Kekuta Manneh’s long and winding road to Cincinnati

IT WAS A three-minute walk from Kekuta Manneh’s home in Bakau, Gambia, to his local soccer field, an uneven dirt pitch also used for daily prayer and naming ceremonies. Manneh and his friends played wherever they could; even ramshackle streets with slippers for goals would do.

Today, like so many others, a 10-year-old Manneh and his cadre were en route to pickup. When people started running past them into his compound, Manneh’s shine dimmed. Sobbing wails hung in the air. His group doubled back with trepidation, balls and shoes in hand, only to see neighbors encircling Manneh’s family. When murmurs of his mother’s name registered, Manneh understood: His mother was gone. Her kidneys had finally given out.

“The most painful moment of my life,” Manneh, a 24-year-old winger, says now.

Then and there, he resolved to live a life that would honor her. Manneh threw himself deeper into soccer, his sport becoming more obsession than hobby. Manneh subsequently lived with his grandmother, and his time at home drew scarce. Whether he was playing soccer alone against a wall, small-sided or four corners, every moment went into honing his craft, prowess with a ball the fulcrum of the life he knew — and a ticket to another.

Manneh knew, if he eventually turned pro, it was something the whole country would talk about. Europe was Shangri-La, but felt unattainable. There were whispers, though, that a certain continent to the northwest had budding soccer promise.

The United States was a place he could thrive, a place he might be able to call home.

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