"I had one goal in my head" - How NPL prodigy Hassan Jalloh earned a contract in Europe
There isn't a large pool of male Australian footballers playing week in and week out in the top division of various European countries. However, after a breakout 2022 season, Aussie football fans have plenty to look forward to in promising winger Hassan Jalloh. He's preparing for the 2023 Besta deild karla season, the highest level of Icelandic football.
After an excellent year in the Icelandic second tier, which included regular match minutes and his side winning promotion to the first tier, Jalloh is an Aussie abroad to pay close attention to as 2023 unfolds.
A few Australian players have experienced top-tier Icelandic football, such as Australia U23 international Hosine Bility and former Blacktown City striker Joey Gibbs. Now Jalloh is hoping to be part of that small group.
"My football career started back in Sierra Leone, where I was born and raised," Jalloh told Front Page Football when discussing his first exposure to the round ball.
"My brothers have always been crazy footballers. I've always looked up to them, and ever since I was young, football was a talented gift that I had, and I used this gift as best as I [could]."
Jalloh, 24, was born in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, and moved to Australia aged 11. The winger accumulated numerous years of experience in the NPL, having played for Blacktown Spartans, Sydney FC Youth, Marconi Stallions, Altona Magic, Blacktown City, and APIA Leichhardt.
However, Jalloh's first taste of senior NPL football was with Bonnyrigg White Eagles in 2017, where he scored seven goals across 18 games.
At first, the former White Eagle found playing in a senior men's environment challenging.
"It was very difficult," Jalloh said about transitioning from the U18s/U20s to senior football.
"It was tough; the senior players didn't give any of the young players any slack. It was more physical; there was a lot of swearing around when mistakes [were made], and that experience made me stronger.
"I learned I had to prepare myself when I was with the seniors; I couldn't just rely on training with the team. So I spent more time at the gym, eating well. Overall I found my time at Bonnyrigg good because the boys in the team, like Martin Lo, mentored me and guided me every moment while I was there."
In 2019, Jalloh moved south to sign for NPL Victoria side Altona Magic and grew his NPL playing portfolio.
"The standard in Victoria was good," Jalloh said about the differences between the NPL NSW and NPL Victoria.
"When I was there, they had good players, [and] good facilities too, but I found New South Wales football to be quicker than in Victoria.
"I found the football in Victoria was a lot more physical, and I enjoyed my time [at Altona Magic]. When comparing both leagues, I found that NSW was slightly better in terms of speed. But Victoria was more physical and aggressive."
Fast forward to 2021, and despite spending the majority of the season out injured, Jalloh was part of APIA Leichhardt's fantastic Australia Cup run. It saw the NPL NSW club defeat Capital Football side Tigers FC and A-League Men giants the Western Sydney Wanderers before going out to the Central Coast Mariners in the quarter-finals.
For Jalloh, the cup run with one of the state's most historic clubs was an experience he will never forget.
"It was one of the best experiences I've ever had," he said.
"The manager at the time [Danial Cummins] got us really prepared for those Australia Cup matches, and the preparation before the Wanderers game was crazy; it was very good.
"We knew how much it [would] mean for us because some of the older boys have experienced beating an A-League Men's side in the Australia Cup, which was against Melbourne Victory (in 2018). The new boys wanted to have that feeling as well.
"I thought those Australia Cup games were going to open so many doors for me, especially coming back from injury.
"[The games against A-League sides] were very tough, and we were basically chasing shadows. They were quicker, smarter, and more physical than what I encountered before in the NPL. You could [instantly] tell the difference between NPL and A-League levels when playing in the Australia Cup."
After leaving APIA in 2022, Jalloh went abroad and tried his luck in Europe. After several attempts in various countries, he signed for the then-Icelandic second-tier side HK Kópavogur.
At first, moving to Iceland was a challenge for Jalloh.
"Coming from Australia, we're used to the heat, and it was my first time in that part of the world," Jalloh said.
"It was horrible at first, to be honest. I was trialling for some time and found the level was ten times faster than I'd experienced before.
"I was in Scotland and the UK and saw the difference in the pace of the game. I knew that if I wanted to become a professional footballer, I had to play at this level. It was quite tough for me to adapt.
"But I had one goal in my head, and that was, 'I am not leaving Europe without a contract', and that was my motivation.
"When I got signed, the club [and] the people around HK handled me very well. They were very nice people and showed me the best way to live here and make me most comfortable here, and you can see that through my performances here."
Regarding the football culture in Iceland, Jalloh hopes that one day Australia can share the same passion and community aspect that the humble Nordic country possesses.
"Football is beautiful here," he said.
"I wish Australia had the community aspect like in Iceland.
"Everywhere you go here, even if you go for a 100-metre walk, there's a pitch and a ball ready for you to train whenever you like; it's incredible. Every single kid loves football in Iceland.
"Football means a lot to Icelandic people, and they cherish it with everything they've got. Even if it's freezing cold, some kids will train or watch [and] support us wherever we go. They talk to us as well, and it's nice to see that the kids are very engaged with football.
"Every game of the top division is free-to-air, and the fans make a lot of noise in the stadium. The Icelandic people are very passionate when it comes to football."
In the 2022 domestic league season, Jalloh played 22 games for HK and scored eight goals, including the goal that sealed their promotion into the first tier.
Even though Jalloh had experienced the joy and drama of an Australia Cup upset, his Icelandic adventure in 2022 was the best season of his career.
"100% -  was by far my best year in football," he said.
"Last season, I played the majority of our games, and it feels so good knowing that in your first year in a foreign country, you've helped the team achieve something big.
"It was quite good that I scored a couple of goals to help the team. It was probably the best decision I have ever made to play here because the quality, the team, the people, and the aims are all beautiful."
When discussing the club, Jalloh pointed out that there is plenty of excitement amongst the HK playing group heading into the 2023 season.
"We're all buzzing, we're all happy, but at the same time careful," he said.
"We know we can't get too ahead of ourselves because the teams in the top division are crazy. There are a lot of good clubs, they have a lot of good visa players, and it's very competitive.
"But for us, we're just taking it day by day and seeing how far we go. We are going to compete for a top-two finish and not just be a team fighting to stay up and avoid relegation. We're ready."
From November to December for the past few years, Jalloh has featured in the African Cup NSW. This football tournament showcases the brightest African talent in Australia's most populated state.
"[It's] the highlight of my year to play in the African Cup," Jalloh said.
"Whenever I come back to Australia to play in the cup, I am so happy because the African community in Sydney comes together to play football, and it's good that others are getting involved, like the Western Sydney Wanderers, for example.
"They give us the facilities to play on and help create new opportunities for the players. It's developed so much that we have scouts who regularly watch the players.
"It gives a lot of players a sense of belief that there is another chance to make it somewhere. For example, if someone doesn't see you [at] your club, that doesn't mean someone won't see you in the African Cup.
"It's very good to be a part of the African Cup. I won't be playing games (in 2023), but I'm looking more towards [being] an ambassador and helping younger players.
"The African Cup has helped me improve as a player and person, so I'm very happy [with] how the African Cup is going."
But Jalloh's immediate focus is a return to action with HK. The promoted side will begin their 2023 season in the Icelandic first tier in April.
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