Just weeks away from the start of their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign, Gambia have been boosted by a jump into the top 100 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. It is the first time the Scorpions have ventured into double figures on the world ladder, their previous best having been the 101st position they achieved in the Septembers of 1994 and 1995.
The West Africans begin their campaign for a place at South Africa 2010 in Liberia on 1 June, and they will also host Senegal and face Algeria home and away before the month is out.
Gambia climbed 19 places to 83rd on the latest Ranking, and are now rated as the 16th best team in Africa. It is a fillip that will spur them on ahead of a testing preliminary section, which includes two teams who have previously qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals.
However, Gambia are still waiting to appoint a new coach to replace the Spaniard Jose Martinez, who steered the country to impressive results at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008. Peter Bonu Johnson has been appointed as caretaker coach while the country's top football officials seek a foreigner to take charge, but with time running out, he may still be at the reins for the Liberia game.
Gambia have a solid base on which to build for the future, having represented Africa at two recent FIFA youth competitions. Gambia won the African U-17 Championship, which they hosted, in 2005 and went on to play at the FIFA U-17 World cup in Peru. Last year, the same generation continued on the same path and also qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, where they acquitted themselves with aplomb. Johnson was coach of the team that progressed beyond the first phase in Canada, before losing to Austria in the last 16.
Recently, the players that won the continental championship three years ago finally received promised plots of land, which Gambia's president Yahya Jammeh, a fanatical football follower, had promised them as reward for bringing Gambia their first footballing title at continental level.
While the younger players like Pa Modou Jagne and Ousman Jallow have risen from the U-20 side to represent Gambia at full international level, there is still a strong base of experienced competitors. Captain Edrissa Sonko, formerly of Anderlecht, is now with Walsall in England, and Pa Demba Touray keeps goal for Swedish club Djurgardens.
On paper, booking a place at South Africa 2010 appears a tall order for the Gambians. However, following their break into the top 100 on the Ranking, group favourites Algeria and Senegal will not be taking their challenge lightly.