Editor’s note: Amadou Sanyang was one of the most interesting players on the Battery in 2012-13, and the first person I wanted to meet for an in-depth interview in 2014. But our session got delayed to March 19, and with me working a number of part-time freelance jobs by that point, I’d kinda missed my window for getting it turned around quickly. I worked on transcribing and editing this between other gigs, and it just took longer than it should have.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Sanyang is this: He turned 23 on Friday at Rochester. At an age when many Americans are still struggling to start their career path, leave home and make their way in the world, Sanyang has already spent five years playing professional soccer, experiencing triumph and set-backs, all while living thousands of miles away from his family in The Gambia, a tiny nation on the West Coast of Africa.
One of six children of Free Manlafi and Yasoona Sanyang, Amadou grew up in a beach-resort town before bursting onto the international scene as a teenage soccer prodigy. He wound up signing with Toronto FC at 17, and was a regular starter at defensive midfield for the Reds as an 18-year-old. Only a string of injuries derailed what at first appeared to be an inevitable rise to stardom, eventually bringing him to Charleston on the eve of the 2012 season looking to restart his career.
Now nearing the end of his third season with the Battery, Sanyang has been a rock at defensive midfield for Coach Mike Anhaeuser. Off the field he is quiet, humble, hard-working and devout — traits he says he learned from his father. But what strikes you in conservation with the man is how mature he is for a professional athlete his age.
Looking back with informed hindsight over this transcript of a tape made three days before the 2014 season opener, it’s also remarkable how prescient some of his comments seem today, with the Battery once against rallying behind Coach Mike Anhaeuser in a late-season push.
“I remember (2012) when things were not going right for us, we still kept going. We still kept working. And coach kept giving us the clear view of how he wanted things to be. And then right when we clicked, right when we do the same thing, everything was back up again.”
It’s a long interview, but just like getting to talk to Amadou in person, I believe it will time well-spent. And whether his future with the club will be long or short, this is a player worth getting to know better.
I came from a town called Bakau. Not that much of a big town. But as you know, Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa: 1.5 million people. My town, it’s well known by soccer players. My brother was a soccer player and through him I fell in love with the game.
In African society, most of the time when you look up to someone in the family and he loves doing something, and at the end of the day he doesn’t make it, the parents want to push you to a different direction. So me trying to follow his footsteps was a bit hard with my dad. He wasn’t happy with it. Just because he loved me. He wanted me to concentrate on schooling (rather) than playing soccer.
I would say I was a bit stubborn. All I’d see was soccer.
My mom, she sells vegetables in the market. My dad, he was a mason. A contractor. He was from the village called Badibo, and he moved to the city just to make a living. He owned a couple of businesses.
I’ve got one elder brother, and then four sisters.
Growing up around my parents taught me a lot about life. Taught me to be a hard worker. My dad, he was very very hard-working, even though he was a little bit tough with me. But then I got to a point whereby I see where he was coming from. Where he wanted me to be tomorrow.
Most of the time when I talk about my dad, especially now that he’s passed, I feel a bit emotional, because it has a big impact in my life. I feel like my dad was someone that made me a man today. He pushes me to where I am today. And him not being here to see some of the good moments of my life, you know, it kinda puts me down a little bit sometimes. There has has never been a day in my life when I woke up in the morning not praying for my dad.
My dad passed in 2011 when I was with Toronto. And this was how it happened: I didn’t travel with the the team. They went out for an away game. By then I was in a hotel. And … all of the sudden my phone rings and it was my brother. He’s like “Dad passed away.”
I was shocked. Because nobody told me that he was sick. I didn’t even know what to say or how to think, you know? I’m like, “How is that possible?”
He went to take a nap, and he didn’t wake up. He was in his seventies. He was close to 80.
For me, going through that, and just the way my dad brought me up, makes me someone who wanted to work hard and then get things for myself. Not to depend on anything in life. Because that’s how I see my dad.
(Before he passed) I was in Toronto, and I was like, “I’ve made it far, and at least I’m getting some paychecks.” So I called my dad one day and I was like “You should just chill and relax. And whatever you’re doing, I will pay your salary. Just relax.” And his response was no. He’s not going to do it. What he was telling me was “Whatever you make, it’s for your future. It’s for you. It’s not supposed to be me.”
The team let me go home for 10 days. Because I knew I had to go back and at some point show my last respects to the man who showed me everything. He got buried, and a couple of hours later I got back to Gambia. I went to the graveyard, gave my last prayers. And that was it. But I was really down.
I still remember my dad. Like I said, I wake up every day, do my morning prayers before practice and pray for him. I will never stop.
It’s like you leave the neighborhood that you came from, and people want you to play soccer, because they saw something in you. They saw something that your parents don’t see. My dad never went to my games. He would never think about it.
It’s mostly something that has something to do with their generation. It’s different from now. Me being here and seeing kids having soccer games and their parents do their best to make it, I feel like that’s a surplus for them. If I’m playing soccer and I know my mom or my dad is out there, I would do whatever it takes to score a goal, or help my team, to put my name up there. It adds something to your game.
But I don’t blame them. It’s not something that they knew.All they knew is that you went out and you played soccer, and someone told them that “Oh yeah, your son, he’s good, he’s been playing,” and good things about you. And it makes them happy, but they’re still looking to the future. Like “What’s going to be permanent for you?”
It’s not enough. But at the same time, even though my parents were not rich, I’m not going to say I had a rough childhood time.
CHS: Were your parents middle class?
No, not quite. But at the same, they were hard-working people. No matter what, you’re going to eat. There’s going to be something. That’s something that makes me respect them. Especially my mom. She’s amazing. She’s a lady.
For me, growing up, she was in that heart of me playing soccer. I guess she just wanted me to do whatever makes me happy. Whatever I needed, my mom would do it for me.
Like, I used to go and play soccer until late, when it was a little bit chilly. There is no heater in the shower. But my mom would boil water, and when I’d come back, there is hot water in the kitchen and I would just go get it. So my mom doing that, it’s something that makes me want to stay longer to play soccer, until night, because I know that no matter how cold it is, my mom already put something on for me to go and get a hot bath.
It’s been a while since I went back. It’s expensive. But at the same time, it’s not even about the money. Usually for me, right after the season, I’m trying to make some contacts and see if I can go somewhere and keep playing. If there’s a league that’s playing after our season, I’m trying to make those contacts and see if I can go somewhere and play. So usually I don’t make a plan to go back. Just because I already have something lined up.
I do Skype with them. I usually call and talk to her and then see how she’s doing. That’s something that I have to do. She’s the only one that I have. My mom is my everything. My mom made me know how to respect a woman.
She’ll give me good advice. And even though I feel like I’m grown now, she doesn’t see that side. All she sees is “You are still my child.”
CHS: What ethnic group are you from?
The Mandinka Tribe. Basically it’s maybe 60 percent of the population in my country and it has a history. That’s where Kunta Kinte is from.
Growing up, I spoke Mandinka. That’s what my parents spoke. In Gambia you’ve got to go to school to learn English. You’ve got to go to one of the best schools to be speaking fluent English.
I went to a government school and then at some point in my life when I figured the struggle that my parents went through, that’s when I felt like I have to do something. Even though I was young, in my mind, I have to go out there and bring something home, you know? If I go out, either find a job or do something that’s going to give me an income, and then share with my parents, I feel like that’s a big blessing.
So the town that I came from, we had a couple of places that are known for tourists, where you might get a tip. And I’m just right by the beach, too. So we had a couple of the hotels close to my house, and we had a couple of interesting places that tourists can go and visit. So with that opportunity being around me, I could go out and get a job.
I actually went down for an interview, and I was given a license to be a tour guide. You have to have a license to take the tourists out. I was really young. Fifteen, 16.
Usually, when you have that (certified) badge, the tourists feel comfortable walking around the town to see how people live locally. And you can sell trips to go to certain places, even outside of Gambia. To go to Senegal and places like that. So when you make those trips, you get the tip. Sometimes it could be a foreign currency. You make an exchange. But that could feed you for like two or three days.
The president and the staff (of my home soccer club), they got to the point that they were scared I wasn’t going to be so serious about soccer. But for me, I knew what I wanted.
In Africa, being successful…. it’s a very, very, very tiny chance. You have to work hard. You gotta work twice harder. And then there has to be luck on your side. To make it.
It was a soccer game for the youth national team. The team that I played for back in Gambia – Real de Banjul. The stadium is like, five, 10 minutes away from my house. I’m always, like, at the stadium, trying to go in and practice.
All of the sudden, I went from the youth team to the senior team. So me having a job and playing, I would go to work until like 3 p.m., and then we train in the afternoon. So I would go home, change, and then go practice.
When I was with the senior team, I would go early, train with the junior team, and then wait for the senior team to come in, and then I would train with them. Just because I want to work twice harder than everyone.
CHS: That’s easy to say. But after running that long, most people will just say to themselves, “Well, I’m going to take a little break here.”
Exactly. But you have to do the job twice well as everyone, and then there has to be luck on your side to make it out. Because sometimes there are agents here and there that will come down. There are a lot of good players out there, players who are better than me. But you’ve got to work hard and then there has to be luck.
It’s a hard-work country. I think I was lucky, but at the same time, I think I worked harder.
So I basically didn’t even go to college. High school was it. And then I started traveling.
CHS: On the one hand, being noticed when you’re 17 is good luck. On the other, 17-year-olds, when you send them to another country, that’s a massive change. How did you manage that?
You know, I’m not going to say it was easy. It wasn’t easy. Just because it was a different environment.
I was excited, to be honest. This was the opportunity that I wanted. But at the same time, I didn’t know how it was going to be like.
CHS: When I first read about you, my thought was, ‘That’s awesome, but who was looking out for him?’
My agent that brought me here. He set up everything. I came here and went to try out with the LA Galaxy and was with them for some time. And that was the first time. I was with one of my friends, But because of our age, we couldn’t be part of the team. And at some point, before we went back to Gambia, the coach, Bruce Arena, he came to us. He gave us some confidence that we did well and that he was going to try to talk to our team, if they can figure out something to take us to school, and be with their academy. I don’t know what went wrong between that team and my team back in Gambia.
At some point we had to go back to Gambia. So we went back and had another tryout right away in Fort Lauderdale (with Toronto).
I remember they gave us a week to try out. We played a scrimmage game. We both played less than 20 minutes, and in the last game, I started that game against New York Red Bulls. So after that game, everything went well for me. But the guy I came with, because of his age, he was going to go back and play with the U-17s.
So he went back, and Toronto signed me. Back then it was the assistant coach of Newcastle, John Carver.
When I moved to Toronto I was playing with the academy until I turned 18 and became eligible to play with the first team. I trained with the first team and played with the academy and the reserve games. That’s how everything started.
I wasn’t having very much playing time the first year. The second year, you know, I became, like, a starter. Playing every game.
CHS: I think most people don’t know how experienced you are. You were a teenage starter in MLS. Were you confident in your ability in those days?
For me, I was confident. But the confidence came from the veteran players. There were a couple of veteran players, older guys, that I always tried to talk to.
It started from the coaches, and being around the other guys. They would always try to talk to you. Carl Robinson, the coach at Vancouver now, he was my teammate. And he was one of the guys that we played the same position, and I always tried to talk to him. Julian DeGuzman. Him coming over to Toronto really amazed me. And I could use these guys to build up my game.
That’s what they said. When I was there, people used to always say, you know, that I was really strong.
I feel like (MLS soccer) is more like the tempo you play back in Africa, physically and all that. Playing that way in Africa and then coming down here, being in kind of a physical league, it helps you a little bit. But then the movement of the ball is quicker in MLS. It’s a professional league, so it’s going to be a huge difference. But physicality? Yeah.
And then injuries started coming my way.
To be honest, when I was in Africa, I didn’t even know what a concussion was, what side-effects it has on you.
CHS: Is that something you brought with you to MLS?
I don’t think so. If I had it before, it would have made a big difference. I would have felt it.
When I came down and I had the concussion, I wanted to play. I always told them that I was OK because I wanted to get back. But at some point when I saw the doctors, I felt like it wasn’t OK. I have to be out for some time to get healed. And I’m like, ‘OK, I have to do it. Because this is the same thing that everyone is telling me. That’s what the coaches are telling me.’
Your health is more important than the game. So you have to think about that. But it’s hard to hear. I want to play. That’s what brings me here. That’s what I’m about. And all of the sudden… It happens so fast, and you have to be out for a certain amount of months.
It started in the preseason when I broke my nose. It was the second year. But the first year that I had a concussion it started from a game, and I got cut on the side of my eye. I think it was Philadelphia, because I think I have a picture of the head-to-head, and then I got cut a couple of times. The same spot.
After getting that, the second year, I got the nose broken during preseason, and I was out for some time. Whenever I would go see a doctor and then right away they know it’s a concussion, and then I have to be out for some time and get back again.
I feel like the amount of time that I was out wasn’t enough to get healed. Just because I wanted to get back there and play. That’s all I wanted to do.
I’d see the doctors and they would tell me the whole side-effect of concussion. That’s when I knew this was something I’d have to look up. I knew what a concussion was. What was behind it, I didn’t.
All of the sudden you know a lot about it. When you watch the NFL and all these guys going through these concussions, you definitely know. It makes you aware. It makes you want to take care of it, because it’s your health. But but back then, I was younger.
Back in Toronto… I was strong-headed. I just wanted to go and play. And they stopped me. I wasn’t allowed to train with the team. I wasn’t allowed to touch the ball. At all. But sometimes I would come in and sneak in and play. They would be mad at me, just because they know what it takes.
I used to do that. Whenever I would see the coaches I would hide.
The third year was the end of my contract and I was on my option year. So I was in Toronto and right after every season every player has to go up and talk to management and talk to them about your contract stuff. I guess they didn’t know what to do yet, because they had to decide based on my injury if I was going to come back and play.
I talked to the GM and he actually told me that he wasn’t going to decide anything until after they talked to the doctors and MLS. So I spent about a month or so, and right after that I was told I couldn’t go back to MLS right away, and because of that, they were not comfortable bringing me back. So I was out for about five or six months.
My agent figured something out for me in Chicago, because I wanted to play. If they would give me a contract that would say that if anything happens, then it would be my own risk. I wanted to do that.
So I went to Chicago for them to see me a little bit. But for them too, they couldn’t let me touch the ball until they got clearance from MLS. This was about 2012. They thought about signing me, but I gotta be out for a couple of months so I could be healed completely, so that I could train with any professional team. Because the story is already out there. Everyone knows that you’ve been hurt, and nobody wants to take that risk.
I actually found it tough during that time.
When I was in Toronto there was this guy that came from Spain. He’d watch our practice from time to time. I think he worked something out with my agent to try to send me out to Spain, because here, they’re not going to let me train.
So I went Villa Real to train a little bit, and right after Villa Real, when I came back, Seattle I guess contacted my agent.
CHS: You spent a year in Seattle, but didn’t really play.
I actually made a couple of the 18s. I played the CONCACAF game in Mexico. I came on as a sub the game against DC in Seattle. And you know, Seattle was like a team that you definitely have to be at your best to make that 11. That’s a big team. Good coach. Good staff. Good players. For a young guy to come in and make his way right in there, it’s definitely difficult. And I was lucky to make appearances.
Before the end of that season, I picked up another injury.
This is what happened: I hurt my shin during practice, so I was out and they told me to ice it. I usually ice it and then right after that when I go home, I would ice it again. I went home in the afternoon and iced it and then watched TV in my room.
I fell asleep on it. And I think after about an hour, hour-and-a-half, I woke up. My left foot was basically numb. From the ice. I was completely numb, and I kinda freaked out a little bit.
I’m like, “OK, let me give this a little bit of time until everything gets warm.” So I got a hot bath, put my feet in the shower tank in hot water. Nothing.
I remember I went out. I thought “I’m just going to take a walk. Go to the store and come back.” And I was walking funny. Like I was paralyzed or something.
I was supposed to get in early in the morning and I couldn’t feel anything on my foot. It was completely numb and I had no control on it. I started seeing the doctors. And I guess it was too late for me to be fully fit before the beginning of the season.
I was so scared. I thought, “This is it. This is the end of it. This is not going to work.” I would go home and I couldn’t sleep. I would stay up, you know, just thinking of different things. What’s going to be the worst of this?
But then I remember there was a day that Mario Rosales – he’s a good guy, a very experienced guy – he pulled me aside and told me that he saw something like this during his time in Europe. He was like “It’s going to come back. Don’t put it in your mind.”
He gave me very good advice, and he gave me confidence. That’s when I started feeling strong in my mind. But my left just went completely weak. It took a couple of months before I started feeling it.
My contract was guaranteed. But I’m an international, you know? So at the end of the preseason, when Sigi (Schmid) called me, he told me that they might not be able to use an international spot on. But he told me that my contract is guaranteed and I’m still on the roster, so can we work something out and get you somewhere that you can have playing time?
I feel like that him, being that honest, telling me what his plan was for me, really helped. I was injured. but he wanted me to be somewhere and work on it and come up right away.
So I tried out with (Chicago) again (at the 2012 Carolina Challenge Cup), and that didn’t work, and I had to go back. And that’s when they told me that I was going to come here to Charleston. Knowing Charleston from back when I was in Toronto – I’d been here once with Toronto and once with the Fire – and seeing the way the team played, even though I didn’t know much about it, it kinda clicked my mind when Seattle told me I was going to come here. I didn’t have no issues about it.
It was good for me to be somewhere and have more playing time, just because with the injuries that I’d had, that was going to be a big opportunity for me to start it up again. So that’s what I had in mind – just sort of erase all the injury issues in my career and keep playing.
I’d been here before and I’d seen that the team here wasn’t bad. They were a good team. They told me about Mike Anhaeuser and they had no doubt that I was going to develop. Because he’s well-known everywhere in U.S. soccer. So that’s another thing that no soccer player will let go. You definitely want to take that advantage and work with someone in that upper caliber of coaching.
I came (right before the season-opener) and I was a starter, but at the same time, it was tough. Right after the beginning of the season, it was a big battle. You’ve got to perform week-in and week-out to make the team. That’s how it was the whole time. You have to come in and perform.
That’s something that I like with coach. Whenever players come in, he gives you a clear picture of what he wants.
Yeah. Things were not going our way. And I think just because the kind of coach that we have, like I said, he’s been in the game for some time. He knows the league very well. And he knows that there is going to be a time when the team is playing bad, or the team is going down a little bit. But he never stopped working us hard.
He sees everything. He sees where the fault is and where he can make improvements.
I think he worked really hard with us and explained to us that we definitely have to do it right to be able to be on the top of the league. And I think we definitely were based on him, how he structured the team and the type of game for the teams we were going to play, the way he wanted us to approach the game. When he put that into us, we just kinda clicked up again, and everything went well. Right away.
That year, when we got back on top again, it was definitely the coaching staff and coach himself. Because he will talk to you as an individual. As a player. What you need to do, what he expects you to do. When a coach puts that in your mind, you definitely see the clear picture of how he wanted you to play and how you were going to help the team.
He was a soccer player. There is nothing we’re going to do out there that he doesn’t go through. That kind of coach,when you have him on your team, as a player, you have to count on him. And I think most of the time what I do is when things are not going my way, and I can’t figure it out right away, I will wait until it’s the end of the first half, and then ask him. Because he knows what was wrong right away, and he will give you the right view.
That’s why I always give him that concentration. Because he always tries to give you that clear view of how he wanted you to work.
No. It was just getting better.
My left foot, that nerve damage, it gets stronger. It’s the weak part of my game of my game, but I’ve seen a lot of improvement.
The concussion, I think right after the season I got healed, Because we spent a little bit of time relaxing.
CHS: In 2013 you got a head injury and when I asked coach about it he was very protective of you. But you missed some time with a head knock. Was that scary?
Playing in midfield you have to go up for headers, you’ve got to get into tackles. Sometimes you get scared to get up and head the ball, or to put your head on a spot where someone is about to hit the ball.
But at the same time, when I step in the game, it seems like I forget all that. All I wanted to do is — no matter what — do my level-best to help my team. I don’t go in the game thinking “I’ve got a concussion, I’ve got to be careful.”
I never had any doubt that it was going to work out. I’m a believer, you know. Usually for me, I don’t try to put negative thoughts in my mind of how things are going to go.
CHS: You weren’t in the lineup during the portion of the 2013 season when the team kept getting draws. People were frustrated. And the moment when the Battery finally got hot was when you finally came back and started playing.
That had nothing to do with me. I was part of it too when we were losing. But it’s sport, and it’s soccer. Sometimes you can see teams not performing or doing well. Most of the time when that happens, the most difficult thing is to get back to where you want it to be. And if you have a coach that knows what he’s doing, a coach that’s experienced, that has been in that situation before in his career? I think he is going to be the one to get all that credit.
I remember that year when things were not going right for us, we still kept going. We still kept working. And coach kept giving us the clear view of how he wanted things to be. And then right when we clicked, right when we do the same thing, everything was back up again.
It’s just the coach that you have. We were just lucky to have someone that was that good, who had been in that situation before to put us back on top.
I could remember that even winning that league was all him. We got to a point where us players could be frustrated when we were not winning. Sometime the mood can really go down.
CHS: If the team’s worst moment of 2013 was you getting hurt at Charlotte, its best moment might have been in the playoffs at Orlando. You were down 3-1 and then Jose Cuevas put a move on that guy and you headed it in his assist to make it 2-3 and suddenly all the momentum shifted and the Lions were just desperately fending off this aggressive Battery attack. Did you get the feeling that an equalizer was inevitable?
Yeah. Going through that game, we never had a second thought that we were going to go down there and lose. I guess our mistakes in the first 15 minutes cost us.
CHS: People who weren’t there probably don’t remember how much better the Battery looked in the final 40 minutes. Just a remarkable turnaround.
Right. And right after those early Orlando goals happened and we got on our feet again, we all believed that it was going to come. Even when we were down two, we knew it was going to come. And even the reaction from the coach. He knows what kind of players he has.
And in that game, and in that last 40 minutes, I thought we were going really hard to tie. But unfortunately luck wasn’t on our side.
Yeah, I went back to Seattle, because I live in Seattle. Got my own place there. After every season, I look up to try to get something. Either in MLS or out of MLS. I talked to my agent, and he told me that Chicago wanted to bring me in. And it didn’t work.
CHS: You live in Seattle in the off-season, but you’re in Charleston about half the year. Have you joined a mosque here?
I wouldn’t say that I’m a member of a mosque, but I’m a Muslim, you know what I mean? I go to the mosque on Fridays for Friday prayers, when there is time, when we get finished early. Afternoon prayers. But most of the time, just because I can’t drive from North Charleston to Charleston to do the five daily prayers at the mosque, I do it at home. If it’s close to you, it’s better to go to the mosque than to do individual praying.
I wake up every early morning at 5 a.m., do my morning prayers, go back to sleep, and then get up, have my breakfast and get ready for practice. Then, after practice, I do my second, third, fourth and fifth daily prayers. Mostly I try to make the Friday prayers at the mosque, no matter what.
Last year I was the only Muslim on the team. This year we have (Mamadou) Diouf, from Senegal, and Aminu Abdallah.
This is how I see it: I feel like I’m lucky to surround myself with people that respect whoever you are. That makes it easier for me, being around those people. And then you’ve got to give back the same respect to whatever they believe in. During my time here, the people I’m with, my teammates, they respect my beliefs, and I respect theirs. We pray before every game. We all pray together.
It doesn’t matter what religion you came from. Prayer is prayer.
CHS: Are you happy to be back?
Yes, I am.
CHS: Why? You’ve played at a higher level. You’ve got the skills to compete at a higher level.
First of all I will say coach. He’s someone that when you work with him, in your career, you always have a chance to come back. You definitely want to come play for him. He is always putting something in your game. He cares for his players on and off the field. The management, Andrew Bell and all the staff down there. You meet the owner of the team after every game. He’s always smiling. He cares about how you feel.
When you get yourself into that kind of group, you never want to leave. It feels like home. And no one wants to leave home.
CHS: It’s so easy to forget that you’re 22. Are you still optimistic that there’s an opportunity for you to advance back to where you were when you first came to North America?
CHS: What do you have to do to make that happen?
To continue working hard. That’s the only thing that’s going to put you up there. After that, same thing. There has got to be luck on your side. But you have to work hard to be able to get lucky.
And that’s how I see it.
TOP IMAGE: Amadou Sanyang at training on May 20th, 2014. Janet Edens Conover photo.