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A Soccer Star Caught in Poverty, a Risky Trip, and a Sorrowful End

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SEREKUNDA, Gambia — The pregame warm-up for the Red Scorpions, Gambia’s top women’s soccer team, used to begin with joyful singing and dancing. But now the players in their yellow shirts and blue shorts begin every match in a somber prayer circle under the shade of a baobab tree.

Three months ago, the team’s star goalkeeper, Fatima Jawara, 19, was presumed drowned off the coast of Libya while trying to escape to Europe, dreaming of finally breaking her family free of poverty and of finding a broader stage for her skills.

Now, both her team and her family are struggling to make sense of their loss.

“The only thing she would talk about was how one day she would make our mother and all of us happy,” said her sister, Oumi Jawara, recounting how Ms. Jawara was haunted by the suffering their mother went through over the family’s struggles for subsistence.

Hers is a fate shared by hundreds of others from her country and across West Africa who have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea or somewhere along the thousands of miles of treacherous desert to get there.

Thousands of Gambians have tried to make their way to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. The organization estimates that more than 4.3 percent of Gambians live outside the country, with many fleeing across the border into Senegal.

They were trying to escape the seemingly endless repression and lack of opportunity in Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh has jailed or killed his opponents for years.

After Adama Barrow’s election victory over Mr. Jammeh in December, many Gambians began talking about returning home. But after initially conceding defeat, Mr. Jammeh reversed course and declared the vote fraudulent. With inauguration day approaching on Jan. 19, the Economic Community of West African States has considered sending troops but for now is holding off. Everyone is bracing for the worst.

Ms. Jawara defies the stereotype of the kind of African migrant — typically rural, male and married — who sets off on the so-called back way to Europe. Yet a surprising number of migrants include athletes hoping to join a European team for more attention and a better paycheck.

In November, Ali Mbengu, a popular Gambian wrestling champion, died along the migrant route. And in the past two years alone, the Gambian soccer federation said, more than 70 percent of players from various clubs have left the country, forcing teams to recruit amateur players to keep the competition going.

The Gambian federation has been bombarded with requests from Italian and Spanish soccer clubs for information about Gambian players living in Europe who want to try out for their teams. The European clubs need a transfer certificate from the Gambian federation to allow the players to join new clubs in Europe.

A stack of requests is piled on the desk of Victoria Roberts, the competition officer for Gambia’s soccer federation.

“Most of the players are not registered in known clubs in Gambia, so they are free to recruit them over there in Europe,” she said.

Before she set out for Europe, Ms. Jawara was a star for the Red Scorpions. Her bubbly personality was the glue that held her team together. Her silly dance moves cracked everyone up. And her shouts of encouragement and her field skills inspired her teammates.

As a goalkeeper, Ms. Jawara helped her team in winning several trophies in Gambia’s National Female Football League and had represented the country during the Women’s Under-17 World Cup in 2012 in Azerbaijan.

“I have not seen anyone that loves football more than Fatima,” said Fatou Fatty, the team’s captain. “She is the one that always encourages us to play. She even brought most of the girls into the team.”

Stories circulated among the Red Scorpions about other athletes who had fled to Europe and found success on teams there. But Ms. Jawara loudly encouraged her teammates to remain in Gambia. Maybe a scout would visit one day and sign them all to a European club, she would tell them. But surely their own country was bound to better organize its leagues. Bigger salaries could not be far off.

But at home, Ms. Jawara’s family was barely able to survive.

In Serekunda, where she lived with her mother and a large extended family, Ms. Jawara struggled to make her life better. Every night, she sat alongside her mother while she sold fried fish and cakes outside their green painted mud brick house. Between cooking large meals and giving her mother and sisters the small earnings she received from soccer matches, Ms. Jawara was the family’s main source of hope.

Their family, and so many others here, were caught in the deteriorating Gambian economy, where the cost of living has soared even while most of the population makes less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank. Even young teenagers have been left to fend for themselves or in some cases become the sole breadwinners for their large families.

Friends say that, in retrospect, Ms. Jawara most likely began to seriously consider leaving for Europe last April, after a brawl on the field over a referee’s call during a major tournament. Ten players, including Ms. Jawara, were each suspended for 12 months. The team was fined and knocked down a division.

Ms. Jawara’s plan to save her family through her soccer career were shattered. She started looking for options to play elsewhere.

Awa Tamba, a Red Scorpions teammate, recounts how Ms. Jawara had told them she had been contracted by a soccer club in Dakar, Senegal, to play for two weeks. Short-term contracts in Senegal were typical for the team, and her friends thought nothing of it when she headed to Dakar.

Ms. Jawara called her family and teammates several times from Senegal. Then she set out on the long journey to Europe. News that she was headed there leaked out to her incredulous teammates. Just the year before, she had harshly scolded her brother for trying to make the trip.

“I said it is a lie, because Fatima will never do that,” Ms. Tamba said. “She said her brother is stupid for traveling the back way.”

On a recent day at the field where the Red Scorpions practice, Kawusu Drameh, Ms. Jawara’s boyfriend, emerged from a corner and dropped a bag of balls on the field.

Mr. Drameh, 25, is now the team’s chief source of inspiration. He was asked to join the team’s trainers in honor of his girlfriend’s death.

Since Ms. Jawara’s death, both her family and her teammates from the Red Scorpions Football Club have tried to keep her memory alive. For now, the only link that binds them all is Mr. Drameh.

“It is hard for me to be here and have to not see Fatima again for the rest of my life. But I believe it is the best place to be also,” Mr. Drameh said, wiping tears from his eyes with his shirt. “This is where Fatima would have been if she was alive. So today and every other day I want to be where she would want to be — and it’s here.”

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