The Baby Scorpions of Gambia arrive in Nigeria as reigning champions of Africa. However, recent squad changes have the continental toppers and their coaching staff chewing fingernails ahead of their opener with Iran on 25 October.
Gambia, the smallest country on mainland Africa, roared through the continent's U-17 championship in Algeria, edging Ghana and the hosts to for a second consecutive title. These results, for a team previously considered a football backwater, are proof positive of a substantial youth revolution. But the team here in Nigeria will be without 11 regular squad members regular, among them a good number of influential attacking players.
"We're happy with the team right now, but we won't know really what we're capable of until we play our first game," Egyptian head coach Tariq Saigy told FIFA.com with the aid of assistant coach and part-time interpreter Lamin Sambou. "We felt it was best to change some players in our team, to be on the safe side and not to be concerned when FIFA conducts their MRI scans [FIFA announced early last month that random MRI tests would be conducted at the finals. These tests will not determine the players' age, but would confirm definitively if a player is older than 17]."
In their first friendly after the changes, just a month before the finals here in Nigeria, Gambia were humbled 5-0 by the USA in London. Results changed for the better in short order, however, and they look to be coming together. "We're much stronger now than when we first started with the new lads," added the Egyptian, three years in charge of the Gambian juniors.
Even so, both head coach and assistant are playing a nervous waiting game ahead of their opener against Asian champions Iran at Calabar's U.J. Esuene Stadium. "We have to wait and see. Friendlies are only friendlies," Sambou said. "After our first game here we will know how we measure up. We're waiting to see what happens.
With a strong backline that conceded only once in five qualifiers and an improvised attacking scheme led by top scorer Ebrima Bojang, the African champions still expect results. "No matter what, we come in as champions of Africa and we feel the pressure to defend our. Our strength will come from our defence, which is spirited and athletic. We are hoping from the best from our frontline too, we lost many attackers."
Focus on youth
Gambia have been one of the success stories in African football over the last five years, owing in large part to a pair of FA programs designed to suss out players in country's remote rural areas. The NAWETAN is a seasonal program that aims to identify raw talent from the hinterlands and integrate them into the country's established league system, where their skills can be nurtured in a more professional environment.
The current U-17 team is comprised of a core of graduates from the NAWETAN as well as the countrywide youth selection campaign known as ‘catch them young.' "It's a good way to find players who, with a little more polishing, can really help Gambian football. Without these programs, many of our best players may never have been located."
Lamin knows of what he speaks. The former first division club coach assisted Peter Bonu Johnson at the 2007 U-20 world finals in Canada, where they reached the Round of 16 with shining stars like Ousman Jallow and Sainey Nyassi. Both were graduates of the country's progressive youth programs and now play overseas, featuring regularly for the senior national team.