Opening Doors: Pa-Modou Kah On Representation
Kah – a 41-year-old former Norwegian international with Gambian roots – wants to keep opening doors for people of colour in a manner that goes beyond just opportunities on the pitch. His achievements in 2021, he hopes, will go a long way to doing so.
“Football is for everybody,” he opens, “whether you’re a player or in a leadership role. If you work hard, your background should never matter. It’s what you are capable of, and how you can help people as well.”
His person-first mentality to coaching has helped transform Pacific FC into a Canadian powerhouse, with the club’s first-ever title win now allowing them entry to continental cup competition. While plans for the next season are already underway, that isn’t to say that he hasn’t taken the time to embrace a historic league win that he says is a historical moment for the isle.
“You’ve got to enjoy it,” he insists, “that’s what life is. We’ve done something that is unique, and you’ve got to enjoy it.”
Kah’s journey to becoming a national champion stems from countless of hours of hard work that the world will never see, preceded by a successful playing career that saw him witness plenty of bias, hardships, and systemic issues along the way. Soccer has always been his world, and if the 41-year-old can enact positive change within it for those coming behind him, he’s keen to do so.
“We know sports holds the power to change different ways of thinking in society,” he theorizes, “so we need to change the mindset of society. People need to understand that it’s okay to have different people who don’t look like them, who don’t fit the mold of who you expect should be in a leadership role.”
Kah became the first head coach of colour to hoist the North Star Shield when his club secured a 1-0 win at Tim Hortons Field this December, a historic and special moment in league history. It wouldn’t be the first time Kah has proved doubters wrong.
“We’ve got to do it the hard way. It’s no secret,” he explains, “It is maybe because of our struggle and past history, for the past four hundred years how we are viewed, and how things are. These are the obstacles, because I think people can see that we can also be in leadership positions, and are meant to be in positions.”
Kah’s own coaching career got its start with the Vancouver Whitecaps, where spent a season as a player-coach with VWFC 2 before becoming a full-time coach the following year. He would then join FC Cincinnati as a scout one year later, before being promoted to the role of assistant coach just a few months afterwards.
When Pacific FC offered him his first-ever head coaching role back in 2020, he grasped the opportunity to come back to British Columbia and challenge himself with a new stepping stone, his biggest leadership position yet.
“If we are good football players, okay, we can be that. But, we’re not supposed to rock the hierarchy of being in a certain position? The more people see diversity in the board rooms, that’s where you can make effective change. If you see people in different type of leadership roles, I think this will bring change.”
“I was the first black man to play for Norway,” he says, “obstacles are something that I’m used to.”
Kah – who has always been curious to talk with people from different paths and learn more about the human nature – has found that if he can learn from the perspective of others, others can certainly learn from his stories, too. The human perspective is malleable, something that can be changed and improved upon to make things better for the next person coming through. It’s this growth and legacy that he aims to leave behind, and he’s hungry for the opportunity.
I believe in what I’m capable of doing. There is always going to be that one half a door that opens. For me, I don’t need the full door to open. Just enough to put my foot in, that’s what I need. When you have that, you always look at all the role models that you can look up to, or people who say ‘hey, he’s doing it’ and that gives you hope.Pa-Modou Kah
Kah’s playing career took him through the likes of Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, USA, and Canada, where along the way he marked legendary athletes like David Villa, Dirk Kuyt, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He met his wife while playing with Roda JC in Holland, and now has two young daughters who have one hell of a mentor to look up to.
His father had worked hard to give him a better life, departing from Gambia to play football in Norway after catching the eye of Skeid FC whilst on international duty. Kah was two months old when his father left, but he would be eight by the time his father was finally able to bring his family into the Nordic country.
The inquisitive youngster followed in his footsteps, taking a keen interest in football despite never getting the opportunity to see his father play – though many tried to compare the two. His father watched over him, keeping him disciplined and ensuring he focused on books just as much as he did on the pitch.
Practice, for instance, wasn’t something Pa-Modou was allowed to do if his household chores and schoolwork weren’t done. One time he forgot to do them, and his father picked him up right out of training and sent him back home. “I didn’t bring you to Norway so you can be a fool,” he was told, “so finish your chores and your homework, and then you can go back to practice.”
This was his father’s way of teaching him discipline, as well as knowing that if he wanted to achieve what he set his sights on, he’d have to show commitment in both schooling and football. The biggest lesson instilled upon him from his parents is that “for one to be seen, they’ve got to work twice as hard as everybody else.”
Kah keeps that mantra close to his heart.
Thanks to his upbringing, Pa-Modou grew up with a hard work ethic and a curious mind. Given that he did not look like the average Norwegian in his town, he was exposed and subjected to systemic prejudices and barriers put into place for people of colour, though he brushes the experience off as ‘nothing different’.
“It was understanding that is based on fear, of people fearing what they do not know,” he explains, “and trying to put people into boxes and telling them they deserve to be there, ‘this is your box and check it and stay there’. It does not work like that.”
As his professional playing career took flight and Kah experienced the world far beyond Norwegian borders, he found such mindsets existed on significant scale, and impacting the career trajectories of numerous athletes of colour. Kah remained observant as these systemic issues curtailed opportunities for talented individuals.
Some of my peers understood that those doors were closed for them. They might have wanted to go into those roles or become coaches, but they understood that the chance might be 0.09%, and it must be 0.1% before we can even get a sniff. It is still happening, and you see some other examples where some people stop playing and get pushed into a certain role. That’s why I say there is a perspective and narrative created around it.Pa-Modou Kah
Now, the 41-year-old husband, father, and title-winning head coach is paving the way for those who are coming behind him. That’s not to say he didn’t have role models to look up to throughout his playing career, but he had to climb a lot of hurdles to get to where he is. He aims to ensure those following in his footsteps have less to jump over.
“Growing up, those like me now were very few,” he says, “being in this position, that’s where my mind goes: can I make sure that the ones coming behind me have a place? Are they accepted to be who they are by their talent, and not their colour?”
Leadership, to Kah, sees neither gender nor colour. With the Black Lives Matter movement taking a forefront last year and the women’s game seeing explosive, overdue growth, he states that the sporting world is evolving. “Evolution,” he puts it, “is where we also have to grow as human beings. That’s why I coach, to inspire whoever I can. Not as a footballer or an athlete, but as a human being. That’s what you are born to do.”
Kah’s title-winning squad has allowed several players of colour to flourish, be that through a breakout season from the quiet Kunle Dada-Luke, a stellar follow-up CPL season from Abdou Samake, or the grit and iron leadership of team captain Jamar Dixon, among other examples.
With Pacific FC having such proximity to the Whitecaps, it’s also no surprise to see that the squad is home to several former Whitecaps prospects. “When one door closes, another opens,” says Pa-Modou, “I know what it is to be given a chance, and I know what it is to be tossed to the side because you don’t fit the requirement of what people want.”
Kah’s leadership role with Pacific FC put him in a key position to help many players who have faced harsh rejection. He says that for anyone like him, in a position where they can help, it is for them to give a chance for people to succeed by first giving them the opportunity.
Did it mean a lot for me to put Jamar as a leader and lift the trophy? 100%. But he earned it. It is not something just given for the sake of it. He earned it, he wanted to take the responsibility as one of the leaders of our squad and one of our most experienced players, and he was ready for it. So we gave it to him.Pa-Modou Kah
“You have to know the individual before the player,” he says, “knowing the human being and instilling confidence and belief, it’s the most important thing. Some of these guys were told they were not good enough. For us, it is about making them use that as well and all of that stuff to fuel yourself by believing you are more than capable of what people think of you.”
Once the players understand that you are looking out for them, Kah explains, the rest is easy. They commit themselves to the process of what Pacific FC has aimed to build on the island. This year, that commitment resulted in the Victoria area’s first national championship since 1966.
Being a champion is very unique, becoming a champion is tough. If it was easy, everyone would become that. People only see the glory, but they don’t see the choices that have been made, and things that people have had to let go because they are striving to be the best they can.Pa-Modou Kah
With the 2021 CPL season now fully wrapped, Kah has his sights on the next season. He hopes to have the core of his title-winning squad back, but also understands the ambition that some players have to test themselves at a higher levels. “This is right for the soul,” he says, “we know that as a club we will always be willing to help players if this is their desire, and they also know that they have something great with our club. They are part of our history, and they can keep growing. Growth is the most important thing for both us.”
Kah’s first trophy following his playing career felt different than the ones he collected as a player. Now, it’s something he feels is more about the group process. “It is where the greatest joy comes from,” he reflects, “to see the daily work we put in with the players, and how much we put in throughout the whole season, and have it pay off.”
Kah’s tenure with the side has seen Pacific FC transform itself from a bottom half team into a championship squad with a tight-knit locker room and a prolific scoring record: the team led the league with 39 goals in the regular season, which is perhaps what led MLS side FC Dallas to offer him an interview in their own head coach hunt.
“I think that surprised a lot of people,” said Kah, who went deep in the interview process and arrived as a finalist against Nico Estevez for the position. The 41-year-old – who once played for the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps – has never been one to shy away from his MLS ambitions. It may not have worked with FC Dallas, but it gives him momentum to build on.
“It tells me to keep doing the work, and whatever is meant to come in my path will come. It validates what I’m doing with Pacific.”
Kah’s success with Pacific FC saw him named the CPL’s Coach of the Year for 2021, which saw him receive an Inuit soapstone carving made from artists in Kinggait. The owl carving is meant to symbolize someone with exemplary vision who can see what others cannot. It seems fitting that this year, it goes to someone who has observed so much about the human spirit.
“It’s not about the recognition for me, it’s about paving ways,” he told us at the awards ceremony. “There were people who paved the way for us prior, so my job is to pave the way for minorities who see that they can also be in leadership grows and excel there. The narrative has always been that the minority can only play the game, and then leave it. I think where we are now in the world, you can see it more and more that yes, we do know how to play the game, but we also know how to excel in leadership roles.”
While the calendar year has been a certainly successful one, the Pacific boss is aware that the sporting world can have a short memory.
“Everything changes quickly in football,” he suggests, “today everyone celebrates you, and then tomorrow it may be different and you’re not capable of doing any job. I understand it, and for me I am always looking to better myself, the people around me, and the team.”
We won the title, and we celebrated, and now we’re ready for the next challenge. That’s the way it should be, and if you look at the CPL it gave me the opportunity to coach and now I’ve been seen. That’s the thing with coaching, it’s a beautiful thing and you want coaches to have ambitions just like the players. You want to push yourself higher to see how you match up within a bigger league.Pa-Modou Kah
Whether Pa-Modou Kah will get the opportunity to progress to a higher level next season remains to be seen. For now, the Banjul-born head coach is eager to see how his club follows up on its title-winning campaign. “The hunger will be huge,” he says, “and I believe now that this group of guys have tasted success, they know what it is and they’ll have the hunger and drive for more.”
“If I can be in the position where I can affect change through my work,” he concludes, “that’s what football is about. You look at the ball: it has thirty-two panels, leather, and you add air, and everyone can play. The ball does not see colour, and it does not see gender. It just sees your love.”