By Ebrima Baldeh
Serendipity, nope…surely, can’t be described as such; the events unfolded as we warmed up for our back-to-back Afcon appearance in Ivory Coast from a training session in Saudi Arabia to an eventual return home and mutiny of sorts after the footballers refused to come out to bid farewell at the Independence Stadium over the non-payment of bonuses. And the football-crazy nation was stunned; they couldn’t understand what warranted this.
In the end, the team left, and the noise quieted momentarily. Behind this melodrama, there’s a match; it’s a duel that should be won by all means available, not by them, but by us, because that’s supposed to be part of the collective healing after so many years of relentless fights for supremacy over our neighbors. While the stats tend to favor the grandes; the dynamics and tempo of the beautiful game is changing over the years, one need not be a soccer prophet to examine how a low ranked team is capable of breaking the records. For Gambians, the expectations are high, they will savor nothing short of a solid 3 points, and a shattering of the jinx and move triumphantly in that so-called group of death.
On paper, team Senegal is the highest-ranked side in the continent and occupies the 18th position in the world, according to the latest FIFA rankings; on the other hand, the Scorpions are ranked 125th in the world and 33rd in Africa. In the countdown to the highly charged match, a perpetual torrent of innuendo, gossip, lies, and half-truths have sprung up across the streets of Dakar, Banjul, Yamusokoro, and even in some idle newsrooms. The now-viral song composed by the other side threatens to deal with Gambia. The song tends to remind us about the last time The Scorpions locked horns with the Lions of Teranga, in which the two leaders, Yahya Jammeh, and Abdoulaye Wade, were at each other’s throats. An angry and seemingly nationalistic Jammeh thought Wade went too far by likening our game to a war. But for most Gambians, the rapprochement between the two nations over the years is credited mainly to the political astuteness of its leaders and its people’s willingness to embrace peace and persevere on the incompatible two among them.
The strategic and psychological approach on Monday’s game boils down to how the Scorpions can muster the courage to fight gallantly, ignoring all threats on and off the pitch, then casting and speculating on who is rowdy. From his vantage point and monitoring events from the US State of North Dakota, Kawsu Drammeh said: “Senegalese win Gambians by provocation. They know Gambians are temperamental, and by telling them that they don’t know how to play the ball, Gambians will lose tempers while playing.” In our casual Whatsapp chat ahead of the game, I wanted Samba Bah, a Gambian soccer enthusiast and a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio University, to shed more light on the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams. “Hmm, for Gambia, I think it’ll be the midfield. Senegal has good midfielders; we have not had a stable midfield partnership since after the last AFCON. So, they can leverage that.
We can hurt them through their defense; we have some fast players who can be hard to handle”. I recently read somewhere on Facebook about the usually sluggish start to Senegals’ outings at AFCON, where the author intimated that the Gambia could capitalize on that lacuna. Still, Bah sees things differently: “I think Senegal will definitely focus on their bigger task, defending their title. I would love to start that after defeating Gambia to make their journey through the group easier.
The issue of this rivalry will be more in our players’ minds than it will be in theirs, which can be an advantage to us”. While the Lions of Teranga boast of Mane, Jackson, Sarr, and numerous others, the shifting patterns of the game, which is mainly anchored on being in-form, mental & physical fitness, skills set, hard work, and sometimes a bit of luck, make predictions pointless sometimes. 3 Kawsu is still rooting for the Scorpions: “I think it’s going to be a cracking and a thrilling encounter, and the Gambia is now a footballing nation while Senegal would want to maintain the glory. I still believe Gambia will win this game. My money is for the Scorpions.” It will be interesting to sum up the mood for President Macky Sall, who’s passionate about football and his boy’s enviable performance over the years; he’d love to bow out of power next month in grand style, with a back-to-back trophy on his hands. As for their opponent, in the words of a Youtuber, “a dangerous Gambian team” can spoil an elaborate gala dinner celebration. Let’s see how the game will eventually unravel itself after 90+ minutes.
The author, Ebrima Baldeh, a Gambian journalist, was managing editor at GRTS-TV between 2014 and 2018 and is now based in New York.