By Lamin Drammeh
At the 20,000 capacity Kouekong Stadium, a suburb of Bafoussam, Cameroon, one of the most extraordinary fairytale stories of African football was written.
The date was Monday, January 24, 2022 when The Gambia’s Scorpions defied all odds to secure the most incredible last eight qualification never seen in the history of Africa cup of nations. With remarkable run of four unbeaten matches at the CAF continental showpiece, The Gambia under the Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet have qualified for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal when as debutantes, defeated Guinea Conakry 1-0 to set up an intriguing quarterfinal clash with the host Cameroon, on Saturday.
Scorpions prolific striker Musa Barrow who displayed man of the match performance for the second time in the tournament, scored the all-important match-winner for The Gambia. With the match tied at goalless and with just 19 minutes remaining, a clever pass from Gambia’s midfield got on to the feet of arriving talismanic Musa Barrow who was trying to find space between three Guinean defenders.
A delightful first touch saw Barrow brilliantly escape Guinean defenders and he slid the ball into the opponent’s net in the most impressive fashion, typical of world class strikers, leaving the Guinean goalkeeper helplessly lying on to the ground as the Bologna man celebrates his second goal of the tournament, and joint-level with Scorpions teammate Abdoulie Jallow at the top of The Gambia’s scorers chart each with two goals in four matches.
The four goals between scorpions danger men Musa and Jallow include a 1-0 win against Mauritania in their opening group F match, followed by a 1-1 draw against Mali and then a shocking 1-0 win over powerhouse Tunisia in our final group F match, which saw the Scorpions collect 7 points and finish second in their group with just a single goal separating them and Mali as group leaders.
Musa Barrow’s decisive strike against the Syli Nationals of Guinea at that point was much bigger than anything you could possibly imagine for the tiny west African nation of The Gambia, with a population of less than 3 million people.
The explosion of noise that greeted The Scorpions victory over much-fancied Guinean team in the streets of Banjul, Bakau, Westfield and other places across the country defied the country’s image as one of the upcoming giants of African football – something even our local media did not see coming.
Prior to the kickoff, Guinea was touted as the overwhelming favorite to beat Gambia to advance into the last eight. At least a victory for them against the so called underdogs of the Gambia’s Scorpions, is what was heavily anticipated by many including president Doumbuya who had earlier predicted a comfortable victory for the Guineans against The Gambia. However, what happened at the end of the match was far from what was predicted on paper and should teach the military man (Doumbuya) and other critics that football can be quite unpredictable and that it is unwise to underrate the mighty Scorpions.
Back home in Gambia, people of all-walks-of-life despite their differences came together in unison and harmony to rally support behind their country’s national team. Our gallant Scorpions proved today that all of us can coexist as Gambians and share joy in our country’s achievement with the ultimate aim of leaving a lasting legacy on the Africa’s biggest football championship.
“This would have been unimaginable just few days ago. It felt like more than just football. The coach and his team showed us that we could still live together, that we could be The Gambia that we had been before,” says Ousman Beyai, one diehard supporter of the Scorpions.
I agree with Mr. Beyai’s point that this is more than just the Africa Cup of Nations and it’s lucrative price money, but rather the unification of a country that has been deeply divided over the course of two previous presidential elections between 2016 and 2021, can have something incredibly special to celebrate together as one people.
Tom and his charges may not single-handedly end the devision amongst us. But over the course of four unbeaten matches at the AFCON tournament, which include victories against some of the biggest names in African football, they did at least give the smiling coast of Africa a reason to be once again United for the good of the nation and its wonderful people.
Lamin Drammeh is a multiple award winning Gambian journalist and former sports editor of The Point Newspaper.