On January 12th 2022 Africa welcomed the tiny west African country to the Africa cup of nations for the first time. This was a boost long overdue for a country that spent over half a century fighting for such a moment.
In a History making moment, Gambia’s national anthem was sung for the first time at the AFCON when they stood up in the lineup in their opening group game against Mauritania.
It was a emotional breakthrough for players and supporters some of whom were shedding tears as they sang along during the anthem.
This was the Gambia’s most-watched game in history, from the President of the Republic down to the last citizen, Scorpions fans sat before television sets to watch the country’s maiden AFCON appearance with immense joy.
The wait for such a moment is now history! The Scorpions played five games, won three, drew one, lost one and exited at the quarterfinals in a truly historic achievement for a nation making its first AFCON appearance.
For years since its formation of a national football structure and team, African footballs greatest underachievers at the biggest stage can now consider themselves as overachievers and the best surprise performers at the 2021 games.
History will forever remember The Gambia for their achievements in the first AFCON appearance.
Given the pre-tournament covid cases and poor preparations that saw them lose all their preparatory test matches amid cancellations of vital pre-tournament training camps, the Gambia came into the AFCON in almost total disarray and morale was at an all-time low.
But For fans, nothing matches the much-needed boost that came victory at the nations cup. The Gambia marked their presence in the continental showpiece with an emphatic one-nil win over Mauritania as Abdoulie Jallow became the first ever Gambian player to score in the AFCON when he fired home an astonishing strike.
This was the turning point for a once demoralised side.
Boring but justified strategy
After reaching the round of 16, Gambia’s coach, Tom Saintfiet may claim his boring tactical plans to the games, a justified strategy, despite the criticisms but the Belgian stayed resolute in his approach.
Under Tom, fans saw the end of days when the Gambia played dazzling football, adored by the games true romantics, only to realise that it leads to nothing but failed campaigns.
For Tom, results mean everything and winning ugly is not considered a shame.
For the Belgian, focus has become the new magic word in the Gambia’s camp.
Focus on the approach, focus on the opponents, focus on your own performance, focus on the ultimate goal (safety first), focus on the forthcoming game.
Since his appointment in 2018, Tom told his disciples that they were on a mission.
The journeyman was clear about what he wanted from his players. In return, he gave the players his full confidence, even when they were out of form as is the case of players without clubs included in the squad.
Tom was not willing to sell out his defensive approach for any critic, he applied it and earned a one-all draw against Mali in the second game.
Even before the final group games were played, the Gambia was already confirmed to have qualified for the Round of 16.
Yet, Tom continued his resolute fight, doing it his way forwarding another defensive tactic into practice against Tunisia where he earned a one-nil win to finish level on points with Mali who topped the group on goal difference.
This was perhaps the most shocking moment for Tunisia, losing or finishing behind the continents debutants 12th lowest-ranked nation. The Scorpions sailed through to the Round of 16.
The unthinkable unfolds
Progressing beyond the group phase was not just surprising but shocking to the continent, and beating Guinea in the round of 16 was unthinkable, but it unfolded before the sight of the footballing world and caught even the most ardent of supporters by surprise.
That was the Gambia’s sweetest victory not because it came at the Round of 16, but because it was the first time we saw the Gambia attacked with verve and precision.
At halftime, the possession was 50 – 50 and in the second half, the Gambia gained 2% ahead of their opponents (52 – 48).
The brilliant lone goal scored by Bologna’s forward Musa Barrow was just a glimpse of the Gambia’s attacking prowess, but the Belgian will never revert to playing attacking football as he had his journey ended at the next stage.
End of the journey
Tom and his tactics were all alone at sea against the host nation Cameroon in the quarterfinals, the Gambia were largely bystanders, uncharacteristically pedestrian from start to finish as a result of a poor tactical approach.
Tom decided to start with two natural half-backs at either side of the defence, adding two centre backs and two deep-lying midfielders to complete a safety based formation.
The inexplicable tactics gave Cameroon the space to move in a triangle in a way that had the Gambia in confusion and greatly reduced their chance of launching counterattacks.
At halftime, it was all square and Tom had it his way as his game plan was ‘not to concede in the first half.’
Tom was already bewildered by Cameroon’s high pressing game, and had no idea as to how to contain the host in the second half.
After surviving a string of early Cameroonian incursions, the Gambia had their lines breached when Karl Toko Ekambi nodded home in the 50th minute before adding another one later in the game to draw an end to the Gambia’s fairytale campaign.
For an underachieving coach like Tom, this was the greatest achievement of his career but many criticised the Gambia for turning the beautiful game on its head.
Former Nigeria captain Jay-Jay Okocha said this about the Gambia:
“In terms of the level of play, the Gambia has been the worst team in AFCON, I hope they try to play more than sit and defend.”
“It was only about Cameroon, you almost asked how did the Gambia make the quarterfinals with this performance.”
Senegal and Liverpool forward Sadio Mané also advised the Gambian team to “have the courage and play, don’t be scared in football there is no big team or small team, its simply 11 men vs 11 men.”
For players so accustomed to beautiful football, playing ugly is always a pain in the heart. Who will blame Okocha and Mané for the comments!
The Positives & Negatives
Amid so much to brag about in this AFCON, there are equally loopholes.
But first, the players put in so much effort to get the Gambia on the good side of history. Gambia’s name has hit another height, bringing along reputation and respect for the country’s players at the continental stage.
A country under the heels of a heated political campaign and elections were nothing but divided, however Gambia’s participation and performance in the AFCON created a much-needed reunion.
In the business sector, it created new markets. Thousands of copies of Gambia’s jerseys were sold out, added to banners and flags.
Recent reports revealed that Gambian Team jerseys sold during the AFCON period was many times more than the past three decades.
And how about the social media users. They used videos and pictures of the Scorpions to increase page likes, views and comments.
Anytime a picture of the Scorpions is posted, it attracts greater attention.
The players as well benefited during the campaign, as small as it may look, each player received a bonus that amounts to D700, 000 and the players are still promised ten thousand dollars each.
All combined, that’s a great earning for average earners like the Scorpions players within a short period.
The unfortunates nearly overshadowed the Scorpions historic campaign with drama starting with the ‘Steve saga’.
The country’s most popular player going into the AFCON fell out with the coach and decided to abandon the team and return to his club in the UAE.
When both the federation and player tried to sit on the information, sources within the camp revealed that the player left due to frustrations as he was unused in the country’s first two games.
As if that was not enough talking points, the team got stranded in Cameroon for a day after their exit.
This spread widespread condemnation as some players took to social media to lash at the Federation for being “selfish”.
“All they are saying is not true, they are only here for their pockets,” one of the players said.
But, the National Coordinating Committee say the delay was a result of a breach of contract by the Airline company. Some players could not stand it as they pay for their tickets to return to their various clubs.
This was a major setback, as the planned ‘hero’s welcome’ thousands of Gambians were willing to accord the team was all cancelled. Instead of returning as heroes, the team returned as any ordinary passenger.
Now that the AFCON is done and dusted, the onus lies on the Federation, the Government and Scorpions players to ensure the teams qualification for the 2023 AFCON and the 2026 World Cup but can they achieve that?
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