It was four minutes into stoppage time. The referee looked into his watch; it was perhaps the longest 30 seconds in Gambian football history and an entire nation of more than two million people held its breath. It was a nerve-racking final moment. An anxious and tense wait but finally the Beninese referee Adissa Abdul Raphiou Ligali blew the final whistle and there were oceans of tears. Only that these were tears of joy. Nearly 70 years since the formation of association football in little Gambia, the country has secured a maiden African Cup of Nations berth.
And then came this poetic line of football expression from The Gambia Football Federation’s (GFF) match commentator for the night, Amadou O. Bah. Gambia has made it! Gambia 1, Angola Nil! A moment that every Gambian was waiting for. This is the moment to celebrate! This is the moment that everyone would have loved to witness! But like I said, memories to the fallen heroes! Scorpions on the ground! In sujud, in supplication to their Gods! Modou Jobe (Toldo), Bubacarr Trawally, and few others that I am counting, on the ground making their salutations to the Gods that they serve. And Yes! The Gambian God has finally answered and approved the Gambian prayers! This is a Scorpion win! This is a Scorpion victory! This is a Gambian victory; a victory for every Gambian.
Even though the match was played behind closed doors as part of the Covid19 restrictions, bar only the few invited guests, within minutes after the final whistle, thousands thronged the Independence Stadium. There was a carnival atmosphere in Bakau. You have to go back to December 2, 2016, to see anything similar to it. But as Head Coach Tom Saintfiet and some players stayed on the pitch of the Independence Stadium for their post-match press commitments, First Vice President Bakary K. Jammeh was jumping up and down huffing and puffing, punching the air in extreme celebration inside the dressing room. These were dancing moves even Michael Jackson in his prime would’ve been proud of.
At his age, dancing wouldn’t be associated to Tamba’s grandson but he was perhaps, and understandably so, overcome by emotions. Ebou Faye could only looked high up the blue skies and only God knows the thoughts he was trying to gather in his head while General Langtombong Tamba was crisscrossing the field like a hungry Scorpion looking for the next mealworm to sting.
Lamin Kaba Bajo is not the one to be overwhelmed by emotions but the beaming smile all over his face and the emotional hugs offered to every member of staff, playing and non-playing said it all. An hour into the historic moment, the only thing he could write on his Facebook wall was: Alhamdullilah!!! Succinctly put by the former military Captain. This was the greatest achievement in Gambian football history and happening under his tenure is a monumental achievement of epic proportions. How could he be blamed for been short of words. He took over the mantle of football leadership at a time when the family was heavily divided having come off at the back of two normalisation committees established by FIFA. However, he still steadied the ship. Forced to start from ground zero, it was unbelievable and quite amazing how he was able to manage a bazillion things in such a short span of time, turning Gambian football from perennial underachievers to one that fears no one these days.
Following an indifferent start to its fortunes, he turned to the much-travelled Belgian Tom Saintfiet to lead the troops. His first competitive match was at home to Algeria and the Scorpions battled to a 1-1 home draw with the Desert Foxes in a match watched by a record crowd. The Scorpions remain the only African side to have never lost to the African champions in the last two years following another draw in Algiers. That stalemate, secured by a last gasp Momodou Futty Danso goal, saw them missed out on qualification to the 2019 edition in the last match day, the first time Gambia went into the final round of the qualifiers still with a mathematical chance of qualifying. However, there was finally belief in the ability of the team, especially the impressive manner in which the team came from behind to thrash Benin 3-1 in Banjul. The much-maligned Belgian tactician had his contract renewed by the leadership of the GFF despite public criticisms and was tasked with securing a ticket to Cameroon 2021.
But first, they had to negotiate their way through the preliminaries and following a 1-1 stalemate in both legs for a 2-2 aggregate draw, the match was forced into the gruesome post-match penalty shootouts. The star of this Gambian team is the group but on this occasion in a late October evening of 2019, goalkeeper Modou Jobe proved the hero, saving two Djibouti spot kicks to send Scorpions fans into delirium with a place in the group stages of the qualifiers after a 3-2 win. Ahead of them lies two former World Cup finalists Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the latter never missing the finals in the previous eight years as well as a star-studded perennial AFCON finalists Gabon.
Few gave the Gambians a chance of finishing in the top two spots. Sure, many had thought. But buoyed by the return of key players into the team, the Scorpions began their campaign with a dominant 3-1 win in Angola, the first ever competitive away win for a Gambian senior national football team. Then a nail-biting and scintillating 2-2 home draw with DR Congo followed suit, including a dramatic stoppage time equaliser, galvanizing an entire nation.
Football took a break for 10 months as a result of the devastating effects of the Covid19 pandemic before Gambia returned to action with a 1-0 win over Congo in a friendly in Algarve, Portugal. When the qualifiers resumed exactly a year to the last one in November, a heavily depleted Scorpions lost 2-1 to Gabon in Franceville but the Saint and his charges overcame the withdrawal of several key players due to Covid and injuries to avenge the Palancas Negras defeat with a similar scoreline win in Banjul to leap to pole position in Group D.
And on 25th March, 2021, the long elusive qualification was secured. Assan Ceesay, scorer of three goals in the qualifiers, latched onto a rebound after the Angolan keeper had fumbled an Ablie Jallow shot from a Bubacarr Trawally cross to score the most important goal in Gambian football history. Even a 1-0 defeat in Kinshasa, the first audition in post-AFCON qualification, couldn’t dent the piece de resistance achieved by this team. In the end, the Scorpions finished top of the group after Gabon suffered a surprised 2-0 defeat away to bottom-place Angola.
It is teamwork, resistance, hard work, determination, perseverance and commitment that led to this monumental achievement. It is a win for every Gambian but the commitment of the Ministry under the leadership of the dynamic Minister of Youth & Sports, Bakary Y. Badjie, cannot be overlooked in this success. The qualification is a gamechanger! Gambian football will never be the same ever again.
Thus, as the country prepares for its debut appearance at the continental stage, the future for Gambian football couldn’t be brighter. And going into that future, a new objective has been set by the power brokers of Football House: qualification to USA/Mexico 2026 World Cup. A familiar face will be on the bench to lead the team to that promised land. Saintfiet, having seen his efforts rewarded with a bumper five-year extension, would he be the man to lead Gambia into its first World Cup? Only time will tell. But whatever happens, his name will forever be Gambian folklore for many generations to come.
Written and edited by Baboucarr Camara
Director of Marketing & Communications, GFF