Downhearted, with confusion and disappointment showing around the corners of his otherwise bright eyes, Gambia captain Ebrima Bojang cut a forlorn figure outside the U.J. Esuene Stadium. When approached for his impressions of the game, a 2-1 reverse to the Netherlands, the 1.90-metre striker immediately straightens up to his full height, puffs out his chest and summons all the pride he can muster.
"We were better against the Netherlands than in our first game [a 2-0 loss to Iran in which the Gambians had two players sent off]," sighed Bojang to FIFA.com, with ominous rain clouds gathering in the skies above Calabar. "We are still learning to play together as a team and with all of the changes we made before the tournament here in Nigeria, our task has been made all the more difficult," added the scorer of Gambia's only goal so far, referring to the MRI age tests which left the Baby Scorpions with only five usable members of their African championship-winning side.
But Ebrima - one of three non-related Bojangs in the team - still has hope. After all, he was a member of the victorious side that laid waste to the competition in Algeria in March, finishing as tournament top scorer. The livewire forward, who plies his club trade in Senegal with Yeggo, is comfortable roaring forward into space behind the defence or checking back to collect the ball and bring team-mates into the play.
"He's an outstanding player and a good leader too," said Gambia's assistant coach Lamin Sambou, often taking up the post-match press conference duties for Egyptian coach Tariq Saigy. "He has a lot of weapons that make him an exciting prospect for bigger clubs, European clubs," Sambou, a former Gambian first division midfielder and coach added.
Born in the tourism centre of Bakau, Bojang grew up on a dusty alley in extreme poverty. With his father abandoning the family, young Ebrima was raised by his devoted mother and grandmother. It is precisely this hardscrabble early existence, and his unyielding love for his country, that won't allow the 17-year-old to throw in the towel here in Nigeria.
"We can't start saying that it's over and all is lost; it's not," he insisted, his team on zero points from their first two matches, but still mathematically alive with a game against section leaders Colombia to go. "Things can happen, we must look forward. We will not be fazed. It won't be easy for us, but we have a strong spirit in the team and we will not lie down for anyone. We are here to compete, to be strong and to make our country proud."
The pressure of being one of precious few players in the side with any international experience to speak of weighs heavily on the youngster's shoulders, but it is a burden he takes up with pride rather than trepidation. "Football is not about one player. I have a responsibility to score goals as a striker and lead as captain, but we are a team and we need to defend the cause as one. There is no reason for us to hang our heads down, not at all."
With the kind of optimism that can only come with youth, Bojang's polite smile turns stern when asked about the prospect of heading for home early. "I am not thinking about that," he said, teeth set firmly. "I am thinking about winning our next game and moving on to the second round. I will make sure my team-mates are thinking the same way, and Colombia should know it too."