Now recently retired from the game, Tony Sanneh has returned to Minnesota to run a multi-pronged nonprofit organization that aims to use his sport's popularity to unite diverse communities and help poor kids find success on and off the field
Like a jumbo shrimp, Tony Sanneh is a contradiction in terms. Arguably Minnesota's most celebrated soccer player ever, he's an obscure celebrity at the same time.
"If I get in a taxi in Germany, the driver will look in the mirror and say, 'That cross you made against Chelsea to win the Champions League was the greatest,' " Sanneh says. "Never mind that I haven't played in Germany in 10 years and he was probably 8."
A week after leading the U.S. team to the final eight in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea, Sanneh found himself back home at one of his favorite Minnesota taverns, reconnecting with friends.
"My face was on the cover of the Northwest [Airlines] magazine, but I was standing in line and waiting just like a regular guy," he says.
"And that's completely cool because this is where I'm at home and comfortable."
For the last 20 years, Sanneh has been a globetrotting soccer star. At last count, he's visited more than 52 countries, often on humanitarian missions to places such as Haiti and Pakistan.
Now recently retired from the game, Sanneh has returned to Minnesota to run a multi-pronged nonprofit organization that aims to use his sport's popularity to unite diverse communities and help poor kids find success on and off the field (www.thesannehfoundation.org).
Sanneh (pronounced Sah-NAY) grew up in St. Paul. His father was from Gambia in West Africa and his mother from Somerset, Wis. They met one summer in Greece when his mom was studying abroad.
At St. Paul Academy, Sanneh and his best friend, Manuel Lagos, won dozens of games. When he was 19 his St. Paul Blackhawks won a national title, a feat unheard of for a Minnesota club team.
He went on to play college soccer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and professionally for teams in Berlin, Nuremberg, Washington, Milwaukee, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.
"I always knew that I'd end up here; there was never any question," he says. "In fact, it's a joke in international soccer circles that I'm a walking Minnesota advertisement, giving my spiel about all our Fortune 500 companies, our parks per capita and our literacy rate."
His favorite spot to run is along the Mississippi River, around Crosby Park, Fort Snelling, Hidden Falls and into Highland Park. "I'm lazy at times and things have come natural, but I've run those paths when it was minus 10 degrees and when it was 105," he says. "It's so peaceful."
Sanneh owns and manages an 18-unit apartment building on St. Paul's Grand Avenue. But mostly he works with disadvantaged kids, whether in St. Paul, Haiti or Cyprus, where he recently went as a sport envoy for the U.S. State Department.
He doesn't mind that hardly anyone notices him back home. Not after playing recently for the L.A. Galaxy with superstar David Beckham.
"It's nice to be respected for your accomplishments when you hit lofty heights in your field of work," he says. "But being respected and being able to live a normal life are two different things. I wouldn't mind being David Beckham, but it's a double-edged sword."