Whitecaps star Kekuta Manneh: past, present and future

Kekuta Manneh has only started six games for the Whitecaps to date, but he’s already a standout

One foggy october day, Kekuta Manneh is finishing team practice. He bobbles a cross and sends it whistling over the bar. No goal this time. Manneh — 5’9″, 145 pounds — smiles and jogs back to try again.Three weeks earlier, outgoing Vancouver Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie played No. 23 against archrivals the Seattle Sounders. It was his fourth start — on his second, he scored the tying goal; this time, he went one better, bagging three in 72 minutes, making him, at 18, the youngest in the league to record this.After practice, the shy winger is standing by some soaked bleachers. His dark blue training outfit is offset by neon orange boots. I compliment him on his footwear, which prompts a story of the first thing he ever earned from soccer. He was eight, in Bakau, The Gambia. The local team got a sponsor who promised merchandise for the best goal scorers. “I remember going home to my mum and showing her the Nike boots and the kit I’d been given. She was sooo proud.”She died when he was 10 and his father never showed interest in the game, but Manneh’s prodigious talents and gentle nature attracted a series of father figures, including his coach at Steve Biko FC, the country’s top club, where he began playing at 14. A year later he left on scholarship for Texas, where he kept scoring goals at bigger and bigger clubs. After two years his foster family adopted him; the next he was drafted by the ‘Caps, joining a year ago.Manneh points to my notebook: “We used to rip the pages out of one of those and” — he makes a scrunching motion — “then we tied them up in a plastic bag.” As a boy he spent every hour kicking such makeshift balls around in the street. It was “very lively” — elders watched from folding chairs, “any passerby could jump in.” People are poor in The Gambia, he says: no jobs, and so they leave. He’s the second of five boys; his elder brother is in Sweden.Two days later, he leads the attack at BC Place. It’s the last game of the regular season, against the Colorado Rapids.Like many predatory goal scorers, he drifts in and out, forgotten for stretches by both teams. Then a surge down the left sends him arrowing in on goal. Colorado defender Marvell Wynne sticks out a leg and Manneh goes spinning. Twenty-one thousand fans breathe in as he lies immobile. The referee whistles: penalty. The roar resurrects the striker, who rises and trots back to watch as fellow forward Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo converts the chance, his first of three goals this night.Manneh has all the makings of a superstar in the world’s most popular sport. His hat trick was news in Europe, where the real money is; if a big English club comes calling, Vancouver will find it hard to hold on to him. For now they’re looking after their protégé, making sure he trains and eats well, housing him in an athletes’ condo complex near Broadway and Cambie.Later in the locker room, Manneh gingerly removes those DayGlo boots. “The champagne is on Camilo — brilliant!” jokes Nigel Reo-Coker, the team’s muscly midfield heart. Brazilian Camilo is in the shower, three friends waiting by his gear. Next door two Japanese players talk quietly. A few feet further Young-Pyo Lee, 36 and about to retire, is being interviewed by Korean TV while a mass of reporters gawks. Above the door hangs a sign: Unity. Winning. Honour.