By: Khalifa Jabbi Alias Kal D’ Peot
For more than fifty years, The Gambia has been struggling for prominence in football at the senior level. Different generations of footballers tried but couldn’t take us to the continental showpiece. The country came closer to breaking this jinx in 2008 only to be debarred by a cynical change of rule at CAF. The game in Senegal was the highlight of that year’s qualifying round when a last minute goal from Azziz Corr Junior sent the nation to a wild but shortlived celebration.
After that game many predicted a possibility of qualifying in the subsequent qualifiers because of the brilliant display at the Stade Leopold Senghor by arguably the most talented Gambian team ever. The future of that team rested on the artistry of Mustapha Toubabo Jarju, the tenacity of a young Tijan Jaiteh, silky skills of Azziz Corr Nyang and a goal poacher in Ousman Jallow. Mathew Mendy and Abdoulie Jammeh were supposed to be the veterans to spearhead the next revolution alongside Njogu Demba and former England youth player Cherno Samba because the captain and star player of that team Ebou Sillah was at the twilight of his career. The team crumbled after that heartbreak which culminated to the departure of Belgian tactician Paul Put. Paul would later go on to make name for himself around the continent by leading then minnows in football, Burkina Faso to an AFCON final while Gambia waited for decades to make a debut.
As the 2021 showpiece in Cameroon reaches its climax, The Gambia and Comoros remain the only debutants in the first knock-out stage. After coming out unbeaten in a group that contained pre tournament favourites in Mali and Tunisia, many are now fancying our chances of causing another upset against Guinea Conakry. Irrespective of the outcome of our game against Guinea, Gambia’s debut at the continental showpiece has already been a success. Before the tournament, our target was to only make our debut and not expecting to make it out from the group. Two weeks in Cameroon, the team is making us believe that we can do more than that.
Gambia on the verge of a sporting miracle
Football is one of those sports that’s not strange to some jaw-dropping miracles. Many football teams over the year have defied odds to write their names in history by causing upsets to win some coveted trophies. From Leceister wining the Premier league, Greece 2004 Euro triumph and Zambia in 2012, there is hope for us. The tactical display the scorpions showed in their group games against Mali and Tunisia, considering both teams are perennial performers in AFCON, one cannot easily write them off. Some critics ridiculed the coach for his ardent defensive football but from a tactical point of view, I think some of the comments are unfair. This year’s AFCON has been a low scoring tournament because most of the teams are contended with either a goal or two, including the heavyweights in Senegal and Egypt with both defending champions Algeria and Ghana out at the group stage. Teams that chose to play a high line with fast tempo paid the ultimate price. Gambia’s strength is no longer in the midfield with the absence of midfield maestro Hamza Barry to complement Marreh and Ebou Adam’s and we have no choice but to sit and depend on the pace of Musa Barrow, Modou Barrow and Ebrima Colley. The mercurial Abdoulie Jallow is not a central midfielder that can dominate play in the middle because of his size and height. Both Yusupha Bobb and Ebou Adams are more defensive minded and they have been remarkable throughout. It’s true that we have Ebrima Darboe who has a good hold of play but his inexperienced is a factor the coaches would evaluate. Successful teams play on their strengths and Gambia’s strength is to sit and play on the counter, knowing our back four is as solid as any team. This tactic took us to the tournament and we must rely on it.
Beating Guinea will undoubtedly be a remarkable feat in African football and that will make the rest of the world to take us seriously. With nothing to lose, the coach shouldn’t be afraid to use the same tactics against our West African neighbours on Monday and even in the subsequent games if we advanced. Despite being the underdogs, with this style of play, we can either do a Leceister or Greece. If Zambia could use the same tactics in 2012 with much success, we can also do it in 2022.
Omar Colley is the unsung hero
As usual, forward players always take the lion-share of all the plaudits in the modern football with less credits given to defenders. So far in our debut tournament, Musa Barrow has been our most influential player alongside Abdoulie Jallow. The duo combined for all the three goals scored in the group stage with Laka assisting both goals scored by Germano either side of his solitary penalty against Mali. They would certainly leave the tournament with high reputations but my star of the tournament is Omar Colley of Sampdoria.
The experienced center back is clearly living by his billings as the only defender from a top European club in the team. He has been so remarkable at the back with his usual organisation and composure. His long-term partner at the back in Buba Sanneh has lost his starting berth to a young James Gomez but that hasn’t changed Colley’s way of playing. He makes sure the young defender doesn’t put a foot wrong and always proves to be a threat at the opposing ends in short pieces. He has been a leader in the team alongside the captain and step up with the armband in the second game against Mali. Gambia is yet to concede a goal from open play thanks to the solid set up at the bank under the leadership of Omar Colley. If anyone deserves a praise that he’s not having, it is Omar Colley for me. I hope this tournament will prove to be a catalyst for him to have his dream move to the EPL.
Uniting a divided nation
After the December presidential election, the country was at a potential threat of being divided on tribal lines. Some social commentators fear the country might plung to a civil war but football has once again united us.
For a moment, we do not which political party wins the elections as the nation unanimously gives its full attention to football. The whole nation is now on the same page which is to see the success of our gallant scorpions. Party colours and petty politics have finally taken a break with even some politicians being seen on social media following the progress of the team. Opposition leaders in Ousainou Darboe, Essa Fall and Mama Kandeh were among the fans in jubilant moods after our win against Mauritania. This is a reminder that sports is the best way to unify people. Political foes are now on the same page because the beautiful game has united us and we finally speak the same language again.
Promising Future for Gambian Football
This tournament will undoubtedly be the first and last for veterans Pa Modou Jagne and Ebrima Sohna after more than a decade service to the nation. The duo will be remembered forever in the hearts of football fans because they are expected to hang their boots after the tournament. Apart from the two alongside goalkeeper Modou Jobe, Gambia has a young squad to pick from. The only other regular players in the team that are above twenty five are Omar Colley, Saul Marreh, Modou Barrow and Yusupha Bobb. Majority of the players are in their early twenties and have more than a decade ahead of them for the national team if they can maintain the consistency at club levels. Ebrima Darboe, Musa Barrow and Ebou Colley all have a prospective future ahead of them and young defender James Gomez is already a future captain for the team. He is the only player from the successful under twenty team and many of his teammates from that team will follow suit. Bubacarr Jobe is the most underrated player in the team and Badamoss and Babucarr Gaye all have careers ahead of them especially the latter’s heroic penalty safe. A midfield future of Lamarana Jallow, Wally Fofana and Kajally Drammeh is something to look forward to with both Hamza Barry, Chuka, Abdoulie Sanyang, Alassan Manneh all out due to injuries. The forward line can look upto Dembo Darboe, Yusupha Njie and Momodou Bojang.
This tournament can be used as a springboard to cement Gambia’s name in world football. We needed a breakthrough and this prove to be more than that. The next fifa ranking will make a difference and we will be here to stay.