Chasing a soccer dream

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:12 AM ET

Dressed in its plastic winter bubble, Toronto's BMO Field practice facility echoes with players' voices; At midfield, coach John Carver stands with his arms crossed, legs splayed and, when a player falls clutching a shin and writhing in pain, yells: "Play On! Get up. You've got to be (bleep, bleep) tough!"

At the other end of the pitch, Emmanuel Gomez watches. And learns. Welcome to the pros, kid. No prisoners taken here.

He smiles. The 18-year-old from Gambia is chasing a dream -- and half the battle has been just getting here.

"I'm the happiest man on earth. It has always been my dream to play well enough to join a big club. For me, Toronto FC is a big step up," Gomez said after just his second day of practice with the Major League Soccer team.

The English is a little broken. So too is his game. But it's nothing time, patience and hard work won't fix. He's got a stubborn streak in him. There had to be to get this far, to cross an ocean, to get on Gambia's under-20 team, to get noticed as a pro prospect.

Just getting from his home in Gambia -- let alone getting "kitted up" in the uniform of his first foreign pro team, was an exercise in perserverance. The first leg of the journey involved "travelling by land for eight hours to Dakar in Senegal. Then there was an airplane to Accra in Ghana. I had to wait there for five days before flying for 15 hours to Germany and then to Toronto."

The trip and first couple days of practice have left his head spinning. "You can't compare them," he says of the soccer in his homeland and the MLS. "Here I've come for a bigger challenge. I will have to improve a lot to make the first team. I'm not used to the pace."

Gomez was born in a what he calls "a village" about 30 minutes from Serrekunda. He lived with two younger brothers and his mother. No father. "He died when I was very young. Mom had to cope with me and my brothers. It was," he says, a touch wistfully, "a bit difficult."

He found solace in football. Morning. Noon. Night. His father had left the family some land and his mother wanted him to go to school, become educated, maybe become caretaker of that land. But young Emmanuel had other ideas. "I always dreamed of playing in the Champions League," he says.

He idolized Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United. "I love tackling ... defence. I've played there since I was young. I love the game so much."

Mom? All she saw was a recalcitrant youth. "At the beginning my mom wanted me to concentrate on school. But I was very dedicated to football. This made her very angry at me. Insulting me and doing all sorts of bad things. I just kept my concentration on the game."

When he was 13 he joined Samger, a First Division giant in Gambia, and earned 20 caps with the national youth team. Toronto scouts noticed him at a qualifying tournament for the under-20 World Cup.

He never had heard of Toronto. "I didn't even know what country to look for," Gomez said. "One of the players (on Gambia's under-20 team) helped me find it on a map."

Toronto FC signed him and fellow Gambian Amadou Sanyang. "Both are great young talents and have a huge future," Toronto GM Mo Johnston said. "Gomez has speed (and) is very good in the air ... and will be a great asset for many years."

And, what about his family? One of his brothers has gone off to boarding school; another is studying to become a mechanic "and they're taking care of my father's land. The last time I called my mother, she asked me if I was happy. Now she's okay with it," Gomez said.

He and Sanyang live with assistant coach Chris Cummins. In Gambia, he played in front of crowds numbering a couple thousand. "My dream now is to play in Toronto. It would be the best football I ever played. That, and to play on my national team."

Enough, perhaps, to make even a mother proud.


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