Sanna Nyassi has seen difficult challenges before.
The prospect of staring across the field at his twin brother Sainey Nyassi and the New England Revolution on Saturday at Qwest Field is no daunting matter. Especially when compared to battling a life-threatening disease while he was young.
The Sounders FC midfielder contracted malaria at 16 and battled the deadly disease for two weeks in his native Gambia. It is a fatal disease in Africa, where upwards of 1 million people die from the mosquito-borne disease each year.
After infection, victims lose their appetite and vomit frequently. For Nyassi, that meant a steady stream of support from his family, particularly his mother.
“My mom was there for me day-in and day-out. She took me to the hospital and forced me to eat and made sure I survived,” Nyassi said, adding that his brother’s support was important to his state of mind. “He was always beside me until I recovered.”
That horrifying experience, which struck Nyassi twice and his brother once is why he has lent his support to the Nothing But Nets program (www.nothingbutnets.net) to help prevent the spread of malaria by putting bed nets into every child’s home in Africa.
“I feel so proud,” said Nyassi, 21. “Having gone through the sickness, I know a lot about malaria – how it feels when you contract that disease. I feel good working together with the Seattle community to help people back in Africa and fight against malaria.”
His efforts thus far have earned him MLS Works Humanitarian of the Month honors for April and helped the Sounders FC raise over $23,000 for Nothing But Nets in 2009.
On the field, Nyassi is showing improvement over his initial MLS campaign in 2009. Last season, he made 14 appearances and played 305 minutes. Already this season, he has started in three of his eight appearances and notched 314 minutes. He has yet to get on the scoreboard in league play, but in five US Open Cup matches last season he scored one goal and assisted two others as the Sounders won the Open Cup in their inaugural season.
The increased playing time is a testament to his work in the off-season and a bump in his confidence after playing for the first time with the Gambian National Team. There, for the first time, he started alongside his brother Sainey and scored his first international goal in a friendly.
“It was a good experience. When we played on the U-17 and U-20, he started and I came off the bench. During the off-season it was the first time both of us started,” he said.
That time on the international stage also added some versatility to his game. Playing almost exclusively on the right side for his whole career, a move to the left wing opened up some playing time for him with Gambia and has added to his arsenal with the Sounders.
“I feel more confident on the left, but it doesn’t matter what side I’m on,” Nyassi said. “As long as I can get the ball at my feet I can do whatever I want to do with the ball.”
This week Sanna Nyassi and the Sounders FC (3-5-3, sixth in the West) will host Sainey Nyassi and the New England Revolution (3-6-2, fourth in the East) in a 7:30 kickoff at Qwest Field. It could mark the first time the twin brothers have lined up on opposite sides of the ball – and offers Sanna a chance at revenge on his brother.
“Last year they came here and beat us. We went there, they beat us. He’s still bragging about it. He told me last night that they’re just going to repeat the same thing,” said Sanna, who didn’t play in either meeting. “I told him they aren’t going to get away with that this year.”
This type of banter is not atypical for the duo. Growing up, they frequently placed themselves on opposing teams in their pickup games on the streets of Bwiam in Gambia. Those meetings hardened both players on the pitch and fueled their desire for competition.
“Nobody wants to lose between us. We are so competitive. When we used to play in the streets we were always on separate teams and whoever loses gets mad,” Sanna said. “It feels different because we are on different teams. But if I have to tackle him, I will to help my team win.”