Sanneh: "We were going to redefine the perception of the American game."

Updated: May 15

Words & Illustration: Archie Willis

ST PAUL, MN – It’s 16:45 on a surprisingly clear Saturday in Scotland. It had snowed a few weeks before, so a week of sunshine at the end of February in the west of Scotland is nothing to complain about. My team, the mighty Kilmarnock, are chucking players forward in a bid to end a club record 8-match losing run with a bang by turning a decent 1-1 draw against mid-table Dundee United into a long desired three points to stave off further talk of relegation from the Scottish Premiership.

As the referee – who had been getting audible pelters from both dugouts all day – prepares to blow his whistle, I’m more positive about the possibility of a point because we’d actually scored a goal today. Goals and Kilmarnock have been anything but synonymous this season, meaning that it was quite a relief to leap out of my seat once more at the sight of someone in blue and white tapping in the equaliser. We’re saved from throwing away a valuable point at the death by the full-time whistle, when my phone pings. On a normal matchday I’d wait to open up the email until the journey home, but things haven’t been normal for anyone recently.

Rather than the cold plastic seats of Rugby Park, fans have been treated to a comfy armchair and the now-familiar hot takes of Killie TV – although many of us would do almost anything to be back at the ‘Theatre of Pies’ with zero leg room and a grumpy elderly man in the row above hurling abuse (and mouthfuls of pie) at a poor linesman. Between logging out of the club’s streaming platform and making the short trip to my laptop, it certainly isn’t a normal Saturday. But the fact that Kilmarnock have scored a goal, and the email in question is from a former USA international, has definitely lightened the mood.

Having watched numerous interviews and clips on YouTube, hearing the voice of Tony Sanneh on the other end of the Zoom call is somewhat familiar, despite this being our first (virtual) meeting. He informs me that there could be some background noise, as he’s on the move while chatting to me, but it’s of little importance – the guy I’ve been tracking down via email for an interview is here.

The 49 year-old is best remembered for his time with the USMNT, winning 43 caps from 1997 to 2005, and has been pretty busy since hanging up the boots in 2009. But it feels only right to start with his first international goal, which came against Germany in 1999 in of the most memorable victories in the history of the US men’s national team. It was a friendly match, but it was significant.

“Well, I think it was important for me individually and [it was] kinda the changing of the guard for our country,” Tony begins. You can immediately sense the impact of the emphatic 3-0 win. “We had been embarrassed in the ‘98 World Cup and we didn’t have a very good showing. Now, as America grew, we had just started the professional league, but it was still, let’s just say, it was still the old guard. It was still football as it was, not as it was going to be, so it was harder for the next generation to fight for their place I guess.”

A prolific college soccer striker in his earlier days, Sanneh had missed out on a place in coach Steve Sampson’s final squad for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in spite of promising displays as a right midfielder for MLS’ D.C. United. His own rise to fame coincided with that of club boss Bruce Arena, as the pair won two consecutive MLS Cups together in 1996 and 1997. Both were destined to go onto bigger things, with Arena selected to lead the national team in 1998 and Sanneh eventually leaving Washington in January 1999 for a move to the Bundesliga with Hertha Berlin. They connected on the international stage almost immediately in the shock win over the Germans.

“It was a new coach,” Tony tells me. “My club coach ended up being the national team coach and he brought a whole new team in there, so it looked a lot different. For me personally, I had just transferred to Germany, and being over there as a foreign player, I think that there was scepticism of whether or not I would be able to play. It’s always difficult when you go somewhere and you play as a foreigner, getting used to everything. I was confident I could play but I think that the Germans maybe weren’t as confident that I was going to be able to play.

“I was struggling to fit into the system [for Hertha Berlin] because I was still learning the language and everything, so to come away in that game with a new coach, our first big international game, me being in Germany, to be able to have an emphatic win I think that set the tone for our 2002 World Cup because it came out saying that, you know, we were going to play against anybody and you’re going to have to beat us. So we weren’t going to go in scared, we weren’t going to park the bus, we were going to come out and if you’re better than us then you can beat us. But we had eleven good athletes, we had good soccer players that had started to move across Europe. We were going to redefine the definition or the perception of the American player and the American game.”

With new-found optimism of his chances on the international stage following the arrival of Bruce Arena as USA manager, Minnesota-born Sanneh had a wonderful opportunity to show his quality in Europe with Hertha Berlin. However, injuries limited his playing time in the German capital, and he quickly moved on to Nürnberg in 2001 in a bid to retain his place in Bruce Arena’s side with more time on the pitch at club level. While injuries did hold him back at Hertha, Sanneh was one of very few Americans playing in Europe at the time. But it’s easy to tell that things like that don’t hold back Tony Sanneh.

“When you first go over there as a foreign player,” he explains, “you look around and you realize you can make it and then as you start to play day in day out, you realize you’re just as fast, you’re just as strong, you’re just as capable as anybody else and you deserve to be there.

“So, for me, being able to play in the Champions League and to fight relegation, and to do it all at the highest level, I think really prepared me for success and so it is one of the reasons why I was successful in the World Cup because you’re no longer scared of anybody and you realize, even if you’re not the best team on paper, it’s who’s going to show up that day.”

This attitude not only served him well throughout a 15-year professional career, but also his country. I can imagine that Tony is someone who led his teammates on and off the pitch. He’s positive, he’s driven and remains proud of his achievements with the USMNT. With a starting place nailed down in time for the World Cup, it should have come as little surprise to the European audience to see Sanneh and USA reach the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea and Japan – the Americans’ best World Cup finish to date. The victory over Germany, coupled with the new generation successfully blending into the team under the guidance of Bruce Arena, was surely enough evidence that America was, indeed, a footballing force.

“Obviously I’m proud that I was part of that team,” Tony quickly assures me. “It wasn’t just that we did better than previous teams in the modern era, I think it was also the way we played. We played attractive football, people liked watching us, they weren’t like ‘oh those Americans, they’re going to outmuscle you or do something like that’. People really started to enjoy the way we were playing. We were offensive, we were going head to head.

“I was proud to be on a team where I think we changed the perception of how people viewed American football. And individually, any time you get to play in the World Cup, that’s the pinnacle of your career. And any time you get to represent your country, it’s the pinnacle of your career as well, so for me, it was a double win.”

There was no luck involved as the USA progressed past both Portugal and Poland in a tricky group, before defeating neighbours Mexico in Jeonju 2-0 to amaze the American audience and create real excitement over a technically brilliant side. Sanneh played every minute of the USA’s trailblazing run to the quarter-finals, where they disappointingly lost 1-0 to a Germany side they had breezed past on home turf just a few years before. From what I gather, the team had adopted a similar mindset to the one which Tony puts in practice every day of his life.

“We had the mentality that if we showed up every day, we had a chance to win and it wasn’t going to be a game where you knew you were going to beat the Americans. You know, if you were going to beat the Americans, you had to beat the Americans. And that meant you had to play good football for 90 minutes, out-work us, out-smart us, out-finesse us, and that’s challenging in football.

“The game has changed so much that I think every team has eleven really good athletes, so I think that’s where football on the international stage is much more competitive. Because it used to be that the Germans would just be able to wear you down physically. But now, it changed a lot so that’s another thing that we’re proud of.”

The Americans had proved that they were a proper team on the international stage, and that was big. For Tony Sanneh, a couple more years in the Bundesliga followed his eye-catching World Cup performances before returning to the United States in 2004 with Columbus Crew. He had demonstrated his capabilities in defence and in attack while playing on the wing for the USMNT, which resulted in him eventually moving back to the right side of defence over several MLS stints.

While injuries limited him to fewer international call-ups after the 2002 World Cup, he starred for Chicago Fire between 2005 and 2006, earning an international recall in time for the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Sanneh bowed out of international football with a winners’ medal, notably featuring in two group stage matches as the USA beat Panama to lift the Gold Cup.

A stellar playing career came to an end in 2009 after a short spell with LA Galaxy. Tony Sanneh had given it his all, refusing to dwell on several injury-hit periods in order to become a valued member of the most successful US men’s national team in history. But as I talk to him, it’s easy to see that there’s even more to this man than what he can do with a ball at his feet.

Tony founded The Sanneh Foundation in his hometown of St. Paul following his retirement from professional football, and the impact his charitable foundation has had is remarkable. “For me it’s been a good experience to have been able to give back through football,” he explains. “It’s more than about football, it’s about helping to build developmental relationships with people. I think that’s one of the things football can do, bringing the world together.

“Our goal is to empower kids and create a more equitable environment that we live in, and football is a big part of that, and it can connect people all over the world, and it can prioritise education, opportunity, access. You see what’s going on in the world right now, so we’re excited to be a part of that, and football is a funny game, right? It’s exciting when you see its power. It’s been very kind to me, and so I’m very glad I’ve been able to use it to give back.”

Focusing on the development of youth in Tony’s local community, the non-profit organization runs 85 free community camps, and hasn’t stopped working to unite its community during the pandemic.

He tells me: “The foundation has been able to press forward, we’ve done a lot of different things. I think we’ve changed because of Covid. We’ve distributed over two million pounds of food in the community. Our schools have been closed but people have to go to work. There’s no day-care so we’ve changed our gymnasium and our place to a virtual learning centre for kids. That was a great opportunity for us, to help youth do that and we’re excited that we were able to do that and 80 kids were able to go to school every day. We were able to coach them through their online learning, but they were safe, and they had a place to go.

“You don’t want to put parents in the position where they have to decide to go to work or give up their job during the pandemic so they can watch their kids. And we’ve done so by hiring a lot of people from communities of colour doing work for us, and when you’re doing a job that is supporting the community - if you don’t come to work somebody doesn’t eat or if you don’t come to work somebody doesn’t learn, so it really puts the value on your work.

“So, we have a lot of young people that have realized how much the world needs them, so not only was it economically good because they had jobs during the pandemic, but they also felt that they were making a big difference and in a year that was so hard, you know, when you’re feeding three or four families a day they’re proud of what they do. And 10 or 20 years from now, when people talk about the pandemic, they’re going to say that they made a difference. We all want to be relevant and I think that’s going to be special for this young group of people.”

The Sanneh Foundation uses football as a tool for social change but is so much more than football. It’s something we’ve also seen here, with Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford personally holding the government to account and leading the campaign for the distribution of free meals to children in England. Before I bring up Rashford’s story, Tony has beaten me to it – perhaps telling of the huge impact that Marcus Rashford has had not only in England, but also across the world, and it’s something which Tony’s foundation has been doing for many years behind the scenes in championing footballers giving back to their community.

“You see the younger generation step up,” he says, “young guys like Rashford doing positive things and when that becomes the norm, football players aren’t going to be looked at as spoiled brats or drunken or people that are elitist, they’re going to be seen as part of the community and that’s really what we want for our future.”

I know that Tony is a busy man and plays a huge part in the everyday running of his charity, which has distributed 33,000 nutritious meals to the youth of St. Paul, so I quickly get in another question as we look towards a brighter future, on and off the pitch. The current generation of American footballers are extremely talented, playing at home and across Europe for some of the world’s greatest sides, but Tony is quick to remind me of the importance of staying grounded. They could go on to eclipse Tony’s achievements at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but they could just as easily continue to underperform, with the USMNT infamously missing out on the 2018 World Cup.

“I think there’s players like that [Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie]. I think the challenge for them,” he says, “although we have world class players with potential, is making sure that they’re in their prime, and making sure that they’re not role players anymore because they have to be able to be in a position to lead teams and that’s going to be very important that they’re in a position to basically lead the team to go on to win.”

This feature has been taken from the sold-out ISSUE 06. Read it inside the digital edition by purchasing a digital subscription.

Tony Sanneh has recently launched an anti-racism project with Common Goal, tasked with funding and implementing anti-racism training for players, coaches, fans, club staff and executives in America.

Archie Willis is the editor of FUTBOLISTA Magazine and has also written for The Herald and FTBL CULT. @_archiewillis

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