Gambia is a footballing nation on the rise. Blessed with Serie A stars, they are on the brink of history. FTF spoke to Gambia’s head-coach, Tom Saintfiet.
When one peruses through a world map, there are few who could point to the precise location of Gambia. Situated in one of Africa’s outer Western corners, the tiny nation wedged between Senegal is hardly a global power.
Even in footballing terms, Gambia is a minnow. The nation’s men’s national team are ranked 157th in the world according to FIFA.
However, a new generation of youngsters led by a determined and innovative coach are determined to change that and put the African country on the footballing map.
Sitting 1st in their AFCON qualifying group, Tom Saintfiet’s men are on the precipice of history.
Gambia’s fiery young stars have the chance to take their country to a first ever major tournament.
It will be one which will solidify football’s rise in the small African nation.
Football has always been important to The Gambians. Like many African nations the country was introduced to the game by British colonialism and the sport has remained an important part of Gambian culture ever since.
‘It’s very much a footballing country,’ Tom Saintfiet, Gambia’s head coach reveals exclusively to First Time Finish.
‘The country has always had good players. In the last 10-20 years there have been many players playing in Europe in Belgium, Holland and Eastern Europe. And the group of players playing abroad is getting bigger and bigger.’
One of Gambia’s biggest footballing icons, the late Biri Biri, spent five years at Sevilla playing in La Liga during the 1970s and is still beloved at the Andalusian club.
It is his legacy that players like Musa Barrow, Omar Colley and a new generation of Gambians playing abroad are trying to emulate.
In the developing world. Migration has played a key role in shaping Gambian society.
The small African nation has a paltry population of 2.35 million, but it is estimated there are over 118,000 Gambians living abroad.
According to IOM statistics Gambians living abroad contribute to as much as 20% of the country’s GDP.
Undoubtedly, the mass migration has played a key role in football.
There are over 100 Gambians footballers playing in European leagues.
Compare that to Gambia’s neighbour, Senegal, who on estimate have around 200 professionals playing in Europe, but have a population of 16 million, almost 8 times the size of Gambia. Those numbers are hugely impressive.
Some of the most notable Gambians like Bakery Jatta and Ebrima Darboe arrived to Europe as refugees. The former is yet to receive a call-up but based on his form for Hamburg it looks inevitable.
Meanwhile others like Musa Barrow and Ebrima Colley were spotted by European scouts who are vesting an increased interest in Gambian football.
‘It’s crazy when you think of how Gambia is a country of only 2 million people,’ Saintfiet admits. ‘Some were born in Gambia and bought by European teams at a young age. Others are born in Europe and some are refugees. We have a very diverse group. And it’s a fantastic country. A football loving country.’
‘The focus of scouting is increasing in smaller countries like Gambia, before everyone went to big countries such as Nigeria. But the interest is increasing in smaller countries as well and that gives younger players opportunities.
‘At grassroots level everyone plays football, in regional areas and there are professional leagues ran by the FA,’ he explains.
What’s impressive is the age of the players living abroad. Most are U25. The linchpins of the side, like Musa Barrow are under the age of 23 meaning they potentially have a decade left at the top.
Gambia’s last starting 11 in their victory against Gabon had an average age of 26.45.
That’s the sign of a young team and when you consider the likes of Ebrima Colley, Bakery Jatta and Musa Juwara were not even included the omens are bright.
‘We have a few players who are in their 30s but the majority of our players are really young players. Some of them made their debuts for the national team before they even played first team football at club level,’ Saintfiet adds.
In 2018, when Saintfiet took charge of the national team there was much less cause for optimism.
‘In the five years before I took over between 2013-2018, Gambia had not won 1 competitive match,’ Saintfiet explains. ‘Even in the ten years before that Gambia had only won 9 matches in total. Now we have won 7 matches.’
The turn around in the two and a half years is impressive. Especially when you consider some of the countries Gambia had to face in that period. Giants like current AFCON holders Algeria were unable to beat Saintfiet’s resilient Scorpions on two occasions during their qualifying games to AFCON 2019.
There have been draws with DR Congo, competitive wins against Angola, Guinea among others as well as a victory over Morocco in a friendly match.
And now with two games left to play for the qualification to the 2021 African Cup of Nations tournament, based on other results in the group, Gambia might be just one victory away from securing a historic place in the competition with Angola and DR Congo standing in their way.
Sainfiet’s role has been crucial. The Belgian being endowed with such a young team can be both a blessing and hindrance. It’s a role he has had to manage carefully.
‘Since I arrived 22 players have made their debuts. There will be sometimes mistakes made by the younger players, but that’s part of the process. As a player, and as a coach you learn from that and as a result you become stronger.’
Saintfiet has balanced this influx of youngsters with a natural blend of experience. He has also been helped by players playing regularly and serving key roles at elite clubs in Europe’s top five leagues.
‘Every player has their role to play. It is an advantage to have players who play in Italy like Musa Barrow and Omar Colley. They also encourage younger players that everything is possible.’
But Gambia are much more than just their Serie A stars, Saintfiet has built a cohesive unit.
‘We are not a team of one star player, we are a team with lot of good players and the balance in the team amounts to much of our success.’
Saintfiet’s tactics have also played a key role in the nation’s rise. When he first arrived, he inherited a Gambian team who needed inspiration. Saintfiet had a leaking roof, imbalanced foundations and nothing in between. The Belgian had to start from the ground up.
‘When you build a house you need good foundations and a strong structure, so that’s how I approached it. When I came to Gambia my first goal was to stop conceding goals,’ he explains.
Saintfiet opted with a quick counter attacking style.
‘I have a lot of experience in coaching organisation and counter-attacking football. So I set-up the same way in Gambia.’
‘Naturally the players adapted very fast to that, the instant success gave us more confidence in the tactics too. It was like a snowball effect.’
‘Of course it’s not always easy, because you don’t have that time that a club manager does, so you have to be direct and clear so the players can execute the tactics on the pitch.’
The tantalising counter-attacking style is the perfect role for players like Omar Colley who is a solid leader at the back and capable of launching attacks from defence. In midfield a pivot like Sulayman Marreh or Hamza Barry are adept at playing in quick transitional play but are also astute defensively.
With a strong defensive core, Gambia have proved difficult to beat.
They also have the personnel to cause problems on the counter. Musa Barrow is lightning quick. As is Modou Barrow, Ebrima Colley and Bakery Jatta just to name a few. Like Saintfiet says, Gambia ‘have a lot of pace on the wings.’
Some will demand free-flowing tiki-taka football, but Saintfiet is a firm believer that a team must play to their strengths.
‘A lot of teams would like to play like Barcelona, but they don’t have the players for that. At the end of the day it’s the result that counts.’
And Saintfiet’s tactics have worked well.
‘I think about 80% of our goals are scored in the second half, and we score many times in the transition sequences. That’s our quality, going very fast in the transitions, using our speed on the wings and the idea of our system is concentrated on not losing unnecessary energy during the match. We try to make a difference at the end of the match.’
For Gambia’s young stars this is only the beginning. The potential is enormous. Saintfiet has set some ambitious targets for the country looking ahead to the future.
‘I think our target has to be the 2026 World Cup,’ Saintfiet says. ‘For many reasons. The first reason is that in that tournament not five but nine African countries will qualify. The second reason is because our very young players who are between 18 to 22 years old will be in their prime in 5 years time.’
The five-year plan is a long term ambition. For the moment Saintfiet is concentrating on more tangible goals.
‘I want us to qualify for AFCON regularly, and to go there to compete. Maybe reach the quarter finals or see how far we can go.’
These are lofty goals. However, Gambia is one of the most exciting nations in African football. With a number of impressive players born outside of the nation of Gambian descent such as Saidy Janko, there are hopes that the country can become a mecca on the continent.
Success will only inspire and attract more players. The first and primary goal is a historic qualification to AFCON. If Saintfiet’s men are able to achieve it, with their impressive squad, one could envisage the Scorpions as the dark horses of the tournament.
The experience would be vital for Saintfiet’s long term goals. He concludes with a promise.
‘I really believe that with the quality we have and knowing that we are going to improve so much in the next five years, and with our young players growing in experience, we have a good chance to do very well and make the World Cup.’
With Saintfiet’s expertise, and Gambia’s impressive young stars, you certainly would not write them off to fulfil his goals, or even to surpass them.