MLSsoccer.com's "Under African Skies" series is a look at what the first World Cup held on the African continent means to Major League Soccer's African players. We continue with the San Jose Earthquakes' Omar Jasseh, a native of Gambia.
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Omar Jasseh, the San Jose Earthquakes’ 17-year-old midfielder from Gambia, sees joining MLS this season at the first step on a journey that will hopefully one day take him to the sport’s highest levels.
“There are very good players in Africa, and I want to be a part of that,” Jasseh said. “I am looking forward to one day representing my country at the World Cup.”
In the meantime, Jasseh has to content himself with watching the action from more than 10,000 miles away, sharing the excitement of Africa’s first World Cup by phone with friends and family back home.
“That’s the topic in Africa right now – the Cup, the preparation, everybody is talking about it,” Jasseh said. “Everyone is ready for it to begin. There is definitely more interest in Gambia for the World Cup because of how well our team played [in qualifying for] the African Nations Cup.”
Qualifying for that tournament doubled as the African qualification process for this year’s World Cup, and Gambia was on the cusp of making into the final 20 teams – out of 52 competing – before being ousted as team No. 21 thanks to losing a goal-differential tiebreaker.
In qualifying for the same tournament’s 2006 edition, Gambia was one of the first teams eliminated, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Liberia. Gambia faced Liberia again in 2010 qualifying when both teams were slotted in the same pool, and this time the outcomes were significantly different: Gambia drew 1-1 in Liberia, then posted a 3-0 win at home.
Jasseh knows the world is expecting the same kind of leap forward from the half-dozen African sides that will be part of the 32-team field.
“Everybody is remembering that no one from Africa has made [past] the quarterfinals and thinking that we have to do something on this stage, while the tournament is here,” Jasseh said. “Everyone is feeling the pressure. African countries are preparing very well and working hard to show they belong with the European teams.”
With the Gambian national team not taking part, Jasseh is rooting for Cameroon. But he knows that African fans of all different passports will probably bind together if one of them does make the elimination stages.
“When Senegal was in the World Cup [in 2002], Gambia and Senegal were jubilant when Senegal beat France. They were the champions, and Senegal won the match 1-0 and it made everyone very happy,” Jasseh said. “I think a lot of people in Africa will be behind South Africa [this year] because they are hosting.”
Whatever happens on the pitch, Jasseh hopes coverage of the tournament will help shed light on the continent as a whole – and bring some positive feedback because of it.
“It means a lot for Africa,” Jasseh said. “Some of the best soccer players in the world are being brought to Africa and I think most people don’t know a lot about Africa. I think that will help people see what a great place Africa is.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes