By: Baboucarr Camara, GFF’s Head of Communications
It was 69 minutes on the clock on July 11, 2007, at Canada’s Edmonton Commonwealth Stadium when Austria midfielder Martin Harnik was caught in possession inside his half. Pierre Gomez, then a left-back with Hawks Football Club, finished classily with the outside of his foot to ensure parity for Peter Bonu Johnson’s 10-man Gambia. In the end, the Young Scorpions, who were forced to play for 47 minutes with a numerical disadvantage after Tijan Jaiteh’s sending-off two minutes before the break, ran out of steam and energy. And with nine minutes remaining, substitute Erwin Hoffer fired home the winner for a 2-1 scoreline to condemn the debutants to a last-16 exit.
That was the first and last time The Gambia appeared in a FIFA U-20 World Cup. The Young Scorpions will return to the global showpiece event in May when Indonesia’s competition begins. This is after a comprehensive 5-0 hammering of South Sudan in the African Cup of Nations quarterfinals in Egypt today. However, if not for the Covid-19 pandemic-enforced cancellation, this would be our third World Cup appearance in this category, having secured a place in the 2021 edition after finishing third at the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Mauritania.
But before that, Abdoulie Bojang’s charges have an AFCON semi-final date with Nigeria as they seek to exert revenge over their West African rivals for a similar stage defeat in the 2007 edition in Congo Brazzaville. Having won all three of their group stage matches with a combined goal tally of 4-0, the Gambians were pipped to a place in the finals after a narrow 1-0 defeat to Nigeria but put their acts together to secure an impressive 3-1 win over Zambia in booking that World Cup bath to finish as bronze medalists in the competition.
History repeated this year as the Gambians again won all three of their Group C matches by defeating Tunisia, and Zambia 1-0 each before a much-changed side saw off the challenge from Benin 2-0 to book today’s date with South Sudan at Alexandria’s El Hodoud Stadium. But with just 47 minutes on the clock, Bojang’s charges were on a goal-scoring spree never seen before in this competition since Cameroon’s five-star semi-final blistering of Ethiopia in the 1993 edition in the Mauritius Island.
Adama Bojang latched onto skipper Alagie Saine’s long ball to stab home the opener after just seven minutes before Moses Jarju headed home a corner to give the impressive Young Scorpions a commanding 2-0 lead. But before the break, it was already 3-0 as Bojang, who until today’s match fired blanks throughout the tournament, grabbed his second. Two minutes after the break, the Steve Biko protégé, who came into this competition carrying the more significant burden of Gambia’s goalscoring hopes, justified his star status by grabbing his hat-trick. Mahmud Bajo, a combative and all-rounder defensive midfielder, joined the party. Substitutes Alieu Gibba and Muhammed Sawaneh combined from a brilliant free-kick as Bajo poked home the final goal.
The celebrations from his teammates afterward said it all. Despite his Casemiro-liked abilities on the ball, Bajo was the unlikeliest of scorers. But such was Gambia’s impressive display today that they could’ve easily won this match with a double-figure scoreline. Modou Marong was impressive for the hour he was on the pitch but was frustrated not to have grabbed the goal that his performance deserved after he twice had a goal chalked off for offside.
The first time any team scored five unanswered goals in a single match in an African U-20 Cup of Nations was in that competition, as mentioned above, 30 years ago when runner-ups Cameroon swept aside the Ethiopians in the last four. In fact, until today, that stood as the only time that any team secured such a feat in the knockout stages of this competition.
The semi-finals get underway on Monday when Gambia host Nigeria in the 5 pm kick-off at the Cairo International Stadium, hoping to go one step better on their best-ever performance in this competition by securing a place in next Saturday’s final. Even though the Nigerians seemed to have truly recovered from their opening match 1-0 defeat to Senegal by winning their last three matches, culminating with yesterday’s 1-0 defeat of Uganda in the quarterfinals, the Gambians will be going into the match full of confidence by today’s performance.
Until 2021, The Gambia last qualified for this tournament in 2011 when we were knocked out in the group stages in South Africa has failed to win a single match. We had to wait for an entire decade before our return to Mauritania. The Gambia existed in the 2003 U-17 Cup of Nations group stages before hosting and winning the 2005 edition on home soil. But never before in the history of Gambian football did any of our national teams play and secure two back-to-back qualifications for either an AFCON or a World Cup bath. It is also the first time any Gambian team went 360 minutes, spanning four matches, without conceding a goal in either a continental or global final.
To cap off an already impressive tournament, Adama Bojang is also the first Gambian to score a hat-trick in the finals of either a continental or global final. And based on the preceding, you cannot bet against Abdoulie Bojang’s charges of securing a place in the March 11 finals at the Cairo International Airport. But whatever happens in Monday’s semi-finals, this Gambian side will play a full six matches in this competition as their target before leaving Banjul for the tournament.