The Gambia’s loss against hosts Cameroon in the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) last week marked the end of an exceptional show on the field that fell just short of a fairytale ending.
A 2-0 loss was seen as a win by many for the tournament debutants who were expected to be knocked out in the group stage.
But The Gambia’s recent rise has been one to applaud, after the team came through the pre-qualifiers with Africa’s eight worst-ranked sides, squeezed past Djibouti on penalties, reached the last-eight of the AFCON, beating Mauritania and Tunisia in the group stages and Guinea in the last-16 along the way.
The lowest-ranked team ever to participate in the AFCON became much more than mere participants – The Gambia was at home among Africa’s best.
It was the result of talent development, professionalism and resilience, something that would have seemed far-fetched in 2018 when Tom Saintfiet, a nomad coach from Belgium, was appointed to train The Scorpions, ranked 172nd in the world at the time.
They had little or no pedigree in the international game.
In 2014, The Gambia was banned for two years by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for fielding overage players in youth competitions.
When Saintfiet took over, the team had not won a single competitive match in five years.
The Belgian coach built a team, scouring the diaspora and scouting across Europe. His squad in Cameroon this year featured players from as many as 17 leagues, including South Korea, Belarus and Sweden.
With the financial support of the government, the setup became more professional.
Baboucarr Gaye plays as a goalkeeper for TuS Rot-Weiß Koblenz in the 4th tier of the German football league system.
Born in Germany, he represents the Gambia national football team.
Gaye averagely made 3.3 saves per game and kept two clean-sheets at the #AFCON2021
— Yaw Ampofo Jr (@Yaw_Ampofo_) January 30, 2022
“The coach has a plan, one the players believe in and that’s the most important thing,” said Momodou Bah, a Gambian football journalist.
“The attacking players contribute by defending to keep the team’s shape. In the group stages, the opponents rarely had clear-cut chances. The team stayed compact and broke on the counter.”
There were some roadblocks though.
A COVID outbreak derailed the team’s warm-up camp in Qatar.
Once in Cameroon, in Buea, the team were faced with security concerns. Soldiers guarded The Gambia team’s hotel because of the conflict between government forces and local armed groups pursuing a breakaway agenda from Francophone-dominated Cameroon.
“But it doesn’t feel safe when you have thousands of soldiers around you along the road in the bushes, in the trees,” said Saintfiet.
“On every route, soldiers everywhere with their rifles at the ready. If you have to travel with columns of soldiers, if helicopters fly over the stadium to ensure safety, if there are soldiers in the stands, if soldiers are standing on the hill next to the training field, it doesn’t really feel safe. Yes, security is provided but you know something can happen.”
On the eve of the Guinea match, several players suffered food poisoning, leading Saintfiet to complain about the accommodation given to his team.
He repeatedly demanded more respect for The Gambia, and heavily criticised FIFA’s decision to allow clubs to release players late for the tournament.
“It was scandalous. You show no respect for the professionalism of every coach, of every AFCON participant,” he said. “It’s a rule that is unacceptable. This would have never happened in Europe, South America or at any other major tournament.”
In the last-eight, Saintfiet and The Gambia stuck to the game plan that had served them so well throughout the tournament. They defended deep and absorbed the pressure, restricting Cameroon to half-chances at first. But there was no coming back from Karl Toko Ekambi’s second-half brace, not even after the introduction of Ebrima Darboe, Modou Barrow and Ebrima Colley.
But for the team’s supporters, a spot in the quarter-finals was an achievement in and of itself.
Few Gambians ever imagined playing at the AFCON, least of all Darboe.
At 14, after his father’s death, Darboe left home in Bakoteh in search of a “better life” for his family and himself.
He traversed northern Africa and crossed the Mediterranean on a perilous boat journey, a ride that has seen the death and disappearance of more than 23,400 people trying to reach Europe since 2014, according to the UN’s Missing Migrants Project.
The Mediterranean route is described by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR as the most dangerous migration route in the world – one in six people who departs the shores of North Africa dies.
As an unaccompanied minor, Darboe came under the protection of Italy’s SPRAR (System di Protezione per Richiedienti Asilo e Rifugiati) the protection system for asylum seekers and refugees).
Kicking a ball for a local club in Rieti, Darboe was spotted by a scout for Roma football club in 2017.
“We cannot imagine what he has been through,” Saintfiet told Al Jazeera.
“The journey as a 14-year-old through various African countries in uncertainty with so much fear. Climb into a boat and hope you arrive alive on the other side. It shows his determination, his perseverance and his will to achieve something in his life.”
Climb into a boat and hope you arrive alive on the other side. It shows his determination, his perseverance and his will to achieve something in his life
Darboe is one of six Italy-based players in the squad whose experience helped the team to navigate their first AFCON.
Bologna’s Barrow was instrumental with goals and assists each step of the way.
By the end of the group stages, the team had shed the underdog tag with their solid defending, strong organisation, lethal counterattacking and slick finishing.
Against Guinea in the knockouts, the Gambians reproduced their trusted recipe, keeping it tight and disciplined at the back to get to half-time without conceding before striking with a smart goal in the second half.
“It is normal that we were considered the underdogs given the ranking of our national team,” said Darboe. “But if you look individually at our players – Omar Colley, Barrow, Colley, Lamin Jallow – we were not. We respect our opponents, but fight.”
The 2-0 defeat against did not diminish their role as the competition’s revelation.
The Scorpions were part of the tournament’s burgeoning middle class, with Comoros, Malawi and Cape Verde proving their worth as well.
Saintfiet now wants to build on the success to cement The Gambia as a force to reckon with in the future.
“Before the start, I said that this was a tournament to learn,” said Saintfiet.
“I don’t want us to become a mayfly. Madagascar and Burundi participated in the previous AFCON but are no longer there. The larger, underlying objective is for The Gambia to become a respected African football nation in the next five to 10 years.
“So that in the future we can become a regular at the 2023 and 2025 AFCONs, and maybe even challenge for a ticket for the 2026 World Cup when nine African countries will qualify directly. That’s the most important to me, that we use this to become stronger.”