While the perilously low winter temperatures are dominating the headlines, Wednesday night’s World Cup qualifier between the US men’s national team and Honduras also offers a welcome chance for a brighter spotlight to shine on a USMNT icon turned local luminary in the Twin Cities.
Born and raised in St. Paul, the home of Allianz Field, Tony Sanneh is one of the North Star State’s greatest soccer products ever, starring for D.C. United’s dominant sides in the early years of MLS before shining in the Bundesliga with Hertha Berlin and FC Nürnberg and playing a key role in the USMNT’s 2002 World Cup campaign, then returning to MLS for stints with Columbus, Chicago, Colorado and the LA Galaxy.
When it was time to hang up his cleats and start a new chapter, he returned home and committed himself to his local community, working full-time as the president and CEO of the Tony Sanneh Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit he’d founded with $30,000 several years prior. That work continues today, as the foundation has grown into a thriving operation with a range of youth and community development projects and a multi-million-dollar annual budget.
U.S. Soccer is saluting Sanneh’s contributions both on and off the field by naming him a match ambassador for USA-Honduras. The federation is also highlighting TSF’s initiatives, many of which use soccer as a vehicle for unity, empowerment and social change, with a particular focus on low-income, urban and immigrant communities.
It’s a particularly timely nod at the start of Black History Month. Last year The Sanneh Foundation launched a groundbreaking new initiative with Common Goal called the Anti-Racist Project (ARP), which aims to step up the battle against racism in and around the sport via education and communication, based off strategies Sanneh and his colleagues have honed in their work in the Twin Cities over the years.
“I always say: A diverse team is, we have players from 10 countries. An inclusive team is when they all go to the same barbecue afterwards,” explained Sanneh, who in his own career experienced both open, hostile racism like monkey chants and the subtler, more insidious kind that closes doors and limits opportunities, to MLSsoccer.com last year. “So we're not just coming and playing and going, we're really getting to know each other.
“We're creating places where you can have dialogue in soccer, so that people know what's appropriate, and how people are taking what they're saying. In one of my video clips in one of the lessons, it talks about a foreign parent sitting on a bench alone. And the other parent’s like, ‘I love having Juan on the team, but I wish his parents would try to be part of the team.’ So if I was to go through the whole lesson with you, at the end of the lesson, you would figure out that Juan’s parents don't speak English that well, they don't know anyone, and they're the outsider. And it's our responsibility to make them feel welcome.”
Sanneh’s mother was a social worker for more than 40 years, which surely influenced his post-playing career path. So, too, did his frustrations with the hazy criteria by which many coaching and executive hires were made on a professional sports landscape where communities of color continue to be chronically underrepresented in high-level positions.
“With the national team, my goal was to do whatever it was to win. But I wasn't going to make it in an environment where it was subjective,” he said. “And let's just say the lens wasn't going to help me be successful with the color of my skin. I was going to be called outspoken, combative, or whatnot instead of smart, a leader, entrepreneur, hard-working, a team guy.
“I wasn't going to live in a world where I was going to be upset every day about what I don't have,” Sanneh continued. “And if I wanted to do it enough, my mom said, ‘You're gonna have to go out in the world and do it, just like you did as a player.’ I just realized that there were other ways that I could be happy until the opportunity came to me. So my goal now is to help as many kids of color as possible grow up and be better people, through education and the sport of soccer, through mentorship and building real communities. And hopefully, when they grow up, things aren’t the same.”
Sanneh came of age at a time when Black players were significantly fewer in number in the upper levels of the North American game than they are now. He’s seen progress, and a renewed sense of urgency after the 2020 murder of George Floyd across town in Minneapolis sparked a worldwide reckoning about racism and police brutality.
But the challenges are deep and persistent, both in his hometown and around the planet. That’s made him particularly passionate about his foundation’s efforts to foster not just tolerance, but active anti-racism on fields across North America and beyond, starting with the pitches TSF operates at the Conway Community Center in St. Paul.
“Our goal is to make this mandatory for every coach, player, parent, referee in the game of soccer so that people learn how to respond, resist and react to racist behavior,” he said. “Are we better off than we were 20 years ago? I think so. But we also see it more clearly. And so now it's harder to pretend like it doesn't exist.
“You know, 10 years ago in Germany, 50% of the stadium made monkey noises. And the other 50% was quiet. Now, 5% of the people make monkey noises, 20% of the people are quiet. And 75% are saying, ‘you idiots, that's not right,’ and condemning them. So you're seeing peer behavior changing, which I think is important.”
Learn more about The Sanneh Foundation’s work at their website, which also includes opportunities to donate or volunteer.