starter, but the architect of coach Abdoulie Bojang's tactic, in a setting where coaches usually trust top-tier, semi-professional and professional players for virtually any team selection, is not just interesting and surprising, but equally, inspiring.

Rashid is the first young player from his village - Gunjur, to have been consistent in the national colors at the youth level. There has not been any player from Gunjur who made more appearances for any national youth team like Rashid. That in itself is a milestone achievement already.
 
The versatile lad was the only second-tier player in the team (U-20) that represented the Gambia in the CAF U-20 Championship. Of all the games he started, he helped his side maintain a 100% winning streak without conceding a goal. That run ended in the final which he missed due to suspension after he picked a red card in the semi-final against Nigeria. 

The Gambia went on to lose the final against neighboring Senegal. His replacement Bailo Bah was altogether below par, and, Rashid's alter-ego in midfield - Mahmud Bajo missed his rhythm. The defense line equally missed the usual protection in tougher situations as Senegal put two unanswered goals to clinch the title at the expense of the Young Scorpions. 

 Perhaps a moment of justification for the people who perceived Rashid as the key player for the U-20. If anyone banks on this as a defense mechanism for their claim, considering how Senegal tilted The Gambia's midfield that day, they can have good ammunition to fire at opponents in any debate. But, that is a case of its own and, for another time.

What is clear is that Rashid's path to the limelight is altogether an interesting realistic story, not a fairytale! Surviving the psychological trauma of being brought up by a single parent to playing for academies in both Gambia and Senegal and taking the risk of playing Divisional football at just 15 years for a struggling side, and, fitting well in a setting where he is one of the youngest, is truly an amazing journey. 

BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY

The journey has been a remarkable one, remarkable as the Scorpions performed in their maiden AFCON appearance in Cameroon - only if you know that story. If there is any percentage of luck in Rashid's journey, that will not be more than 10%, most of it could be credited to commitment, bravery, and respect for the game. 'All I do is to train and relax because my focus is to become a professional footballer' he said.

'Growing up as an orphan as I lost my dad who was the provider for the family at a tender age, I knew the onus of the family would rest on me, so I need to work hard.' 

'And any community that you go to in the Gambia, you will find a very good talent. What matters, in the end, is hard work, patience, and respect for your leaders. There's no magic in football, it's all down to commitment and hard work and that has been my focus' he told GFF Media.

Born in Gunjur, a footballing community in the West Coast Region on the 23rd of September 2005. Rashid, like any young boy in the village, will go on to play football in childhood for fun. Little did he know at the time that will someday change his life. And that did not take any longer. 

Rashid's talents were noticed at a young age by local summer football teams in Gunjur. Many came knocking, but Red Star F.C. the most successful club in Gunjur convinced him to join their camp. He was taken to the Gunjur United academy which is managed by the then coach of Red Star - Babucarr Kakai Bojang. And Rashid soon became a key figure for the U-15s.

THE TURNING POINT

While playing for the Gunjur United Academy,  Haruna was scouted by a Senegalese agent who took him to the Africa Foot Academy in Senegal after agreements with Gunjur United. 

Aged 13, Rashid went on to become the captain of the U-15 of the Dakar-based academy. But, he only spent two seasons there as he returned home after the Covid outbreak. 

And, then returned to Gunjur United, and joined the first team in the Gambia Football Federation second division league as their youngest player in the 2020/21 season. largely coming as a substitute, Rashid still managed to score 8 goals and made four assists, making him the youngest player to have achieved such a feat.
 
His side - Gunjur United narrowly missed out in the qualification for the top tier league, losing 2 -1 to Team Rhino in the play-off in what was their closest attempt as they finished 4th in the league. 

In his second season in 2021/22, Rashid had a glittering campaign. For the season, he scored 16 goals from his position as a supporting striker. Since then, the young star started grabbing national attention and ultimately the big moment came at age 17. 

DREAM COME TRUE

'I used to watch the Gambia U20 with my friends on TV. I will only watch the first half and tell them I am going for training, I want to also play at that stage someday.'

He was clear about his dream and he worked towards it. And, it soon turned from a dream to a real-life situation. In just his second season as a second-division player, he got his first call-up to join the U-20 for trials. 

The moment he has long dreamed of, and, who will expect a player as hungry as Rashid to miss the opportunity. He impressed beyond expectations and got selected in the squad that represented the Gambia in the WAFU Zone A championship in Mauritania in 2022 and came out as runners-up - losing 1 - 0 to Senegal in the final. Rashid was largely a substitute in that tournament. But, he will work hard to change that.
 
Another call came, this time from the CHAN team (U-23). Rashid traveled with the team to Morocco for a doubleheader against Guinea Bissau in the qualifiers in July 2022. Unfortunately, they missed out on penalties after a one-all aggregate. Rashid was the only player to have erred in the shootout as Bissau went on to win 5 - 4. But that did not overshadow what has been described as a 'great achievement' for the youngest in the midst - a raw talent from division two. 

Tall, well built, pacy, skillful, and clinical with a strong dual foot and great vision and ability to protect and retrieve the ball, Rashid will continue with the U-20 squad. His ability to operate effectively in different positions, coupled with his discipline and great work ethic will soon make him a distinct figure in coach 'Lie' Bojang's set-up.

Playing in a more unaccustomed position - offensive midfield, Rashid proved a mastermind in a position that would have been new for any player in his situation.

Yet, he was one of the revelations of the tournament, stepping in to support his side with excellent technique and vision. He provided security and stability all the way to the semifinal against Nigeria. Rashid and his partner were vital components in a midfield that proved too clever and quick for most opponents.
 
Rashid and his U-20 teammates will travel to Argentina in May 2023 for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Another moment for him to prove his worth, this time on the global stage.

If he should come back with a contract from any European team after the World Cup, that will not be any surprising. Perhaps the least a quality player like him deserved. 

Rashid's rapid growth does not come with any favor from anyone. If there is any secret, that will be hard work, commitment, focus, and discipline he has shown all through his journey. 

A great player is in the making!

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