Salisu Abdullahi Gero speaks on a number of occasions about the “unbelievable journey” he has experienced, which has taken him from playing football on the streets of Kano in Nigeria to being a professional footballer in Sweden.
His teammate at Östersunds FK, Saman Ghoddos mentions how Gero is “a bear on the pitch” – but it is his mental resilience and desire to succeed which is perhaps even stronger.Humble, but at the same time confident in his own ability, the 24-year-old has overcome numerous obstacles to play football at the highest level. As a child, he would practice at every opportunity he was given, even if the facilities were less than perfect.
“Back home in Africa where we grew up, we didn’t have a lot of things compared to European kids when they start playing football,” he said. “When I started playing, I started with no shoes, playing in the street with a lot of bottles on the ground and stones.”
He would hone his talents during the regular tournaments he would take part in, which would see the different streets go head-to-head. The competition was fierce, but played in a good atmosphere.
Perhaps his biggest challenge as a youngster was to learn to play football wearing shoes, as he always used to play barefoot. Everything changed when he was spotted and taken to a proper football pitch, where he would have the chance to wear shoes. However, getting used to playing in footwear was not something that happened immediately.
“The first time I tried playing football wearing shoes, it was uncomfortable for me because I couldn’t play with them; I wasn’t used to it, so after ten minutes in the game, I said, ‘I’m going to play with no shoes.’”
“The referee told me that I wasn’t allowed to play with no shoes because everyone here had shoes, so I had to wear them. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I could play in shoes, but later on I kept trying – in training I sometimes used them, and sometimes I didn’t.”
In the years that have passed, Gero has gone through plenty of pairs of football boots, which have been responsible for scoring goals at all levels. His talents were soon spotted by coaches in his homeland, and he was called up to represent his country at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Gero’s performances did not go unnoticed at the tournament, and it was not long before he had offers coming in from far and wide.
“I got a lot of interest from scouts in different countries; I heard a lot about Sweden, that it’s a really good country and that you’re really welcomed,” he said.
Following the FIFA U-20 World Cup, he actually ended up in neighbouring Denmark, but after one season, he realised that it was time for him to go to Sweden – a decision he has no regrets about making.
“At that time, I knew Gbenga Arokoyo [who was] playing for Mjällby AIF so, to be honest, I spoke with him a little bit. He said to me: ‘Gero, you should come to Sweden, just forget about any other country, because in Sweden you’ll feel like you’re at home. Everyone will love you.’”
Aside from initially finding it difficult to get used to the local food and the cold weather, Gero says he settled in quickly – something he credits to not only his teammates, but also the locals in Östersund, who he says are “absolutely great people.”
Gero is part of a diverse squad at Östersunds. It includes players representing countries such as Iraq, Syria, and the Comoros. He has struck up a good understanding with fellow forward Ghoddos, who was born in Malmö, but plays for Iran, while integration is helped by some unusual team- bonding exercises, such as ballet.
“I think the culture here makes us even stronger as a family,” he explained. “In the dressing room, we have some absolutely great guys in the team, and we are just one family, because we always share jokes and do everything together, both on and off the pitch. It makes us believe and do the same thing, and makes us focus on what we do on the pitch as well.”
Gero has already embarked on an “unbelievable journey” off the pitch, and he has found a new home from home in Sweden. However, on the field of play, he is determined to keep on writing new chapters in Östersunds FK’s history.
“A year ago, you wouldn’t believe that we would be here, so anything can happen in football,” he reflected. “It’s been a long journey with a lot of stories. But once you believe in what you can do, success is ahead [of you].”